Amy Beach: Piano Quintet in f sharp minor, op.67

performed by the folks in this video:

second and third movements

Amy Mary Cheney Beach was born on September 5, 1867 in  New Hampshire. She showed a stunning talent for music from an extremely young age, but her musical career was marked, perhaps unsurprisingly for a 19th-2oth century female composer, with obstacles from a number of sources, but more surprising ones than you might expect.

She’s an American, and a female composer, and I’d go into some detail now, as I have in the previous articles, about her upbringing and history, but this time I’m not. I feel her story is a fascinating one, and I’m planning for something else for it, so hopefully stay tuned for that. She died on December 27, 1944.

I’ll admit that I was more keen on the idea of including Amy Beach in the blog and finding a piece of hers to feature than the reverse, hearing something really incredible or surprising or intriguing and deciding to feature it. There is a later trio, but I decided to stick with the earlier chamber work. My not having chosen it based on a serendipitous discovery is not to say that it’s not an enjoyable work, it’s just not one that found me before I found it. Some others did, but not this one.

The work dates from 1908, just before Beach’s husband, 24 years her senior, died, leaving her without restrictions of how much she could work and how often she could perform, not dissimilar to similar restrictions her mother placed on her. As a result, this is maybe not the best period from which to pluck a work to represent her career or output, but it’s a really warm, handsome piece. I’ll be using that word a lot.

The work is in three movements, nearing around half an hour in performance. The work begins with a slow, almost mysterious, rippling sort of introduction. It’s quite melancholy, but not sappy. The tempo changes and violin introduces the first theme of this movement, and it’s not sappy, or bitter, or solemn, but maybe nostalgic, emotional, but overall fragrant and expressive. This first movement plumbs the depths of not only this emotional content, but of the quintet itself. The music fluctuates between intimate, personal transparency, and full-bodied almost symphonic-like textures, quiet, tender expression out to large, bold sounds from the full ensemble.

It’s worth noting here that the ‘piano quintet’ or ‘piano trio’ or whatever doesn’t necessarily feature the piano as a solo instrument like a clarinet quintet would, at least not in this era. Ages ago, back in Haydn and Mozart’s day, the violin or cello in a trio would often just double the piano, but the players in a time like this are on pretty much equal footing, and we hear the piano playing as the foundation of this pyramid of musicians, not as a concerto for piano and string quartet.

The second movement is maybe the most outright example of what I feel this work to be overall. While the second movement doesn’t reach any overt climaxes like the first did, doesn’t explode into moments of unbridled elation, passion, or sorrow, it is nonetheless full of emotion, a kind of slow burn, not overt or overwhelming, but showing a very polished restraint in creating a strong, lyrical undercurrent, a movement of well-crafted balance and emotion.

The third movement is the most outwardly virtuosic and expressive and action-packed and intense of the work, exploding to life, sounding almost like a scherzo movement, in 6/8 with some pizzicato behind piano runs, but it soon cools down into a quieter passage like we found in the first movement, with a solo here and there from viola and violin. This might be the most engaging movement of the work, as if the embers from the first movement built in intensity, began to smolder in the second, and finally exploded to life in the third.

The entire piece has an initially not overwhelming lyricism or power, nothing like a Tchaikovskian Romanticism, but a Romanticism nonetheless. It was when I had a look at the score that I started recognizing this piece’s fragrance and depth, in the way that you can’t appreciate a good scotch if you shoot it. Little sips, some slower, focused observations, and it becomes very clear there is depth of flavor and great interest, to the point that it seems odd you didn’t notice it from the beginning.

What this piece doesn’t have is overt, empty excitement. There’s no scherzo for the point of a scherzo, no cheap thrills. Instead of fireworks and big booms, what we have is a focused intensity and development, a fragrant, handsome, crackling fire that pops and roars here and there, but bathes us in warmth and beauty.

In its handsomeness and special flavor of intensity, it reminds me of a mature Brahms. The fragrance isn’t of high, sweet-smelling flowers or perfumes that would give you a headache; rather, it’s bergamot, hardwoods, sandalwood oil, frankincense, that kind of almost musky, warm smell, if that makes ANY sense at all. It’s a rich, heady aroma, not dainty.

Perhaps easy to overlook for the less-than-engaged listener, Amy Beach’s first appearance on the blog, and apparently the first piano quintet on the blog as well, makes a strong argument for, not putting some Beach on in the background and half-listening while doing other things, but being ready to enjoy and digest handsome Romantic American music. I can’t say if this piece is indicative of her overall style or not, as it’s the only one of hers I’ve really spent any time with, but that may very soon change, so stay tuned. As I said above, I’m interested in featuring her and her work in another way, but it might take some time, so pardon the lack of information on the composer here. It’s the exact opposite of an oversight.

But there is more to come this week as there are a few weeks of exciting posts left in New November. (Also yes, this article posted late). See you soon.


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