Music by Women Composers: Brian Lewis on Lyric Violin Works by Amy Beach

July 20, 2023, 7:31 PM · American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a naturally gifted musician who blazed a trail of public success during an era when women seldom had the chance to do so, due to societal restraints. She left a number of late-Romantic gems for violin - delightful music that provides just enough challenge for students and that works well in programming for recitals.

Two of Beach's shorter works were the subject of a lecture called "The Lyric Writing of Amy Beach" by Brian Lewis at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies last spring. Lewis is a Professor of Violin at the University of Texas's Butler School of Music.

Lewis highlighted Beach's "Berceuse" from Three Compositions, Op 40 as well as her "Romance" for Violin and Piano, Op. 23, written in 1893. Both pieces can be downloaded from ISMLP: click here for the Berceuse and here for the Romance. For printed editions, Lewis recommended the Hildegard Publishing Company, which specializes in compositions by women composers. (Here is the link for the sheet music - it includes the three Op. 40 pieces plus Invocation Op. 55 and the 1893 Romance.)

Lewis also recommended reading about both works and finding the music in Maud Powell Favorites, a fantastic series of four books with sheet music and histories, compiled and edited by by historian Karen A. Shaffer and violinist Rachel Barton Pine.

Brian Lewis
Left inset, composer Amy Beach; right, violinist Brian Lewis at the Starling-DeLay Symposium. He is holding the book "Maud Powell Favorites."

Born in New Hampshire, Amy Cheney Beach was largely self-educated - a child-prodigy pianist who taught herself to read at age three and was composing as early as age four. She made her concert debut as a pianist at the age of 16, then just two years later was married to a surgeon, Dr H.H.A. Beach, who required that she limit her solo performances, so she concentrated on composing. After her husband's death in 1910 she returned to the concert stage.

"Romance" for Violin and Piano, Op. 23

BELOW: Violinist Rachel Barton Pine and pianist Matthew Hagle perform "Romance," Op. 23 by Amy Beach.

The story behind the "Romance" hearkens back to to composer's relationship with another female trailblazer of the era, the American violinist Maud Powell.

Amy Beach and Maud Powell were actually born in the same year. Beach wrote "Romance" for Powell, and the two of them premiered the work together in a performance at the Women's Musical Congress, which was held in Chicago during the summer of 1893 and drew 1,500 people. As soon as they finished playing the piece, the audience demanded that they play it once again.

Maud Powell and Amy Beach
Violinist Maud Powell and pianist/composer Amy Beach, in a photo she autographed for Powell, inscribing the beginning of the "Romance" at the top.

Few people at the Symposium had played the "Romance" before, and Lewis pointed out that "this is a piece that deserves to be in our standard repertoire. It's never too late to add to your repertoire."

For the class, we read through the work along with pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle, who pointed out that "there are a lot of decisions to be made in this piece," when it comes to ensemble.

Marked "Andante espressivo," the piece begins pianissimo, increasing to "piano" in the next phrase, when the theme is reiterated an octave higher.

Lewis had some strategies for working with students on approaching this piece. First, he pointed out that it's important to find the descriptive words that are written in the music and discuss the meaning of those words students. For example, in this piece, a few of these words include "con passione" ("with passion") during a murky passage in the middle of the piece, and "dolcissimo" ("very sweet") when the very first theme is reiterated, toward the end of the piece.

Next, identify phrases, to help shape the piece. Beach begins the piece with several two-bar phrases, then the phrases grow longer - "She keeps expanding and expanding." That said, "we have to be careful about taking time at the end of every phrase," as it is important to create longer lines.

To engage a student's imagination, Lewis said he also asks students to think about a crayon box with 120 colors - "What color is this opening?" He asked us the same question: one person thought it sounded "lavender," another thought it was "peachy, like a sunrise." Along the same lines, does it feel like light from outdoors, or light through a stained glass window?

Also, "sometimes we talk about characters," Lewis said. What kind of character comes to mind? This works for some people, but not others. Lewis told a story about asking Joseph Silverstein what color or character came to mind for a Bach Fugue, and he answered, "Brian, C sharp is C sharp," no characters, no color required for his interpretation!

Lewis told us a strategy for shifting: "When I shift down, the violin goes up," he said. "When I shift up, the violin goes up!"

Lewis also said that piano "is not the lowest dynamic. For me, 'p' stands for 'play' or 'project.'"

"If a composer has taken the time to write something in the music, we need to respect it," Lewis said. For example, if the composer has written "sempre ff," as happens near the end of the "Romance," then you have to keep the volume going. But there are other ways to highlight music: rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically."

"Berceuse" from Three Compositions, Op 40

The other piece, "Berceuse" is from Three Compositions, Op 40 - the other two compositions in that opus are "La captive" and "Mazurka."

BELOW: Violinist Elena Urioste performs "Berceuse" with pianist Tom Poster.

A "berceuse" is a kind of lullaby, and "this is a piece that is very accessible" - even more so than the "Romance." It is mostly in first position, with a straightforward scale that goes into higher positions toward the end - so it is playable for an intermediate student.

To warm up, a student can play a three-octave D major scale, as the piece is in D major - "make sure the scales they are playing match the keys of their pieces," Lewis said.

It is played with a mute on, "and that dampens the overtone series," Lewis said.

As in the "Romance," Lewis recommended having students find the descriptive words - this piece begins "dolce" ("sweet") and moves to "dolcissimo" (very sweet) and at the end, "morendo" (dying, or fading out).

In the middle of the piece, it is marked "espressivo," and Lewis described that as being "something you embrace," whereas something marked "appassionato" would be something you really believe in.

In all, here are two delightful pieces by a woman composer that are not as well-known as late-Romantic pieces by her male contemporaries, but can be easily incorporated into lessons for students who are intermediate and advanced. Lewis's approach involves finding multiple ways to get a student involved in his or her own learning - sharing the history, searching the score for descriptive words, coming up with personal ways to connect with the expressive nature of the music.

And after playing both pieces in my own practice sessions over the last month, I can say that beyond their use for students, these pieces are simply fun to play!

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