Gender, Beethoven, And Boston – A Musical Mystery Solved At Symphony Hall

Bostonians love their history, and that’s especially true at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra recognizes that the past exerts a certain fascination, a charm, even, for its concertgoers.

So the Orchestra reproduces, in each concert program, the program page from a performance of the same piece from a century, or even longer, ago.

This weekend, BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons is conducting a program of Mahler’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto.

Flip through your program and you’ll discover that the Mahler made its first appearance in Boston on November 23, 1923.

Nothing mysterious there, aside from the questions that arise: did the audience like it? Did the performers?

And of course, a slight sense of goose bumps that musicians performed the same work on the same stage in the same McKim, Mead & White palace of music where we now sit.

But then flip to page 34 and the real mystery begins.

The soloist for Beethoven’s 3rd, performed at the BSO’s prior home, the Boston Music Hall, on April 21, 1888…was a woman.

A married woman.

Identified solely as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.”

The plot thickens.

1888?

A woman soloist?

For a major American symphony orchestra?

Mrs. Beach, whoever she was, couldn’t vote.

Couldn’t go to Harvard.

Couldn’t serve on a jury.

But she could perform Beethoven with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

So who was Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, who played not only Beethoven, but Franz Liszt’s Second Polonaise, for a discerning audience in the city that calls itself the Hub of the Universe?

Thanks to Dr. Google, we learn that Mrs. Beach was born Amy Marcy Cheney on September 5, 1867 to a musically inclined New Hampshire family.

A child prodigy, she was acclaimed at an early age the finest female pianist in the United States, and she made her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in 1885, when she was just 17.

One of the audience members captivated with her playing may well have been a leading Boston physician, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, from whom she took not only her name but her marching orders.

Dr. Beach, 42, married Miss Cheney, 18, in that same year of 1885, insisting that his teen bride give up the unladylike practice of teaching piano, and limiting her performances to just two a year.

With profits donated to charity.

Doctor’s orders.

Mrs. Beach apparently did as she was told, because, of course, this was Boston, 1885.

So audience-goers in need of their Beethoven fix (with a side of Liszt, of course), descending on the Music Hall that night, enjoyed one of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach’s semi-annual public displays of her majestic abilities on the keyboard.

And that explains how, 130 years later, her name found itself reprinted in the BSO program for this weekend’s performances.

There’s more to the story, of course.

Unable to perform regularly or teach, Mrs. Beach turned to composing.

The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, still going strong today, performed her Mass in E Flat Major, the first time that august body of musicians had ever sung a work composed by a woman.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra proudly premiered her First Symphony in 1896 and her Piano Concerto in 1900, with Mrs. Beach herself at the keyboard, just six months before today’s Symphony Hall opened its doors.

Her compositions received high critical praise, tempered by a sense of surprise that a member of the fairer sex could write music for orchestra.

Dr. Beach died a decade after the premiere of the piano concerto.

His widow, now and thereafter known as Amy Beach, traveled the known world – that is, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Western Europe – composing, performing, and yes, teaching, without any posthumous restrictions from her late husband.

Amy Beach died in 1944, leaving behind a legacy as one of America’s greatest composers and performers.

This year being the 150th anniversary of her birth, New England witnessed performances of her chamber music, her orchestral compositions, and her opera, Cabildo.

And this being the era of the Internet, you can find her work in all its luxurious tonal splendor on YouTube, as well as a webpage, AmyBeach.org, dedicated to her memory.

Boston, rejoice—your leading musical daughter has come home.

And if it weren’t for the fine print in the reproduction of the 1888 BSO program in this weekend’s program, many of us here in the Hub of the Universe would never have known of the amazing story of Amy Beach.

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