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CD Review

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach

Grand Mass in E Flat Major

Elaine Bunse, soprano
Barbara Schramm, mezzo-soprano
Paul Rogers, tenor
Leonard Jay Gould, baritone
Daniel Beckwith, organist
Michael May Festival Chorus/Michael May
Newport Classic NCD60008
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Although the U.S. has always had a vigorous and multi-faceted vernacular music, the country took a long time to come up with a strong, characteristic art music – in fact, not until Ives (at the time he actually composed, a peripheral figure at best). The central battles for American music didn't begin until the 20s, with the generation of Copland, Antheil, Harris, and Thomson. It's not as if no good composers wrote here. One can go back to the American Moravians for superb examples of sacred choral and chamber music especially. Strong, Paine, MacDowell, Foote, Chadwick, and Parker, collectively known as the New England School, rose in the 19th century. Parker worked Wagner's idiom. MacDowell's and Strong's strongest influence was Schumann. In fact, all these men looked to Germany for inspiration and idiom. Many indeed trained in Germany.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (a.k.a. Mrs. H. H. A. Beach), not only a piano prodigy but a composing one as well, also gets lumped in with this group, but her case differs a bit. First, she had little formal training in composition, and that entirely in the U.S. Second, she became a composer in rural New Hampshire, far from the major centers of musical activity: Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. At the age of one, she could sing 40 songs, and always in the key she learned them in. At two, she sung improvised harmony. She taught herself to read music by three, and at four she composed in her head. It helped that her parents were well-off and that her mother was musical. Genius helped as well. By the time of her first public recitals (she was seven), Beach knew an incredible amount of music, including Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, and Chopin.

Today, of course, we think nothing of popping a Brahms sextet or Mendelssohn's "Lobgesang" in the CD player. The only thing limiting our musical acquaintance appears to be our CD budget. Consider what she must have had to do just to get scores to study – and "study" probably included playing them through at the piano. By the time she was eighteen, she knew the major works of Schumann, Brahms, and Dvořák. Her only formal study consisted of one year's worth of harmony. She taught herself fugue and orchestration, among other things by translating Berlioz and Gevaert. By twenty-five, she had formed herself into a formidable composer. Her piano concerto takes a back seat only to MacDowell's second (now that is indeed a marvelous work; we ought to hear it more often), and I do think her the best American symphonist before Ives. Her choral music has great distinction as well. As far as I'm concerned, she leaves her American contemporaries in the dust. In comparison, Parker's Hora Novissima is weak-tea Wagner and Paine's Mass in D the work of a competent, thoroughly conventional church organist.

Her genius for construction, I think, also separates her. Not only is the overall architecture of her music more complex, but at any time in a work, more non-routine stuff seems to be going on. Furthermore, with the exception of Foote, most of the New England pack seem essentially miniaturists, even in their big works. Chadwick's Symphonic Sketches, for example, are the Schumann character-piece blown up. Beach wrote her share of miniatures (in fact, no large-scale orchestral work exists after the 1903 Jeptha's Daughter; she continued to compose much chamber music through 1938, however). Nevertheless, like Elgar, even in the small works, one senses a big nature trying to get out.

Beach's early Mass in Eb (she was 18) shows this predilection for large-scale construction from the opening Kyrie, where Beach uses some nifty harmonic sideslips to underline climaxes and to set off major sections. She also thinks naturally in terms of long, arching lines, not just in the Kyrie, but throughout. The work is structured operatically, with solos, duets, trios, quartets, and choruses, much like the Verdi Requiem, although she lacks Verdi's genius for drama. Any other similarity to that work, therefore, is in the head of the writer of the liner notes for this CD. It does Mrs. Beach no good to call her Mass the "happy Verdi Requiem" or to claim one section as her "answer to the Hallelujah Chorus." For one thing, the most overtly operatic portions succeed the least, and at 18 she doesn't have the choral smarts of Handel, although she certainly equals Paine's Mass and Parker's choral music. The Mass isn't particularly deep, but it's high-spirited and even offers some lovely surprises along the way.

I can only call the performance woebegone. The loss of the orchestra (we hear a "transcription" for organ, percussion, and harp) certainly takes off some of the music's edge. The chorus is obviously amateur, with loads of bad habits: weak intonation, short-windedness, and a tendency to bark. The soloists have had better days (although the soprano is the best of them). The alto seems to have come down with a bad attack of "church wobble," and the tenor suffers from the delusion that the only thing separating him from a Met career is a lucky break. The bass is simply underpowered. Beach deserves better than this.

I can't recommend the CD to anyone other than a specialist or those with an overwhelming desire to explore.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz