Amy Beach: Poetry and the Piano
Poetry was a major theme in the music of American composer Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944). Her 117 art songs explore a huge range of poets, from Robert Browning to Robert Burns. Amy Beach’s love of poetry also appears in a large catalogue of choral compositions, with settings of poets like Oliver Wendell Holmes, in The Chambered Nautilus, Op. 66, and Francis of Assisi, in The Canticle of the Sun, Op. 123.
Beach’s immersion in poetry went beyond texted music. Poetry also influenced music for the instrument Beach played the most: the piano. In honor of National Poetry Month, we present a selection of piano works by Amy Beach, all inspired by poetry. Beach inscribed the scores of the first six selections with poetic quotations, which we’ve reproduced here for you. In the last two selections, the titles themselves are quotations from one of humanity’s oldest surviving books of poetry, the Book of Psalms.
Hermit Thrush, Op. 92
Amy Beach’s two-part Op. 92, Hermit Thrush, takes inspiration both from poetry and from nature. Beach selected two poems, reflecting contrasting moods, to head her two pieces. The first piece, “Hermit Thrush at Eve,” features generous use of the piano’s bass register, and blurry pedaled chords, to suggest the “hush” of John Vance Cheney’s poem, “The Hermit Thrush.” The second piece, “Hermit Thrush at Morn,” places the thrush’s “rapture” within a solemn waltz that preserves wonder of John Clare’s poem, “The Thrush’s Nest.” Beach’s slow waltz is interspersed with bursts of virtuosic joy.
In the scores of both pieces, Beach explains that her music reproduces the song of actual thrushes she heard at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in New Hampshire where she spent many happy summers composing.
“These bird-calls are exact notations of hermit-thrush songs, in the original keys but an octave lower, obtained at MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire.” (Amy Beach, Hermit Thrush, Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1922, 3, 43.)
“A Hermit Thrush at Eve,” Op. 92, No. 1 by Amy Beach, performed by pianist Lisa Yui
“A Hermit Thrush at Morn,” Op. 92, No. 2, performed by pianist Cecile Licad
Four Sketches, Op. 15
Amy Beach’s Four Sketches, Op. 15, was published in 1892. Each piece in the set is headed by a quotation from a French poet: two from Alphonse de Lamartine, and two from Victor Hugo. An element of the natural world is here as well: three of the four quotations use nature images.
The first piece, “In Autumn,” is a dancelike work in a minor mode, suggesting the nostalgia and melancholy of the fall season. The second piece, “Phantoms,” takes its name from the title of the poem Beach quotes. The quotation clarifies the ghostly reference with a further metaphor about the fleeting life of flowers. The music is a delicate waltz with, again, a nostalgic tone. Its ending is sudden, almost abrupt, further expressing the idea of ephemerality.
The third piece, “Dreaming,” arises from the depths of the piano with a soft rocking figure. One can easily imagine its lyrical melody as “speaking from the depths of a dream,” as its poetic quotation describes.
Beach rounds out the set with the virtuosic “Fire-Flies.” Its accompanying quotation returns to the theme of impermanence. A firefly lives only for a season, but shines brightly while doing so. Similarly, this piece packs a lot of brilliance into its short duration.
“In Autumn,” Op. 15, No. 1, performed by pianist Shizue Sano
“Phantoms,” Op. 15, No. 2, performed by pianist Lara Downes
Dreaming, Op. 15, Op. 3
“Tu me parles du fond d’un rêve”
“You speak to me from the depths of a dream”
From A celle qui est voilée by Victor Hugo
Fire-Flies, Op. 15, No. 4
“Naître avec le printemps, mourir avec les roses”
“To be born with the spring, to die with the roses”
From Le papillon by Alphonse de Lamartine
“Fire-Flies,” Op. 15, No. 4, performed by pianist Joel Fan
Out of the Depths, Op. 130 (1932)
By the Still Waters, Op. 114 (1925)
These are two independent piano works by Beach, each with a title from the Book of Psalms in the King James Version of the Bible. They are late works in Beach’s catalogue, dating from the 1920s and early 30s; Beach lived until 1944. Both pieces are more harmonically adventurous than her thoroughly Romantic Four Sketches.
Out of the Depths opens and closes with a dramatic dialogue between the lowest and middle registers of the piano. Its restless middle passages are extremely chromatic, refusing to settle in one key. The effect is disorienting, reflecting the desperation in the psalm reference.
In contrast, By the Still Waters uses repetition to ground the listener. Its gentle arpeggiated ostinato helps create a feeling of stillness. The work is almost Impressionistic in its use of seventh chords and fragmented melodies, and recalls the serenity of some of Debussy’s piano works, like his Rêverie.
Out of the Depths, Op. 130
“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee…”
From the Book of Psalms (Psalm 130)
Out of the Depths, Op. 130, performed by pianist Kirsten Johnson
By the Still Waters, Op. 114
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside the still waters,
He restoreth my soul … ”
From the Book of Psalms (Psalm 23)
By the Still Waters, Op. 114, performed by pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason
You can also enjoy these selections in our Spotify Playlist: Amy Beach: Poetry and the Piano.