Amy Beach reserves a special place in history as one of the first successful female composers of large-scale music. Her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony of 1896 was the first symphony to be composed and published by an American woman, and as a pianist she was respected throughout North America and Europe. Born in New Hampshire in 1867, Beach showed talent from a young age as a singer, composing her first pieces for piano at the age of four over summer in the absence of a piano, performing them when she returned home. She made her professional debut at the age of sixteen, performing in a promenade concert at Boston’s Music Hall.
Despite her talent, Beach struggled throughout her life with the obligations of being a woman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After her marriage at the age of 18, her opportunities to perform in public were severely limited, and she was denied access to formal composition tuition. Even with these setbacks, however, she was accepted by the musical spheres of Boston at the time, with fellow composer Gerorge Chadwick writing to Beach after the premiere of her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony that ‘I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine work by any of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you [like it] or not – one of the boys.’ After becoming widowed in 1910, Beach was able to use her position to nurture a generation of young musicians, serving as President of the Board of Councillors of the New England Conservatory of Music and helping found a number of musical institutions for children.