In Source Readings in American Choral Music from 1995, a review of Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat, a work of “mysticism” and “direct dramatic appeals,” is paired with her discussion of the mystery surrounding the compositional process, particularly when it comes to creating choral works. This idea of mysticism is a common one in perceptions of classical and art music, and can perhaps shed some light on why art music has been such a difficult realm for minority or oppressed groups to break into.
“Each form brings requisites of its own… the steps the composer follows in developing any of these types depend, naturally, upon his own inborn abilities, the force of his creative urge, the way his mind and soul ‘work’, his background, and his training.”
“The text called melodies to my mind. I went out at once … and the text took possession of me. As if from dictation, I jotted down the notes…”
Amy Beach, while one of the few known female composers of the early 20th century, seems to fit very much the mold of a composer – a different breed than the rest of humanity, to whom melodies and musical works come, almost complete, in their moments of inspiration. To those who have spent any time composing, the actual process is extremely difficult to describe, which only lends to this sense of mystery around the creation of music. This contrasts very strongly with our understanding of popular music like that of Tin Pan Alley, in which commercial music is pumped out almost mechanically fitting any formulas.
No wonder, then, that there is so much of a gulf in people’s minds between “high” art music, which comes from individual inspiration and personal expression and “lowly” pop music. And even less wonder that, given the stereotypes applied to oppressed groups such as women and black Americans in the early 20th century, that people were unlikely to accept art music composers from these groups. If there are so few true composers among the “normal” (see: white, Western European, male) folk, how many fewer are likely to come from the margins?
On the other hand, this sense of mysticism is appropriate in one way: men have long viewed women as mystical creatures who are near-impossible to understand. Whether this conception plays a role in Philip Hale’s review when he says that “the mysticism [in the Mass in E-flat] at times approaches obscurity” is hard to say. It could, of course, be a genuine, objective critique (although musical critiques are rarely purely objective). And indeed, Hale claims Mrs. Beach as a part of the larger American musical identity, saying, “It is a pleasure to praise the sincerity of the composer’s purpose, to admit gladly the many excellences of the work, and to welcome it as an interesting contribution to the musical literature of the United States.”
Here, then, is one of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach’s many contributions to the American musical canon. Enjoy!
- Budds, Michael J., editor. “Music from 1830-1920.” Source Readings in American Choral Music, College Music Society, 1995, pp. 74–79.
- “Amy Beach Kyrie from Mass in Eb Major.” Performance by Concerto Chamber Orchestra, YouTube, 8 Aug. 2018, youtu.be/B3FMp3OHDOE.
- Curtis, Liane. “Amy Beach at 150 Proclaimed.” The Boston Musical Intelligencer, 5 Sept. 2017, www.classical-scene.com/2017/09/05/amy-beach-150-proclaimed/.