Burnt Hills Oratorio Society director Susan Fedak is in her first year on the job, in which most people might play it safe with the programming. Instead, she has chosen unknown territory for the chorus’s Sunday concert at Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College.
“I want people to hear different repertoire. We usually do the regular stuff,” Fedak said. “Since March is Women’s Month and the concert is at a former women’s college and the conductor is a woman, I chose Amy Beach’s Grand Mass in E-flat Major.”
And who is Amy Beach?
“She’s an American original,” Fedak said. “She was the first woman to be musically educated here and not in Europe. I knew her vocal music but I’d never heard of the Mass. So I got a CD and it’s beautiful music.”
Amy Cheney Beach was born in Henniker, N.H., in 1867 and even as a toddler demonstrated exceptional musical aptitude. At 1, she could sing 40 tunes accurately and by 2 she could improvise harmonies, according to the website Allmusic. Her mother, who played piano, began giving her piano lessons at 6 and the next year Beach was performing Beethoven, Chopin and Handel in recitals.
Burnt Hills Oratorio Society
WHAT: Amy Beach’s Grand Mass in E-flat Major
WHERE: Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, following lecture at 2
HOW MUCH: $20 (students $5)
MORE INFO: 373-8170, www.bhos.us
By the time she was a teenager, her parents had moved to Boston. Instead of sending her to Europe to study, they found her local teachers in piano, harmony and counterpoint. Beyond these lessons, Beach was self-taught and explored all forms of musical composition on her own. She wrote her Mass over a three-year period completing it in 1890 at age 23.
“It’s in the traditional romantic style,” Fedak said. “It’s very chordal and not intricate. She has a fugue that is of interest. But it’s comfortable music. She knew how to write for voices, even though it’s high for the sopranos.”
The piece follows the usual five sections of a Mass and will be sung in Latin. The chorus will have 66 singers and there will be four soloists: soprano Gene Marie Callahan, mezzo-soprano Frances Wittman, tenor Derek Stannard and bass Nicholas Wiggins.
Beach does a few unusual things, Fedak said. She uses the chorus as a soloist and the soloist comes in sometimes as a chorus would, and all the soloist parts are substantial. A Graduale was added as a tenor solo. This is usually music used between Scripture readings when the priest moves to the altar to read from the Gospel. Beach made it a prayer to the Virgin Mary.
A 40-piece orchestra complete with full brass sections and timpani are required. That in itself is not so odd, but that Beach also employs the organ, which has a part important to the piece, is not typical. There are even a few organ solos. Fedak’s husband, Alfred, will play.
“This is serious music but there are happy parts,” Susan Fedak said. “As far as I know, the Mass has never been done in the area and I think it will thrill audiences. They’ll enjoy it.”
Lecture before concert
Because many don’t know of Beach or her music (Musicians of Ma’alwyck will play one of her piano trios on April 7), Fedak invited Virginia Eskin, a pianist and noted Beach authority, who has also recorded several of Beach’s compositions, to give a lecture about her prior to the concert.
Beach had a remarkable career. At 18 she was considered a very gifted pianist and had performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But when she injured her hand, she consulted with a Dr. H. H. A. Beach, a Boston surgeon. One thing led to another, and although Dr. Beach was almost 25 years her senior, she married him within the year. In keeping with the times, her husband didn’t think she should be performing in public, so she agreed to limit her public recitals to a benefit concert once a year. He did, however, encourage her to devote herself to composition.
Her Grand Mass, Op. 5 was performed in 1892 by the Handel and Haydn Society to much acclaim. This success established her as one of America’s outstanding composers. She went on to write several other choral and chamber works, a violin sonata, piano concerto and piano quintet, 150 songs, and an opera. She was the first woman to compose a symphony and the first to have her work performed by major orchestras including those in Boston, San Francisco, Buffalo, Kansas City and others.
After her husband died in 1910, Beach returned to the concert stage — often performing her own compositions — and she toured Europe for three years. When she returned to America to live in New York City, she was considered the leading woman composer of her day with a substantial volume of work. Much of the music is in the Romantic idiom and has been compared to Brahms.
In later works, Beach experimented with exotic harmonies, whole-tone scales and other techniques. She died in 1944 of heart disease.
Seemingly forgotten for decades, she has been rediscovered in the past 20 years. In the 1990s, plaques were put on her grave site and her old Boston home, and in 1999 she was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Cincinnati. In 2000, the Boston Pops paid her tribute. Her name was added to a granite wall at The Shell, where she joins the names of 86 other composers — the only woman composer to be so honored.
When Fedak read of Beach’s background and how her music has been resurrected in recent years, she was surprised by something else. The BHOS had to buy the score and parts to the Mass. On looking closely at the Kalmus published score, she realized it was in manuscript, not printed.
“The score may be in her own hand,” Fedak said, sounding a bit awed. “And it’s beautiful manuscript.”