Amy Beach’s parents realized their daughter was a prodigy when she knew 40 songs at the age of one, sang countermelodies at two and composed waltzes at five. As a young child she heard each key in a different color.
Unfortunately, she was born in 1867, when opportunities for a female musical prodigy were limited.
Fortunately, her parents didn’t view that as an obstacle.
She was born Amy Marcy Cheney on Sept. 5, 1867 in Henniker, N.H., to Clara Marcy Cheney and Charles Abbott Cheney, the nephew of Oren Cheney, co-founder of Bates College.
When she was eight, her family moved from Henniker to Boston. Her parents hired piano teachers Ernst Perabo and Carl Baermann. Word of the child prodigy spread. Her parents received offers to manage Amy’s performances, all of which they turned down.
At 13 she met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and wrote a song from his poem The Rainy Day. It was the first of her many published compositions.
At 16 she made her professional debut as a pianist and performed as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At 18, she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent physician 25 years older than she. Amy Beach changed her professional name to Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. At her husband’s request she limited her performances to one recital a year, donating the proceeds to charity. He encouraged her to focus on composing music though she’d only had a year of formal training.
As Mrs. H.H.A. Beach she played the role of society wife, but she had few household duties and used her free time to compose.
Amy Beach’s first major composition was the Mass in E-Flat, which was performed by the Handel and Haydn Society on Feb. 7, 1892. It was her first major success and catapulted her into the ranks of America’s foremost composers. That position was confirmed in 1896, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed her Gaelic Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32.
She also wrote songs. Ecstasy was so popular the Beaches used the royalties from it to build a large summer home on Cape Cod.
Amy Beach would write 150 works during her lifetime: church music, songs, chamber music and orchestral works. (For a sample of her work, click here.) Fifty-four years after her death, the Boston Pops Orchestra paid tribute to Amy Beach. Keith Lockhart led a concert of her works. Her name was also added to the granite wall on the Hatch Shell along with Bach, Handel, Chopin, Debussy, MacDowell, and Beethoven.
Dr. Beach died in 1910, when Amy was still in her early 40s. She decided to tour Europe for three years, playing her own compositions on the piano. She established her reputation playing with Europe’s finest orchestras until the start of World War I forced her to return home.
New Hampshire Roots
Throughout her life, Amy Beach would stay in touch with her family and friends in Henniker and Hillsboro, N.H., In 1921, she took up summer residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. She incorporated melodies sung by a thrush family near her MacDowell studio into two of her most famous piano pieces, Hermit Thrush at Eve and Hermit Thrush at Morning. As a young girl she had contributed to ornithological science by writing down bird songs as she heard them.
Amy Beach spent winters in New York City, where she performed, composed and encouraged young students. Her admirers formed ‘Beach Clubs’ around the country. She visited them during her travels, sometimes performing impromptu recitals. She also wrote about music. During World War II she wrote, “Music must elevate. Because it is spiritual, it must give us courage to live and to fight for those things in life worth fighting for—whether we struggle on the battlefield or in our daily lives.”
She retired in 1940, ill with heart disease, and died on Dec. 27, 1944.
Thanks to More Than Petticoats: Remarkable New Hampshire Women by Gail Underwood Parker. This story was updated in 2022.