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Amy Beach the Synesthete: Nature, Color, and Compositional Identity

Dr. Sabrina Clarke, West Chester University

Photo courtesy Amy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) Papers, 1835-1956, MC 51, Special Collections and Archives Division, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used with permission.


As a virtuosic pianist and a member of the Second New England School—alongside composers George Whitefield Chadwick, Horatio Parker, Edward MacDowell and others—American composer Amy Beach holds a unique place in history. The details of her life bear similarities to those of other female composers. Like Cecile Chaminade, Beach was held back from pursuing formal musical education. Like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Beach experienced parental disapproval of a career in music and pressure to fulfill the domestic expectations of marriage and motherhood. Like Clara Schumann, Beach’s career involved a “second act” and a relaunch of professional performance after the death of her husband left her a young widow. But Beach’s prolific career, ambition, self-awareness, and deft approach to large-scale works set her apart, presenting her as a symbol not only of a woman as successful composer, but of American ingenuity. In a time when composers were expected to be white, male, and European-trained in order to prosper in the field of music, Beach created her own path to professional success. Exemplary is a 1916 biographical entry for Beach, which declares that “…in our land of the free her thoughts and feelings, her dearest and most powerful impulses are being permitted to have their full and free play,” and that “…she may justly be regarded as an epoch-maker who has broken through old boundaries and presented an enrichment and extension of woman’s sphere in art such as has not been surpassed or even equaled by any contemporary of her sex.”[1]

Amy Beach’s legacy is not only that of a successful woman composer, but of a resourceful and intrepid artist whose achievements are symbolic of the quintessential American dream.

Upbringing and Early Life

Born in 1867 in a comfortable New Hampshire household, Amy Marcy Cheney’s childhood was characterized by the frequent clash of prodigious musical talent and prescribed gender roles. Amy’s mother, Clara Cheney—who taught her both piano and general studies until she was ten—restricted her daughter’s access to music in an effort to nurture a girl appropriately trained in domestic duties and prepared to be a suitable wife. Although Amy showed a natural talent for music from the time she was little more than a toddler, and would beg to play the piano, her mother would not teach her until she was six years old. As Amy would later recall,

I had begun to coax to play on the piano before I could reach up and touch the ivory keys. My mother …. Believed rather in what Gerald Stanley Lee calls the “top bureau-drawer principle”—the principle of withholding. I was not allowed to climb up on her lap, or on the music stool. I could only hear music, think music.[2]

As Block describes in the biography Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian, when Amy was finally allowed to play, her mother would withhold music as a disciplinary measure, or would play something in the minor mode as a punishment. Clara Cheney’s intentions stemmed from her Calvinist beliefs as well as the realities of nineteenth-century gender roles; if Amy were to focus on her talents and be more concerned with music than with her husband and family, she would not only demonstrate the sin of vanity, but would fail at the expectations of upper-class womanhood within her time.[3]

Photo courtesy Amy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) Papers, 1835-1956, MC 51, Special Collections and Archives Division, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used with permission.


As Amy grew older, her talent was increasingly evident in her absolute pitch, growing compositional abilities, technical facility at the piano, and outstanding ear. At age seven she played a few recitals to great acclaim, and was approached by more than one concert manager interested in signing her to a performance contract. Clara declined these offers and announced that her daughter would play no more recitals. When Amy’s talent demanded a more proficient teacher, Clara soon sought out the best German-trained pianists in Boston, where the family had moved in 1875. Many recommended Amy be sent to Europe to study at a conservatory, but under her parents’ advice Amy stayed in Boston to study privately. She began to study at Professor William L. Whittemore’s private day school on Beacon Hill, and found herself drawn to natural science. Her performances, though limited to drawing rooms and social engagements, furthered her reputation as a gifted pianist. And most of what she knew about composing, she taught herself.

I had one year’s instruction in harmony and all the rest – fugue, double fugue, counterpoint and orchestration – I taught myself, studying through by myself many text books. It was very hard work. After I had gone through all the text books I could find, I studied – again by myself – the scores of symphonies and overtures. I memorized fugues and similar works, until I could write them from memory, writing each ‘voice,’ or part, on its own separate staff. Then I copied and memorized whole scores of symphonies in the same way, until I absolutely knew just how they were ‘made.’[4]

Photo courtesy Amy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) Papers, 1835-1956, MC 51, Special Collections and Archives Division, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used with permission.


When she was sixteen, Amy was finally permitted to make her formal debut as a concert pianist, which was highly praised. “Life was beginning,” she would later recall, remembering how the isolated world of her youth was finally being overcome. But domestic duties still lay before her. Amy married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach—a widower twenty-five years her senior—in 1885, when she was eighteen years old.

Photo courtesy Amy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) Papers, 1835-1956, MC 51, Special Collections and Archives Division, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used with permission.


Amy began to go by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, a moniker she would use for the rest of her life. As a new wife she agreed to curtail her piano performance career, and to refrain from teaching. Her mother and husband both agreed that Amy should adhere to the gender roles of the time and focus instead on composing, which allowed her to remain within the domestic sphere.

