Rebecca Clarke (1920) - Jennifer Higdon - Amy Beach
(This is part 2 of an on-going post about the "Stuart & Friends" program on Saturday, 7:30 at Market Square Church in Harrisburg. While the first post included videos of Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio and Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata, this post continues with another look at Rebecca Clarke' life and career before proceeding to that of Amy Beach. If you only have time to listen to her Piano Quintet which concludes Saturday's concert, scroll down to find a complete video.)
When I was a child, I remember asking “Where does the music come from?” and being told it came from the speakers of our old phonograph (either that or, with parents who grew up with the 1930s pop tune, being given a verse of “the music goes round and round...”). But that's not what I was looking for – not the sound of the music but the music the musicians were playing.
“Oh, you mean who wrote the music?” “Yes, where did he get the music?” (Because, back then, it was always a he...) “Well, he writes it down on paper and the musicians perform it from that.” “Yes, but where does that music come from?” “You know, I think it's almost time for dinner!”
More recently, I'd heard Lee Hoiby's song, “Where the Music Comes From,” which has the simplicity and beauty of a Schubert song that, if it doesn't specifically answer my childhood question, if you (composer or not) succeed in experiencing and absorbing all these things, it might help shape your Inner Self and help support the growth of a child to develop into the adult artist – or into the person who will enjoy the music even more.
With images of Beethoven walking
through the fields or Brahms slaving away over his piano, I still
wasn't sure where composers found their inspiration. And while I
didn't really think “money grew on trees,” I also suspected you
didn't “find the music” hidden behind flowers in the garden or in
the beauty of a sunset. Only later did I discover "oh, but you can!"
Since I'm looking at this solely from the standpoint of a composer, I suppose, if there's a point, individual composers discover it individually for themselves – just as performers do who get beyond merely reproducing the notes composers place on the page, just as painters turn what they see into something that is much more than what the rest of us can merely see, just as authors turn the hint of a story into a novel that is so much deeper than that.
While this also gets into the “nature” or “nurture” divide – imagine if there was such a thing as aesthetic politics where partisans hurled anathemas at each other depending on our beliefs about “where talent comes from?” – let's think, for a moment, listening to the music on this program, what might have influenced these composers, given their personal backgrounds and the times they lived in, to create the music they did.
As I mentioned in the first of this concert's posts, Jennifer Higdon was influenced by (or found inspiration in) her reactions to colors, as if she's spreading paint on a canvas. The fact her father was a painter would invariably have had a great impact on her even if it was just another part of her home environment, like hearing the songs of the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel her parents listened to.
In this post, what kind of "sources" might we find that helped Rebecca Clarke and Amy Beach to find music no one else ever heard before, no one else had written before, music that just, somehow, came in to being?
In the first part, I'd mentioned some of what can only be called the trials and tribulations of a young Victorian woman like Rebecca Clarke – a teenager, still – growing up in a society that by and large felt she had no business being a professional musician much less a composer. Her parents had “an interest in music” and allowed her to attend the Royal College of Music, more support than Ethel Smyth received from her old-fashioned father a generation earlier who wouldn't even let her study music. Composing was not something deemed “suitable for a woman” (small wonder she grew up to become involved in the Women's Rights movement and was jailed for her sufragette activities). But when one of Clarke's teacher proposed marriage, her father pulled her out of school.
While her father may deserve a good deal of the scorn aimed his way in Clarke's biographical summaries, he at least had his daughter's interests at heart when he sent some of her early songs to the composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford who agreed to take her on as his first female composition student, quite a controversial move on his part.
But there were other issues with her father: in 1967, she began writing her memoirs, “I Had a Father Too,” which she completed six years before her death in 1979 and which (like most of her music) she never published. In it, “she describes her early life, marked by frequent beatings from her father and strained family relations which affected her perceptions of her proper place in life.”
In 1910, during a major row with her father, she confronted him over his extra-marital affairs, and he “turned her out of the house,” cutting off her funds. She was 24. Without money, she had to withdraw from school, this time to attempt to earn a living as a free-lance musician. In 1912, Sir Henry Wood hired her for his previously all-male Queen's Hall Orchestra, speaking of “controversial moves”. One can only wonder what the work-environment must have been like! In 1916, then, she decided to leave for America to pursue a performing career there.
Given her two major works – the Viola Sonata of 1919 and the Piano Trio of 1921 – failed to earn a prize or, despite performances, subsequent recognition, it was the disappointment over trying to get the Trio published which so discouraged her she soon gave up composing. She never wrote another “substantial work” after that.
