Saturday, October 25, 2008

Celebrating Amy Beach

Last June, when I was first starting to try working on the four Opus 15 Sketches for piano by Amy Beach, I mentioned that the San Francisco Public Library was planning an exhibit on Amy Beach and the time she spent living in San Francisco. That exhibit is now on display on the fourth floor of the Main Library building in the Steve Silver Beach Blanket Babylon (ask a local) Music Center, which houses the published Gesamtwerk editions of just about every major composer (along with a fair representative of minor ones) in the history of Western music. The title of the exhibit is "Amy Beach: Her Blissful Years in San Francisco." It would appear, on the basis of a post in the blog maintained by the San Francisco Public Library that the "blissful years" included 1878, when she visited her aunt and cousin as a ten-year-old, and the period between 1915, when she participated in the musical activities of the Panama Pacific Exposition (which commissioned the composition of her "Panama Hymn"), through 1916, the year of the premiere of her Opus 80 theme and variations, set for flute and string quartet and commissioned by the San Francisco Chamber Music Society.

The exhibit coincides with two major performance events. One, which I previously mentioned, is a performance of her piano concerto, which will be on the program of the first subscription concert by Symphony Parnassus and will feature Daniel Glover as soloist. The other will be a performance this coming Monday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music of her Opus 67 piano quintet in F sharp minor. This will be the second half of a recital program by pianist (and faculty member) William Wellborn, during which he will be joined by the Ives Quartet. Since I had described my own encounter with Beach's piano music in terms of its "post-Liszt feel," "almost in the spirit of Ferruccio Busoni," the first half of Wellborn's recital may be viewed as a gradus ad Parnassum of envelope-pushing composers leading up to Franz Liszt himself by way of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and Joseph Haydn's 1771 C minor sonata (Hoboken XVI/20). Liszt is then represented by the "Sonetto 104 del Petrarca," from the second of the Annés de Pèlerinage, and his "Concert Paraphrase" on the quartet from Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto.

I believe that, taken together, the repertoire of piano quartets and piano quintets tell us much about how chamber music emerged from the eighteenth century (particularly in the two piano quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) and grew prodigiously in the nineteenth, particularly through Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms (one of whose I once called a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra"), finally crossing into the twentieth century through not only Beach (1907) but also Edward Elgar (1919). As one can see at the Library exhibit, the Beach quintet was reputable enough to be included on a San Francisco Chamber Music Society program; and the strength of that work probably contributed to the subsequent commissioning of a new Beach composition. It is almost impossible that any of these events influenced Elgar, but he was still basically building on the same nineteenth-century trends that Beach had been following.

The Library exhibit is a very modest one, probably too much so. There is a considerable body of interesting work that Beach was doing in trying to document bird songs and then incorporating her notated versions in her music; and this deserves more depth than the Library could display (even if the results in no way resemble subsequent experiments along the same lines by Olivier Messiaen). In many ways the exhibit is more interesting for the feel of San Francisco during those "blissful years." Beach was living on the Fulton Street side of Alamo Square (as opposed to the Steiner Street side, which holds the row of "painted ladies," where the tourist buses stop every day to disgorge their respective loads of picture-takers); and it is nice to be reminded of just how much history there is in some of the houses I tend to walk by so casually. Nevertheless, the best way to honor Beach's memory is to perform her music; and, having taken my own crack at that task, I look forward to being on the listening side of things on Monday evening!

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