I first discovered Amy Beach’s music, and specifically her Ballad, Op. 6 quite by accident, but I vividly remember the occasion. It must have been late 2007 or early 2008, and I was a 4th year undergraduate student, about to enter a piano repertoire class (I can even picture the hallway I was waiting in). I had Maurice Hinson’s Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire in tow, for some reason, because it’s such a large volume, full of seemingly every known concert piece written for the piano at the time of its publication. And I was just flipping through it, opening to random pages to see what new works I could discover.
Perhaps it was coincidence that I opened to Amy Beach’s page (page 83, datedly, she is listed as “Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, the moniker she took to suit her husband). As I grabbed the book to reference the entry now, 10 years later, I randomly opened just one page past it; at some point, the spine must have been loosened in that one spot but fortuitously so, as I was intrigued by the entry:
Faure-like introduction leads to a larger Liszt-like section.
The years went by and I always to work on this piece. But during my masters, other points of focus, whether for technical study, or to fill gaps in my repertoire list of important composer’s I’d ignored to that time. Then of course through my DMA I was focused on contemporary music.
I began to look at it in the spring of 2016, solidifying it more or less that summer. After having no time for solo repertoire during the 2016-2017 year, I revisited it this summer and knew that I needed to not just perfect my playing of it, but find concert programs I could include it in. I’m looking forward to finally, 10 years after discovering the piece, performing it. It’s extra appropriate that I would get around to finishing the piece this year, just as the 150th anniversary of her birth rolls around (doubly so as my home and native land, Canada, also celebrates the same landmark).
I’m not sure why this piece has always stuck with me as a special, and unjustly neglected one. I don’t particularly agree with Hinson’s assessment of Faure-influences. The opening resembles Chopin-esque piano writing more than anyone else, and the harmonies are not so advanced to suggest a later composer. I understand the Liszt reference because it has several vertical textures towards the end, big orchestral chords and octaves.
But it’s not a referential piece. It can’t really be mistaken for Liszt or Chopin. It has a unique melodic expressiveness, and the virtuosic moments aren’t unnecessarily so. The music sings, the harmonies float forward, and there’s plenty of room for one’s own voice through rubato and phrasing.
I’m of course drawn to the piece for the same reasons I was drawn to contemporary music, which I expanded on in my last post. Namely, I’ve wanted to develop my artistic voice in the context of works without an established performing tradition. I’m still weary of working with commonly played pieces for fear that I will not think critically about my interpretation but rely on reproducing what I’ve heard others do in past performances and recordings. (I’ll write about this problem in a future post.) Amy Beach’s Ballad was especially exciting, more than most contemporary music, simply for its rather traditional, romantic approach. So few pieces this standard are played so rarely, I’ve always treasured it as ‘my little secret’.
But of course, I want more people to know it; it surprises me how few of her works are well known. I’ve heard some perform her shorter character pieces, and a few songs, but most else gets ignored. Her Piano Concerto, Op. 45 is an incredible work with lots of power and virtuosity, on par with any of the commonly played romantic piano concertos. Her songs take the expressive tradition of German lieder to the English language, without wordiness bogging down the lyricism or needlessly dense piano parts that you find amongst many English art song composers from her time (I’m thinking Roger Quilter style here). Plus, there’s some great chamber works and large solo piano works from later in her life.
Working on this piece has been encouraging to hear and see demonstrative proof of my growth as an artist. When I first looked at this score, I thought it was rather difficult. It’s not without its challenges, but the Ballad is manageable, technically. It does test the innate musicality and poetry of a performer, and I’ve been pleased to listen to recordings of myself with it and to hear the singing shapes that I’ve been aiming for. Even a few years ago, when I had the mechanical facility to play this piece, I still would have had difficulty doing the artistic things I wanted. I’m grateful that I never tainted this piece by working on it when I was younger, and now would have to undo bad habits and learned weaknesses.
This year I am focusing on as much traditional repertoire as I can…but music I’ve heard almost no one perform ever, attempting to bring as pure an ear to these pieces as I can. Theoretically, this will be the best space for me to solidify my own artistic voice, which in future years, I will be able to apply to all sorts of music—contemporary or standard, well known or obscure-without fear of being an imposter.
This last week I’ve teased a few clips of the Beach Ballad. Check them out in the videos below. Keep an eye out in the next few months as I will be sure to release an exclusive complete performance of the piece. Best to ‘like’ my Facebook page, and sign up for my mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it!