Growing up amidst the usual Victorian Parlor Music, it's surprising how mature and forward-looking, stylistically, these two pieces are. Even more startling are two songs composed between 1922 and 1929, setting a dark ballad by John Masefield called “The Seal Man” based on a disturbing Celtic legend (akin to the Selkies); in this case, a supernatural creature who lured a young woman to her death), and a frighteningly intense setting of Blake's “The Tiger” (which she kept revising through 1933), inspired by her affair with a singer which she only finished by the time they ended what had become, apparently, a turbulent relationship, reflected clearly in the music. When she sent “The Tiger” off to be published, it was returned as unsuitable since it was “not the sort of music they would consider publishing by a woman.”
Small wonder her desire to compose wasted away! Eventually, even her interest in pursuing a musical career as a performer ended during World War II when she again found herself in the United States. She met a fellow musician she'd known in London, now teaching at Juilliard, and they married in 1944. By then, her music was out-of-print, forgotten, or lay unpublished in the metaphorical attic trunk. Despite his encouragement, she wrote only a few slight arrangements. It was only with her 90th birthday when there was a special radio broadcast that included the Viola Sonata (as she called it “her one little whiff of success”) which, three years before her death, revived interest in her music. Now, finally, she's regarded as one of the finest British composers “during the years between the wars.”
But imagine what she could have written if – (the eternal what if...?) – she had the social support women today have to pursue musical careers?
While it's always difficult to diagnose medical histories from the past – “What caused Beethoven's Deafness?” “What killed Mozart?” – one musicologist, Liane Curtis with the Rebecca Clarke Society, has written about the possibility that Clarke had dysthymia, a chronic form of depression “combined with at least two other symptoms which may include insomnia or hypersomnia, fatigue or low energy, eating changes, low self-esteem, or feelings of hopelessness. Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions [can be] another possible symptom. Irritability is one of the more common symptoms.”
Clarke's lack of encouragement and the often outright discouragement she received for her work made her reluctant to expose herself to the trauma that composing can be for some. She “did not consider herself able to balance her personal life and the demands of composition.” As Clarke would later write, “I can't do it unless it's the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleep.”
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
Meanwhile, not far from Boston in the years following the American Civil War, there was a child prodigy named Amy Cheney. Perhaps the term “infant prodigy” would be more appropriate here, since she could sing forty songs accurately by age one, improvised countermelodies a year later, and by 3 had taught herself to read. She composed three waltzes for piano when she was 4 (take that, Mozart), though, according to a 1998 biography, her mother “attempted to prevent the child from playing the family piano herself, believing that to indulge the child's wishes in this respect would damage parental authority.” As a result, she didn't begin actual piano lessons until the ripe old age of 6 and shortly began giving public recitals of works by Handel, Beethoven, and Chopin, along with a few of her own pieces. Her parents declined offers from agents who proposed arranging concert tours for her.
All this had happened while growing up in New Hampshire.
Moving to Boston in 1875, it was suggested Amy, now pushing 8, enroll in a European conservatory, there being no American school where she could study (it was standard in those days, budding American composers going to Germany for their musical training, but it was in the fall of 1875 John Knowles Paine was appointed the first professor of music at Harvard, turning his “fluffy” electives of music appreciation (without credit) into offerings of theory and composition classes as well as, eventually, private instrumental lessons leading toward a music degree, the first music department in an American university, but I digress...). Again, the family declined and found her local teachers including, by the time she was 14, for harmony and counterpoint, the closest she ever got to formal instruction in composition.
Otherwise she was self-taught, collecting any book she could find relating to harmony, composition, and orchestration (with no suitable work available in English, she translated Berlioz' treatise from the original French).
Then came her debut as a piano soloist with the Boston Symphony in October, 1883, when the 16-year-old girl performed the 3rd Piano Concerto of Ignaz Moscheles (now largely forgotten, he was one of the leading virtuosos of the 19th Century and a teacher of Mendelssohn's) – and played it to a generally enthusiastic audience. She also was the soloist in the Boston Symphony's final concert of the 1884-'85 Season.
Then came her marriage to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent Boston surgeon 24 years her senior: she agreed "to live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts. She agreed never to teach piano,” to limit her public performances to two recitals a year, and to focus on composition rather than performing (though, like most 19th Century virtuosos, whether Moscheles or Paganini, she considered herself a performer who composed her own music). Because it was unseemly for a married woman to have a male tutor, she must continue to teach herself. And she became the composer known as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.
