Amy Beach: Gaelic Symphony


In 1896, Amy 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.

Beach began composing the symphony in 1894 and decided to use a Celtic theme taken from one of her songs Dark is the Night! Throughout much of her early career she was influenced by the life and works of her contemporary, Antonín Dvořák. When premiered, the symphony received favourable reviews, but it is in more recent years that the symphony has gained some real popularity. 


The Music

Cast into four movements, the Gaelic Symphony poses four very different themes to make up this symphony.

Movement I – Allegro con fuoco

The low rumble that begins the first movement slowly builds and becomes the strong foundation for the whole movement. Beach’s style is highly Romantic, with rich orchestrations and bold harmonic language leading the way. The melody is passed between the woodwind and string sections as the horns and brass add drama and intensity to the mix. The movement between quiet and loud sections create peaks and troughs in the music, which keeps the music driving along. 

Beach utilises soloists within the woodwind section to develop the melody in the central section. The sudden changes in harmony creates an unknown character within the music which is said to shadow the music presented in the opening movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. As the texture becomes dense with the full orchestral forces all aiming towards the fiery coda section. The intensity rises as the orchestra unites for the final few chords before this powerful movement comes to a close.


Movement II – Alla siciliana 

More of Beach’s Gaelic themes are introduced in this slow movement. The cor anglais takes over the main theme at the start of the movement as the other woodwinds enter at staggered times. This chorale-like wind section is delicate and rich with nuanced harmony changes that creates colour within the music. As the strings enter the richness of the texture is automatically bolstered. As the music moves into a faster section, the strings lead on the melodies. As the music is brought down and instruments drop out, a quick woodwind section ensues. The main theme then returns from the violins and the movement ends with a cheeky flute twirl. 


Movement III – Lento con molto espressione

The slow third movement is the most lyrical of all four movements. Similarly to the opening movement, the third is laden with Beach’s rich textures and heavy movement between the orchestra. The melody is taken and developed throughout the orchestra, with soloists emerging at pinnacle points of the movement. The character of the movement is dramatic, with the music fluctuating between different states. This movement ends with a delicate violin solo that leads to the quiet end to this lyrical movement. 


Movement IV – Allegro di molto

The finale movement opens dramatically with full forces out to play. Overall, this movement is quick in tempo and intense in atmosphere. Beach explores previous Gaelic themes presented in other movements as the music races through a number of different themes. As the music reaches the coda section, a number of themes enter the mix. Through the excitement of the music, a call and response sequence between the brass and strings emerges. This leads to an epic trumpet fanfare above the bold timpani and fizzing strings. The symphony comes to a heroic close as the whole orchestra unite for the final time. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No.9 (‘From the New World’)


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