Dr. Beach was ‘old-fashioned’ and believed that the husband should support his wife. But he did not want me to drop my music, in fact, urged me to keep on, with the stipulation that any fees I received should go to charity. So hospitals, charities, institutions and similar organizations all were the recipients. I was happy and Dr. Beach was content.[5]

Despite these “old-fashioned” beliefs, Henry Beach was a supportive husband, well aware of Amy’s talent and sensitive to the barriers facing a woman composer.

It was he more than any one else who encouraged my interest upon the field of musical composition in the larger forms. It was pioneer work, at least in this country, for a woman to do, and I was fearful that I had not the skill to carry it on, but his constant assurance that I could do the work, and keen criticism whenever it seemed to be weak in spots, gave me the courage to go on.[6]

Nevertheless, as Block and others have illustrated, the control exerted by both Amy’s husband and mother likely had tremendous personal impact.

One can only wonder how Amy Cheney felt about marrying a man slightly older than her father. Still in her teens and without ever having left her mother’s careful oversight, she went typically from her parents’ control to that of her husband. It is clear that she never had autonomy….As a male in a patriarchal society and a physician who typically exercised enormous control over his female patients, as a man who had built a lustrous career out of his own talent and ambition, and as one who arrogated to himself the role of artistic adviser and critic, Henry Beach had considerable authority over his wife.[7]

After her husband and mother died in 1910 and 1911, respectively, Amy travelled to Europe for the first time. Free at last to make her own decisions, her intentions were to reestablish herself as a pianist and to win favor in Europe for her compositions. Although grief overshadowed her first year in Europe, she gradually returned to performing and touring, living for a time in Germany. The outbreak of World War One necessitated her return to the United States in 1914. But in her three years abroad, Amy Beach had achieved a new level of professional and personal autonomy that profoundly impacted her career. “Fresh from Europe and in her forty-seventh year, Beach was plainly delighted with her German triumphs and her American prospects,” Block writes, and Beach “looked forward to a new life in the United States as a traveling composer and pianist.”[8]

Life as a Woman Composer

Beach persevered at a time when being a successful female composer meant approaching the masculine ideal, rather than being judged for one’s work alone. For instance, writing to Beach after the premiere of her Gaelic Symphony, George Whitefield Chadwick famously quipped that she was now “one of the boys,” suggesting the equivalence of excellence and masculinity.[9] The message was implicit that women were only successful if their work was divorced from their femininity; male composers bore the privilege of their gender as a strength, while womanhood was considered not just a weakness, but something that must be shed in order to truly succeed.

Among the many barriers to woman composers were the abundant stereotypes related to femininity, specifically those related to the biological unsuitability of women for various careers. Women were deemed the emotional sex while men were intellectual, and this dichotomy was used to exclude women from both educational and professional opportunities. For instance, in his 1911 essay “Woman as a Composer,” Hunter College music professor Henry T. Fleck declares that women are incapable of independent creative musical thought, and can merely imitate or emulate men. “Not a single great work, even for the piano, to say nothing of an opera, an oratorio, and above all a symphony, can be traced to a feminine pen,” he writes, and “woman as a creative musician can hardly be said to exist.”[10] To support this theory he reiterates that composing is mainly an intellectual process, and that woman’s emotional nature precludes her from successfully writing music:

…the function of the composer is purely constructive, since it is from the organ of pure contemplation, and not the emotional but the imaginative faculty, that the truly beautiful in music flows. This in a measure explains why women, who are by nature highly emotional beings, have achieved nothing as composers.[11]

In a paper delivered to the Royal Musical Association in 1920, J. Swinburne uses pseudoscience (namely myths on the structural inferiority of women’s brains) to explain that women are not only incapable of contributing to the field of music, but have damaged the future of music through their participation. He divides intellect into the categories of Receptive (mainly listening/observing/memory) and Productive (more action-based, problem-solving, and creative), and notes that men’s intellect may be both Receptive and Productive but women are only ever Receptive. He states that is this limitation that prevents women from creating new music, and forces them to be imitators at best.[12]

Of course, by the early twentieth century many male academics and professionals outspokenly rebuffed misrepresentations and misconceptions about female intelligence and creativity. For instance, Ernest Newman’s 1910 essay “Women and Music” admonishes those who would dismiss women based on their intelligence or biological inferiority to men. He rightly blames the exclusion of women from educational, economic, and professional opportunities for their underrepresentation as composers. “All things considered, then,” he writes, “the wonder is not that women should have produced so few good composers, but that they should have produced any, hampered as they have been in their musical education, in the means of supporting themselves during their early years, and in gaining a public hearing.” He goes on to surmise that “until women composers have had the opportunity of working for a few generations under the same social and economic conditions as men composers, and have then failed to produce a work of unmistakable genius, it is surely the most superficial dogmatism to say that they have no creative gift merely because they are women.”[13]

But damaging stereotypes about women were still very much in operation during the majority of Amy Beach’s career, and had a bearing on how her work was received by critics. The idea that the gender of the composer could somehow impart a distinct femininity or womanliness to the work is evident in reviews of the time. This feminine quality was not necessarily deemed negative—it was, in fact, often lauded, as in the quotation below—but this phenomenon and the gendering of music according to the composer’s gender involves the transmission of problematic gender stereotypes.

