This year marks the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the country's important, though lesser known, composers: Amy Marcy Cheney Beach. Born in 1867 in New Hampshire, she is regarded as the first significant American female composer. She is mostly known for her instrumental music and her secular art songs in the romantic style of the late 19th century. But Beach also composed sacred choral compositions.
While many recordings of Beach's secular music exist, as far as I know there is only one CD devoted entirely to her religious music: Sacred Music of Amy Beach (Music & Arts Programs of America Inc., www.musicandarts.com; 510-524-4583). The performers are the Choral Society of Southern California and the Chancel Choir of Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. The CD also features a composition by the album's conductor, Nick Strimple.
First on the CD is Beach's "Service in A, Op. 63" for chorus, soloists and organ. This powerful work has been compared in significance to such 20th century American masterpieces as Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" and Morten Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna." The CD also includes several shorter sacred songs for voice and organ or piano.
Beach's religious music also is represented on another very worthwhile CD: Choral Music of Amy Beach and Randall Thompson (ASV Living Era, www.asv.co.uk). Here the performance is by the Harvard University Choir, Cambridge, Mass. There are selections from the "Service in A," as well as shorter works.
Beach led a fascinating life. Before becoming a composer, she was a piano prodigy, making her concert debut at age 16 and soon playing with the Boston Symphony. She toured widely as a soloist.
Interestingly, Beach's skills as a composer developed mostly after she left the concert stage for marriage. As a homemaker, she spent any spare time teaching herself composition. After her husband's death she returned to performing, but she is most valued today for her compositions.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers