Beach Symphony in E minor, Op. 32, ‘Gaelic’

performed by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

…[w]e of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by old English, Scotch or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors.

-Amy Beach

(cover image by Igor Goryachev)

We welcome Amy Beach back to the blog with what is unquestionably one of the greatest American symphonies ever written. We saw her almost a year ago for her piano quintet, a slightly later work, but today’s piece is the first of hers I’d heard, so I’m glad to be featuring her here in the American Series, especially as part of the Boston Six, of which she was famously a part.

As we saw with John Knowles Paine, the American symphonic tradition unsurprisingly began with European roots. It didn’t spring out of nothingness onto paper somewhere, and this influence is obviously strongest with those composers, like Paine, who studied in Europe. Beach also spent some time in Europe, but not until more than a decade after this piece, after her husband died.

Regardless, the spirit of European tradition, the historical (if not genetic) connection to England and Ireland is very much a reality, especially in Boston, so it may not come as a surprise that she uttered the above sentiment that opened this article. It was, apparently, a response to an association with Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony, from his time in America, drawing from influences (with no direct quotation) like Native American and African American music, pentatonic scales and the like. Beach therefore expressed her take on that same approach, drawing from what she perceived to be her own heritage. Later, though, she would make use of more local influences, with use of even Eskimo themes, says Wikipedia.

Regardless of what she took as inspiration, male or female, any of those other things we might focus on, Beach was at the time of this composition a mere 30 years old, but her career was in some ways just getting started. In that regard, it’s an impressive work. It also sticks to symphonic tradition, presenting a four-movement structure and taking about 40 minutes to perform.

The first movement begins with a low rumble, like an approaching wave or thunderstorm, from which the orchestra’s opening richly Romantic sounds emerge. The work instantly shows itself to possess great thrust, a solidly built thing, even before we know of its structure. The first swells of this symphony come to a peak with a triplet figure that drives home the force of the music, like the waves finally crashing on the shore.

But of course it isn’t all Sturm und Drang. The second subject lightens the mood a bit, with emphasis given to woodwinds and horn before the strings return with lush, rounded swells rather than crashing waves, and everything we’ve heard up to this point is put to exquisite use to create what must surely be one of the most compelling symphonic first movements there is.

The second movement is marked alla siciliana, with “Gaelic themes introduced in variation.” One can’t help but think of Dvorak and his ‘New World’ symphony when the oboe enters at the outset. Likenesses aside, Beach’s approach here is equally as touching, and perhaps even more convincing, than the transplant’s work, although it might be heresy to say that. It presents a soft introduction that leads to an exciting, lively second movement, really top notch. It’s the shortest movement of the work, but maybe the most obviously ‘Gaelic’ in nature.

It also leads to the longest movement of the piece. The third movement is marked lento con molto espressione. A tender violin solo takes the spotlight, showing Beach to be not just a good symphonic craftswoman, but capable of writing convincingly naked, intimate textures. The violin solo introduces material that carries on throughout the movement, a more somber, even sorrowful movement, with cello joining the violin before other small groups of instruments join in for a remarkably beautiful, broad, expressive movement. In some ways, it’s got the sweeping, emotional immediacy of film music, but without the cheap thrill of just a pretty tune. This movement is perfection, with masterful writing for solo instruments and a feel for orchestral sound.

The finale returns to the heft of the first movement, marked allegro di molto. It is the other bookend that frames the two more tranquil middle movements with installments of greater energy. That being said, after the introduction, Beach gives us a broader second subject, with beautiful chorale-like brass passages, an unabashedly Romantic work. It finishes with an uplifting, monumentally celebratory conclusion, a triumph of American symphonic music.

This is one of the few works I feel strongly could enter the upper echelon of works played in concert halls all around the world with astounding regularity; it would surely be a crowd pleaser. What an incredible piece of music this is.

The symphony is not ‘too’ anything. Perhaps for contemporary audiences it was too ‘masculine’ sounding from a young female’s pen, but I also think that had it been a more delicate, ‘feminine’ sounding work, she’d have been damned with that criticism too. It doesn’t need more or less of anything.

Words such as ‘American’ or ‘female’ aside, it’s an unqualified masterpiece, undeniably one of the greatest American symphonies ever composed. Like Mendelssohn’s Scottish, or Dvorak’s ninth, it evokes certain sounds and images rather than trying to communicate some specific programmatic idea. It’s music to let wash over you, to be swallowed by, enraptured in. Even if you don’t have any sentimental connection to America or Boston or Ireland, it is superbly written music, a quintessentially Romantic symphony, easily on par with Dvorak’s ‘American’ effort, maybe the first American masterpiece.

Now we’re seeing evidence of an American voice, something that hails proudly from the other side of the pond. There’s so much more to hear, and as we do, we’ll hear less and less of the European symphonic influence, but for now, what a truly remarkable piece this is! Stay tuned for more, and thanks for reading.

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