In the early 20th century two
women stood out as leaders of women composers, promoters of American music and
in particular American women composers.
These women were friends and colleagues
... Mrs. Amy Beach and Gena Branscombe.
Their intersecting lives left an indelible mark on American music and
today's women composers benefit from the paths these two laid down for
Mrs. Amy Beach was born Amy
Marcy Cheney in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867 and became Mrs. H.H.A. Beach in
1885 when at the age of 18 she married the famous physician, Henry Harris
Aubrey Beach. She was a child prodigy on
the piano making her concert debut at the age of 16 in Boston.
Imagine my surprise when I
first met Gena Tenney Phenix in 2000 and asked her if during her childhood had she
ever met Mrs. Beach? Her response was,
"Oh, you mean Aunt Amy? No, I do
not remember meeting her though I know she was in our home when we lived on
West 82nd Street." Aunt Amy? ...
this famous woman composer and performer was called Aunt Amy?
Little did I know that during
her lifetime as a mentor to women composers and performers, Mrs. Beach became
known as " Aunt Amy" for she was their principal role model, a
caretaker, pathfinder and advocate. Her "nieces" were members of the
Society of American Women Composers, National Federation of Music Clubs and the
National League of American Pen Women.
Gena Branscombe and Amy Beach
had personal lives that were quite dissimilar.
Gena was a mother with four daughters whose musical career was woven
into the fabric of her family life. She
composed while her husband took the girls to Central Park. Gena's husband, John Ferguson Tenney, was a
strong supporter of his wife's musical
profession. Within her career as
a pianist and composer, she became a conductor of choruses.
Amy Beach was a concert
pianist and composer. When she married
Dr. Beach, her husband insisted she not accept payment for her recitals and she
even curtailed her performing appearances.
She was encouraged to compose though no formal composition lessons were
taken. Upon her husband's death in 1910,
Mrs. Beach's career blossomed with travel to Europe and across the United
States concertizing and composing.
Professionally these two women
composers and performers were linked by their leadership roles and memberships
in the National League of American Pen Women, the Society of American Women
Composers, the National Federation of Music Clubs and their publisher, Mr.
Arthur P. Schmidt of Boston, MA. Their
friendship and musical goals grew out of these associations.
In the early 1920's both Mrs.
Beach and Gena became members of the National League of American Pen Women. A
Composers' Unit was organized and Mrs. Beach was elected chair. This was the first group of women composers
linked to a major organization in the United States. Women composers were considered second rate
musical citizens and their determination to move forward to change that image
is commendable. The NLAPW made it
possible for these women composers of the day to support one another and attend
performances of their works.
Among the other women
composers who joined the NLAPW were Pearl Curran, Mary Turner Salter, Lily
Strickland, Harriet Ware and Mary Howe.
Their compositions were performed at the League's meetings in late April
1924. The Music Unit later presented the
American Women Composers First Festival of Music at the Women's City Club of
Because of their active
involvement and leadership for the NLAPW and their individual talents, both Gena
and Amy were honored as outstanding members.
In 1929 the NLAPW awarded Miss
Branscombe their National Best Composition of the Year prize for her oratorio Pilgrims
of Destiny and in 1934 Mrs. Beach was presented with a medal for her work in music.
As an outgrowth of the NLAPW's
Composer Unit, Amy Beach, Gena and 18 other women founded the Society of American Women Composers. Mrs. Beach proclaimed "This Society may
come to mean much in the future of American music, if we go about the work in
the right way." In October 1925,
Mrs. Beach was elected President. Gena
succeeded her as President in 1928. Setting
high membership standards, new women composers were recommended based on their
personal and professional qualifications.
Once a majority approval was made by the Board, an invitation for
membership would be granted. Concerts
were presented at various venues in New York City including Chickering Hall and
Steinway Hall. The Society disbanded in
1932, yet during its seven short years of existence, the members' music was
heard and reviews in the papers kept them in the forefront of the music world.
The Daughters of the American Revolution figured into both Amy Beach and Gena's
professional lives. In 1927 the New
Netherlands chapter of the DAR purchased a place for Gena's name to be perpetually inscribed in the new
Constitution Hall’s Honor Roll in Washington, DC. Her oratorio Pilgrims of Destiny had
won her this most prestigious honor. Amy Beach was proposed for membership in 1926
by the Hillsborough, NH chapter.
What drew these two women even
closer was their publisher, Mr. Arthur Schmidt of Boston, MA. The
Library of Congress houses the entire Schmidt collection of letters, business
files and photographs. Letters from Gena
and Amy to their publisher are held in this collection. They mention one another frequently in their
correspondence to him. They requested
complimentary copies of their songs or choral pieces to be sent to the same
singer or conductor. One young conductor
of the time was a recipient of both women's choral works.....the young Robert
Shaw. To be published by Mr. Schmidt
was an honor and he took great pride in promoting women composers of the
Founded in 1898, the National Federation of Music Clubs was
and continues to be a leading organization in the promotion of musical and
cultural experiences in communities through sponsorship of concerts and
Mrs. Beach composed choral
works for the women's choruses of the NFMC.
Her piano concerts were sponsored by local chapters and she attended
meetings of those chapters. When at
these gatherings she mentored and guided young women composers and performers. She presented piano recitals on the national
level at NFMC annual conventions. Her
renown as a dedicated and loyal member is exemplified when NFMC choruses and
clubs changed their names to the Beach
Choral Society or the Beach Music Club. In
addition, Amy won awards for her music compositions.
Gena Branscombe was also an
active, dedicated member of the NFMC.
She conducted women's choruses for local chapters across the
country. Miss Branscombe was Chairman of
American Music for the New York State Federation of Music Clubs and eventually
a member of the Board on the state level.
Her leadership role was that of conductor, organizer and guest
speaker. The NFMC honored her by
sponsoring the first complete performance of her oratorio, Pilgrims of
Destiny in Plymouth, MA.
Memberships in clubs and being
the recipient of awards from those clubs does not a leader make. Yet, I believe that Mrs. Amy Beach and Miss
Gena Branscombe left their marks on each of the women's clubs of their day. By their dedication to the promotion of
American women composers, they changed the course of music history and its
women. They attended meetings, upheld
their high musical standards, created performance opportunities for themselves
and fellow members. They sought out
women on the local level to sing in choruses, play music for one another at
club meetings and encouraged those local members to be active in their own
communities. They were leaders by
example and their own music.
In their day, women composers'
music was heard at women's clubs and rarely on the main stages of American
performance spaces. Within their world,
they strove to make a better place for women composers and performers. In my opinion, their work and dedication has
made a difference for us all.