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American composer Amy Beach’s significant contribution to the solo piano repertoire is finally beginning to receive the recognition and popularity it rightly deserves.
Beach (1867-1944) remained a hugely committed and prolific composer, even though much of her output received little attention in the first half of her career.
Her music is avowedly conservative, doing little to advance on the language of the early Romantic era composers, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. And yet there is certainly a timelessness to its appeal that continues to speak to audiences and connect with players.
Hal Leonard’s 2013 publication Piano Music of Amy Beach offers an enticing introduction to this important composer’s work, and has recently been reprinted (in part because it is a core text for America’s National Federation of Music Clubs Junior Festivals programme for 2020-24).
The collection offers ten intermediate to advanced solo pieces selected from across Beach’s long career by Gail Smith. Let’s take a look…
The Piano Music of Amy Beach is an 88-page book printed on white paper and with a glossy card cover:
In addition to title and contents pages, the book includes a two-page biography of the composer, two pages of notes about the ten pieces which follow, and at the rear of the book a chronology of important dates in Beach’s life.
The pieces vary in length from 2 pages to 24, and in difficulty from around Grade 4 to Diploma level, the majority being towards the upper end of this range. They are:
- Scottish Legend Op.54/1
- A Hermit Thrush at Morn Op.92/2
- Fire-Flies from Four Sketches Op.15/4
- In Autumn from Four Sketches Op.15/1
- Bal masque Op.22
- Arctic Night from Eskimos: Four Characteristic Pieces Op.64/1
- Menuet Italian from Trois morceaux caractéristiques Op.28/2
- From Blackbird Hills Op.83
- Honeysuckle from From Grandmother’s Garden Op.97/5
- Variations on Balkan Themes Op.60
The notation is cleanly presented but no information is given about sources. Some pieces (such as Arctic Night and Honeysuckle) contain ample fingering while others (for example, A Hermit Thrush at Morn and From Blackbird Hills) contain none; it is unclear whether the fingerings are editorial additions or the composer’s own.
The collection open with Scottish Legend, which has established itself as one of Beach’s more well-known pieces, and is currently on the Trinity College London Grade 8 syllabus (their publication uses two pages, rather than the more spacious three here, and the fingering is different so worth cross-checking).
In a simple ternary form with D minor-major-minor tonality, the piece has a richness of harmony and expression that evokes Scottish folk music, with the so-called Scotch-snap rhythm a strong feature.
Thereafter, the collection ventures towards less travelled scenery, but it soon become obvious that Beach had a penchant for portraying time and place in her music, and that she does so with evocative poise and exquisite taste.
From Blackbird Hills is a particular highlight; subtitled An Omaha Tribal Dance, the piece is a “ring dance”, sung and danced by children of the tribe. Smith suggests that the bass line here is suggestive of the drum beat and stomping of feet, while Beach explained that in the Adagio molto central episode she pictured members of the tribe “looking sadly over the shoulders of the happy living children at play”, a powerful image.
Beach clearly assimilated the music of European composers with deft accomplishment. In Autumn reminds me of Grieg’s writing, so popular at the time, while Fire-Flies, with its virtuosic passages in thirds, is reminiscent of Moscheles, Liszt and even Fauré.
The easiest piece in the collection, perhaps, is Arctic Night, from Beach’s Eskimos suite. Gail Smith explains that this slow, expressive piece in C minor is based on an Inuit Native American folk song; teachers will of course want to explain to students that acceptable terms of racial identification have changed over the last hundred years. And the music is not to be missed: a delicious miniature that more than rewards the intermediate player with its expressive potential and melodic charm.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Variations on Balkan Themes Op.60 is generally regarded as Beach’s longest and most difficult solo piano concert piece. It was composed in 1904, when Beach assembled an audience to hear about the political upheavals in the Balkan region, and is based on four folk tunes that she had memorised after a lecture by a Protestant missionary to Bulgaria. The main theme and element variations contain filigree and virtuosic passagework that require a well-developed technique, at diploma level.
With such a huge output, an editor compiling a collection of Amy Beach’s music has no shortage of options, but Gail Smith has chosen well and this collection provides a fabulous introduction to the range and quality of her music.
It’s fair to point out that Beach is perhaps not an “A List” composer to compare with Skryabin, Rachmaninov, Albéniz or Debussy, her direct contemporaries. But her music certainly deserves a far wider currency, and it is encouraging that it is finally finding its place in the regular repertoire of pianists.
Contributing to this process of discovery, the present collection from Hal Leonard is a strikingly good one, and can be most highly recommended.
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