Beach’s Variations and the Success of the American Female Composer

Amy Beach (September 5, 1867–December 27, 1944) was an American composer and pianist. She was primarily self-taught in composition and was the first successful female composer of large works as well as the first president of the Society of American WomenComposers. She worked to further the works of young composers and was also known as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach” at many of her concert piano performances.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

Amy Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60 was one of many great works she composed for piano. Based on songs “of unknown origin” collected by Reverend and Mrs. William W. Sleeper during their time living as missionaries in the Balkan region, the variations play upon “O Maiko Moya,” “Stara Planina,” and “Nasadil e Dado,” among other Balkan folk tunes. (Beach did not collect any of the folksongs her works were based on.) The variations employ switches between different themes to make up their complex texture.

The following is a loose translation of the text of “O Maiko Moya,” which is the first theme introduced in the work. Although there is no text to be sung or read with this work (this is a piano work, after all) this is important to the structure of the work and is suggestive of the overall tone of the variations and the cultural background that they were based on.

“O my poor country, to thy sons so dear,

Why art thou weeping, why this sadness drear?

Alas! thou raven, messenger of woe,

Over those fresh grave moanest thou so?”

The different folk songs do not all have to deal with Balkan nationalistic pride, rather, some texts relate to the mountains, or a story of a grandfather planting a small garden. As is the case in any piece written as a theme with variations, the variations gradually move away from the original motivic elements and provide new context for different themes.

In her analysis of Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, Dr. Adrienne Fried Block suggested that Beach borrowed from Beethoven’s tonal scheme for his Six Variations, op. 34. Beethoven’s Variations was one of the pieces that Beach regularly performed in her solo piano performances and one of the few variations that she regularly played throughout her career. It makes sense then, that this piece had such an effect on her own music. The Balkan Themes were in minor, which affected the tonal adjustments she made to the piece and prevented her from using Beethoven’s Variations structure exactly as it is (it should be noted that the speculation that Beach borrowed from Beethoven is a part of Dr. Block’s correspondence to a E. Douglas Bomberger).

Overall, Beach’s Variations are lively, yet melancholy in mood. Beach was known to incorporate romanticism and delayed resolution into her work, later on moving away from tonality. It is no surprise that Beach has been declared the first successful American female composer of large-scale music, although I think it would be interesting to explore the published music of other female composers and try to understand where they “fell short” of the success of their male counterparts, causing America to have to wait until the late 1800s for a female composer of Beach’s accomplishment.

 

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1906. http://javanese.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/0/0f/IMSLP08550-Beach_-_Op.60__Variations_on_Balkan_Themes.pdf.

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Performed by Virginia Eskin. Composed 1904.

Bomberger, E. Douglas, and Adrienne Fried Block. “On Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60.” American Music 11, no. 3 (1993): 368-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3052509.

El Salon Mexico: Copland’s Correspondence with Carlos Chavez

copland and chavez

El Salon Mexico was a highly labored over composition Copland was particularly enthusiastic about writing. Spending over two years on its composition, Copland was in correspondence with Mexican composer Carlos Chavez years before its actual premiere in the Fall of 1937. The correspondence between Copland and Chavez reveals Copland’s strong interest in the pieces reception critically both in terms of popularity but also particularly centered on the acceptance of it as Mexican music.

Copland’s enthusiasm for the piece can be seen in his letter two years before its premiere in a letter from August 28th, 1935:

“Just now I am finishing up the orchestration of El Salon Mexico which I wrote you about last summer. What it would sound like in Mexico I can’t imagine, but everyone here for whom I have played it seems to think it is very gay and amusing!”

