The forgotten masterpieces of Amy Beach

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

At the Wigmore Hall last Friday, the Takacs String Quartet and Garrick Ohlsson played a piano quintet that was once revered as a masterpiece but then fell out of fashion and wasn’t heard for decades. It’s by Amy Beach, a name which always makes me smile because it looks so incongruous underneath her photograph. ‘Amy Beach’ sounds like an old hippie who sells ethnic tapestries and hogs the limelight at her women-only Seattle book club. But the photos show a Bostonian society hostess straight out of Henry James: unsmiling, with eyes peeled for a social climber who picks up the wrong knife at dinner.

The 21st-century musical establishment portrays Beach (1867–1944) as a prisoner of social convention. At the age of 18 she married a rich 42-year-old doctor who banned her from becoming a concert pianist. He allowed her to compose, but the Brahmin social calendar came first. Yet despite these restrictions she wrote music that was celebrated all over America and also promoted the careers of other women composers.

All of which makes her sound like a musical hybrid of Emily Dickinson and Eleanor Roosevelt; perfect for Radio 3 or the South Bank. Dig deeper, however, and you discover that Mrs H.H.A. Beach — as she was perfectly happy to be known while her husband was alive — wasn’t so much a prisoner of social convention as one of its champions.

She was a Republican, and not a liberal one either. She belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose members traced their (white) ancestry back to the War of Independence. She had, as Joseph Horowitz delicately puts it, ‘misgivings about Jews’. She thought jazz was ‘vulgar’ and ‘debasing’. She composed in the romantic style until the end of her life — and that, rather than prejudice against women composers, explains why demand for her music dried up. It wasn’t heard again until she was reinvented as proto-feminist Amy, and Henry Beach cast as the snob who suppressed her talent. Poor Dr Beach! Not only did he persuade Mrs B. that her true gift lay in composing; he spent a fortune promoting her work. (He didn’t, however, actually write any of the music published under his wife’s name. I’m not sure the same could be said of Robert Schumann.)

How good is the music? Four years ago I wrote a patronising Spectator column about women composers. Beach’s pieces were ‘well-crafted’, I said, ‘meaning boring’. That isn’t entirely unfair: in the Gaelic Symphony (1894) and the Piano Concerto (1899), she sounds like a minor composer with an intriguing turn of phrase. But until last week I hadn’t heard the F sharp minor Piano Quintet of 1907. And it’s a masterpiece.

It’s true that the Takacs can make almost any music sound better than it is. They did so two night’s earlier when they covered the gaps in Grieg’s sprawling String Quartet. Elgar’s Piano Quintet, programmed after the Beach, is a much finer piece. The Takacs might be down to only one Hungarian these days but they leapt at it like true Magyars. Even so, they couldn’t disguise its arthritic moments. You sensed that the aging Elgar, who once bounded through the Malvern Hills, was now having to sit down to catch his breath. The work doesn’t quite hang together.

Beach’s Piano Quintet, by contrast, certainly does. The first thing we hear is all four strings holding on to the note of F sharp for fully 30 seconds, cutting through the pianist’s pretty flourishes. He retaliates with unnerving chromatic rumblings that dispel any notion that this is going to be merely ‘well-crafted’ music — though it is, in fact, supremely well crafted. The moment when the opening material sneaks into the finale is breathtaking.

The Takacs and Garrick Ohlsson are recording the Beach and Elgar for Hyperion. That’s good news, because the quartet has never sounded better: new second violinist Harumi Rhodes produces a slightly astringent sound that counterbalances the exquisite richness of Geraldine Walther’s viola. Presumably the recording engineer will be the legendary Andrew Keener; I hope he can do something to lighten Ohlsson’s playing, which has taken on the burgundy tones of his teacher, Claudio Arrau.

But personally I’d be happy to sacrifice the Elgar for another piece by Amy Beach: her one-movement string quartet of 1929, never recorded by a world-class ensemble. Although its harmonies are still romantic, they’ve shed a few pounds. The structure of Beach’s writing — and especially its teasing approach to resolving dissonances — emerges with new clarity. And, remarkably, its lovely tunes turn out to be based on Eskimo melodies. Just imagine the rhapsodising on Radio 3! Come on, Takacs, what are you waiting for?

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