Given the debates over women's rights and questions of personal identity in marriage that still rage today, the image of her I had received as a student in the 1970s from professors or writers about music, whenever her name surfaced (which was rare), was that she had been “forced” to give up performing and having her compositions performed in public which, it turns out, was not accurate. (Even a1995 New York Times review of her opera Cabildo, performed at Lincoln Center, began by saying she had “given up her career in favor of Victorian Marriage.”)
Looking back in 1942, she described married life as a happy one (officially, she put it “I was happy and he was content”). But she was also active as a composer: look at some of her works and their premieres. Her Mass in E-flat, written in 1892, was performed by Boston's Handel & Haydn Society. Her Gaelic Symphony, a New Englander's response to Dvořák's “New World,” was premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1896 to great success. She became famous, later if not then, as “the first American woman to have a symphony premiered by a major orchestra” (which begs the question, “were there other American woman who had symphonies premiered by minor orchestras?”). A prominent Boston composer, George Whitefield Chadwick, wrote to her of his enthusiasm for her symphony, adding that "I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine work by any of us [his colleagues in the 2nd New England School of Composers], and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you [like it] or not – one of the boys." That same year, she was the pianist for the premiere of her Violin Sonata with Franz Kneisel, the orchestra's concertmaster, having already played the Schumann Piano Quintet with him and other members of the orchestra. In 1900, she again appeared as soloist with the Boston Symphony for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor.
In 1907, then, following a similar performance with the Kneisel Quartet of Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, she composed her own Piano Quintet, this one in F-sharp Minor, and performed it frequently with them until they retired in 1917, including on one occasion a multi-city tour. It would become one of the most frequently played of her works during her lifetime, including some radio broadcasts.
It's is a three-movement work – a dark opening Allegro after a slow introduction with a theme that will pervade all three movements; a lyrical but intense and often mournful Adagio; and an agitated finale that certainly brings to mind the "High Romanticism" of the 19th Century. According to one writer on Beach and her music, this opening motive, heard at different points throughout the quintet, is "borrowed" from the finale of Brahms' Quintet but reworked and substantially transformed. It's not difficult to tell this is a work heavily influenced by Brahms, especially his Piano Quintet, given her harmonies and textures, whether that was a deliberate tribute or simply a "phase" she was going through at the time (many American composers at the end of the 19th Century sounded like they were imitating Brahms, and several of them had studied in Germany with lesser-known composers who were, after all, friends and devotees of The Great Brahms).
Regardless, Beach's Quintet is a substantial and "serious" work to put beside so many of the salon-like songs and piano pieces she composed throughout her career, and while many critics (then and more recently) have argued "yes, it's okay for a 'woman composer,' but it doesn't quite match up to Beethoven and Brahms, does it?" One could mention, for that matter, there are several "man composers" who appear regularly on our concert programs who have the same failings.
(The Jupiter Quartet with pianist Ran Dank recorded live at the 2022 Bowdoin International Music Festival)
One thing is certain, after listening to this, one can never accuse Amy Beach, even if she seems hampered by social and marital conventions as an artist, of lacking self-confidence. If she had any doubts about what she wanted to be at any point in her career, it never affected her in the same ways circumstances affected Rebecca Clarke (and numerous other composers, regardless of gender).
(Incidentally, a small detail: I've seen numerous dates assigned to when the Quintet was written, ranging from 1905 to 1909. Whenever she may have started work on it, the final page of the manuscript score is dated, in Beach's hand, "December 14th, 1907." It was premiered in February, 1908, and published in 1909. So there's that bit of housekeeping...)
After her husband died in 1910 – and her mother seven months later – Mrs. Beach went to Europe to rest and grieve, but noticed the “Mrs. H.H.A. Beach” confused the Germans so she re-styled her name as Amy Beach. And shortly, she resumed her career as a performer, including standard recital repertoire as well as her own pieces, receiving considerable success for her songs (though many German critics found them “kitschy”) and for the more substantial Violin Sonata. (Again, the image I had received in the 1970s, that “as soon as her husband died, she was back to performing and composing,” was simply not true, though she did a good deal more of it simply because, now, it didn't have the restrictions of her husband's social expectations.) Curiously, once she returned to the United States and was being asked if she was the daughter of Dr. H.H.A. Beach, she changed her name back to Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and remained so until her death in 1944 at the age of 77.- Dick Strawser