This quote reveals both the excitement Copland felt and also his concern over the piece’s reception in Mexico. This concern is more strongly articulated in other letters he wrote to Chavez during the piece’s composition. In October 1934 he wrote that:

“I am terribly afraid of what you will say of he Salon Mexico – perhaps it is not Mexican at all and I would look so foolish. But in America del Norte it may sound Mexican!”

copland letter oct 15 1934

Anxious to hear about the reception of the piece, Copland asked explicitly for Chavez to pass on that information to him in 1937 after he sent the piece to be performed. He writes:

“I hope the Festival will be a big success. Also, that you’ll enjoy working on the Salon Mexico. Be sure to have Armando send me all the reviews – even those of Senor Pollares!”

copland letter may 18 1937

The correspondence between Copland and Chavez provides a fascinating insight into the concerns and enthusiasm that Copland had over the piece and shows that Copland himself was very consciously thinking about the issues of race and musical representation during the composition of his piece. Some interesting questions to ask would be whether or not Copland ought to be writing pieces which he worries are “authentic” only to an audience they do not belong to. Is it reinforcing racial stereotypes if the culture wildly raving the piece as “Mexican” is America? Is Copland advocating the writing of stereotyped pieces? Or is he trying to authentically capture and represent what might constitute as “Mexican music?” Would doing so be a respectful celebration or appropriation of Mexican music? Is Copland’s correspondence with Chavez reveal a genuine desire to please Mexican audiences or to market to American audiences? These are all questions without answers, because that’s what this class is about.

Works Cited:

Kostelanetz, Richard. Aaron Copland: A Reader. Great Britain: Routledge, 2004. Print.

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.copland.phot0005/default.html

 

What the folk is going on with the youths of America?

An article written about the Mariposa music festival featured in Rock Magazine. 1972, Vol. 3, Issue 10

An article written about the Mariposa music festival featured in Rock Magazine. 1972, Vol. 3, Issue 10

The folk music revival was carried by and largely served the young men and women who were raised to volunteer, organize civil rights protests  and activist groups and work with political powers (at least at the start) to effect the change they envisioned for the world. These college-age individuals rejected commercial mass culture while they favored borrowing and adapting older music from previous generations to serve their own purposes.

During the 1970s, there was a boom in music festivals. Occurring over the span of 3-12 days, festivals became the best place to discover new artists, interact with new like-minded people and share new ideas about politics and the world. (They were also associated with drug use, but that’s not the focus of this article.) Festivals were generally grassroots efforts, organized by local communities, regionally or nationally and could have an educational focus. “The Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Canada is one of the biggest in North America. [In the summer of 1972] it broke even and its organizers were happy.”1

Many different artists came to the festival to perform the music that was shaping the mentality and ethos of the college-attending generation in 1972. Old folk tunes were repurposed, given new life with new words about the ideas and emotions of the heartbroken and those downtrodden by society.2

“In 1965, a young folk singer named Joni Anderson hitchhiked to Mariposa from Calgary and in 1970 she drew 12,000 to a night concert because she was the famous Joni Mitchell[James] Taylor was asked to Mariposa because ‘he has a lot of roots in folk’ not because he would draw people. Taylor came because he wanted to, not for the money, which amounted to $75. That is the most any performer is paid, along with his traveling and accommodation expenses. Why? Because Mariposa is an annual gathering of balladeers, not a rock festival.”

Today, we still see (or hear of) people borrowing from other musical ideas and traditions. What they borrow leads to commercial success––in the case of Amy Winehouse and Iggy Azalea. Artists borrow ideas for several reasons: they identify with some aspect of the idea or culture, to make money, necessity demands that they adapt their music to today’s pop standards by updating the sounds or affect they use, or, to make a statement. We are in a never ending cycle of cultural repetition. Everything we produce and consume will reoccur in another form some time (shortly or long after) the “original” was produced. However, the questions have not changed from the 1970s when the folk music revival was in full swing, nor from when bluegrass was in its developmental stage as a musical genre. What is the intent behind artist’s borrowing ideas from others and how many alterations must the new work undergo before it is something original? Is there a way to respectfully reproduce or change something when you yourself have not been around to experience the genesis of that idea or have little to no connection with that cultural movement, people, or idea? And what is the significance of festivals? What role do they play with the appropriation, adaptation and spread of ideas and are they important cultural hub or a temporary collection of society’s social outcasts and wannabe reshapers?

The Mariposa music festival still is around today. This year, the festival’s dates are July 3-5, 2015.

 

1. Musgrave, Corinne. “Mariposa: The Festival That Never Fails.” Rock, 1972 3, no. 10 (1972): 20-21.

2. Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.