Amy Beach: Piano Concerto in C# Minor

Context

Amy Beach was born in 1867 in  New Hampshire. It has been extensively documented that Beach was a child prodigy when it came to music performance. Records say that she was able to sing forty songs by the time she was one. By age two she could improvise melodies over pre-existing music. By age three she was competent at reading music. From age four onwards, she began composing simple pieces waltzes on the piano. 

By age seven, Beach was giving public recitals of works by the likes of Chopin and Beethoven, plus her own works. In 1875, Beach and her family moved to Boston, where the family were advised to send Beach to a European Music Conservatoire. The family opted to stay local and Beach received piano lessons from Carl Baermann – an ex-student of Franz Liszt. At age fourteen, Beach received her only formal composition lessons with Junius W. Hill (the rest of her life she was a self-taught composer).

Beach married Dr. Henry Aubrey Beach, who was a Boston-based surgeon who was 24 years her senior. Henry did not like Beach giving lots of recitals, so he restricted her performances to two a year, with all proceeds going to charity. Beach began to focus on composition more, although she always reiterated that “I am a pianist first and foremost.” 

 

The Music

In 1896, Beach premiered her First Symphony – Gaelic Symphony. This was a massive milestone in women’s music as Beach became the first American woman to compose and then further publish a symphony. In 1900 Beach was the soloist for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C# minor, with the Boston Symphony accompanying her. From this point, Beach became widely popular, and she composed a wealth of works which spanned from chamber music to symphonic works

She premiered her Piano Concerto in C# minor in Leipzig, Hamburg and Berlin, with Beach being the soloist once more. She received the highest acclaim for the work, with one Hamburg critic writing that “we have before us undeniably a possessor of musical gifts of the highest kind; a musical nature touched with genius.” Beach was known to be the first American woman who was “able to compose music of a European quality of excellence.”

 

Piano Concerto in C# Minor

The Piano Concerto in C# minor was composed between 1898 and 1899, with its first premiere being in 1900. The concerto is dedicated to the Venezuelan musician and pianist, Teresa Carreño. The work is the first piano concerto by an American female composer. 

Piano Concerto in C# minor is unusual in its form. Most concertos – especially of this era – are in three movements, with the outer movements being of a similar length and the slower middle movement being shorter. Beach instead uses four movements. The first is unusually long, and takes more time than the latter three movements combined. Interestingly though the third movement is unusually short, but is intense in its expression. 

The movements are as follows:

I. Allegro Moderato

II. Scherzo Vivace (Perpetuum Mobile)

III. Largo

IV. Allegro con Scioltezza 

 

I. Allegro Moderato

 

At the beginning of this movement the feeling is warm and open from the orchestra, however this mood soon changes when the piano enters. The powerful block chords played by the piano are proclaimed above the orchestra, making a real statement. Beach’s compositional style in this movement fluctuates between luscious Romanticism and dark minimalism. 

Due to the sheer length of this movement the melodic and harmonic content is developed the most thoroughly. Throughout the whole movement there is some sort of disconnect between the piano and the orchestra, which creates a rather powerful narrative.

II. Scherzo Vivace (Perpetuum Mobile)

The second movement shows the contest between the orchestra and piano at an even more intense rate, however this time the piano is on top. This fast-paced movement is thrilling and the piano dominates the receding melodic line, which reverses the usual relationship between orchestra and soloist. This movement is not very long, but it is certainly one of the most energetic. 

III. Largo

The third movement, entitled Largo, is both the shortest and the slowest section of the work. Beach describes it as “a dark tragic lament” and interestingly it is based on one of her husband’s poem entitled “Twilight.” These are the lyrics:

No sun to warm

The darkening cloud of mist,

But everywhere

The steamy earth sends up

A veil of gray and damp

To kiss the green and tender leaves

And leave its cool imprint

In limpid pearls of dew.

 

The blackened trunks and boughs

In ghostly silhouette

Mark grimly in the coming eve

The shadows of the past.

All sounds are stilled,

The birds have hushed themselves to rest

And night comes fast, to drop her pall

Till morn brings life to all.

 

The relationship between night and day and life and death is prevalent within the text. The music itself is very expressive and darkly portentous. This is the first movement where the orchestra and soloist are not in competition, instead they give each other the space to express what they need to. The lament played by the piano is intensely expressive and it is so elaborate that it becomes incredibly dramatic and intense near the end.

IV. Allegro con Scioltezza 

The intensity from the third movement leads into the finale movement, which is where the piano reigns supreme over the orchestra for practically the whole movement. The themes are virtuosic and the relationship the soloist has with the orchestra is very complex. The mood is bright, the tempo is fast and the atmosphere is thrilling. It does indeed comprise all the right things to create an amazing finale movement.

 

Happy Reading!

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