When Mr. George Whitfield Chadwick first heard Mrs. Beach’s symphony, “Gaelic” he is said to have exclaimed: “Why was not I born a woman?” It was the delicacy of thought and finish in her musical expression that had struck him, an expression of true womanliness, absolute in its sincerity. The high intelligence and grasp of treatment on the technical side are just as pronounced.[14]

Although this quotation seems to present the Gaelic Symphony favorably, it implicitly suggests several problematic ideas, including the gendering of intellect and emotion on masculine and feminine lines, respectively; that the gender of the composer inherently imparts a particular quality to the music; the idea of “true womanliness” and the idealization of femininity; and the practice of measuring a woman’s success in comparison to a man’s. Although much of Beach’s work was met favorably as her career progressed, even positive reviews reveal similarly implicit gendering and biases.  For instance, in reviewing the Gaelic Symphony, Philip Hale wrote in the Boston Journal that:

I admit that occasionally she is boisterous, but the boisterousness is healthy, not merely vulgar. The only trace of woman that I find in this symphony is this same boisterousness.[15]

More overtly sexist is a Boston Globe review of the Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, in which the shortcomings of Beach’s orchestration techniques are categorized as a defect of womankind. As is the case with “nearly all her sex,” the review opines, Beach “lacked the power of coping with an orchestra like the Boston Symphony, especially where so many fortissimo passages occur…”[16] Regardless of any flaws in her orchestration, the association of masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness reinforces the idea that composing is a masculine domain, and the woman composer an oxymoron. Fortunately, Beach seems to have been unaffected by these ideas. Looking back on her career just before her death in 1944, she notes “My work has always been judged from the beginning by work as such, not according to sex.”[17]

Nature and Synesthesia: Examples for Analysis

Throughout her life, Amy Beach was drawn to nature as a source of inspiration. Imagery of nature, whether in the form of evocative titles, poetic incipits, or transcribed birdsong, frequently appears in her work. Nature was also an essential part of her creative process. She loved to compose outdoors, and had annual residencies at the MacDowell Colony from 1921 to 1941. Using nature as source material was common for female composers, artists, and authors of the time, who were often operating within the confines of their homes and gardens and drew on those settings for inspiration. Beach’s natural imagery was amplified by a distinctive characteristic of her musical persona: her synesthesia. From when she was a young girl, Beach “heard” certain keys as different colors. These associations were consistent throughout her lifetime. Her synesthetic keys are overwhelmingly major, and the two minor keys she specified both share the same color: black. The darkness associated with the minor mode could be taken as an extension of her childhood aversion to minor keys (which, as noted above, were used by her mother for punishment).

Photo courtesy Amy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) Papers, 1835-1956, MC 51, Special Collections and Archives Division, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used with permission.


Photo courtesy Amy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) Papers, 1835-1956, MC 51, Special Collections and Archives Division, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used with permission.


Table 1: Amy Beach’s Color-key Associations[18]

Key Color
C Major White
E Major Yellow
G Major Red
A Major Green
A-flat Major Blue
D-flat Major Violet
E-flat Major Pink
G-sharp minor Black
F-sharp minor Black


My previous research has demonstrated how issues of gender and female agency converge with underlying harmonic goals and corresponding color-key relationships in several of Beach’s piano works, including From Grandmother’s Garden, Opus 97 (1922) and Eskimos, Opus 64 (1907).[19]  For this discussion, I will examine manifestations of synesthesia in several works that contain overt references to nature—mainly birds and other creatures, the weather, the seasons, the sky, and the landscape. I will also present examples of how these associative characteristics relate to these evocations of nature, and how they may impact the narrative of each work. We will look at exemplary moments in pieces from throughout Beach’s career: Four SketchesOpus 15, for piano (1892); Summer DreamsOpus 47, for piano duet (1901); Panama Hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name), Opus 74, for SATB chorus and piano or orchestra (1905); Three Piano Pieces, Opus 128 (1932); By the Still Waters, Opus 114, for piano (1932); and Canticle of the Sun, Opus 123, for SATB chorus and orchestra (1925) .

Beach’s piano duet for four hands, Summer Dreams, has very evocative movement titles that suggest specific nature-related imagery: “The Brownies”; “Robin Redbreast”; “Twilight”; “Katy-dids”; “Elfin Tarantelle”; and “Good Night.” Each movement also bears a poetic incipit that helps set the scene by detailing specific images or ideas. The second movement, Robin Redbreast, is in G major, Beach’s red key, implicitly conveying the color of the robin. From the time she was a small child, Beach was interested in transcribing birdsong, and “Robin Redbreast” is built around musical transcription of the robin’s calls, chirps, and song. The triplet motive and acciaccatura figures are two distinct robin sounds.

Video: Robin Redbreast

Figure 1: Robin Redbreast, Primo part, mm. 1 – 4


By comparing the following audio recordings of birdsong to the two motives in Figure 1, we can observe how Beach incorporated two exact transcriptions of robin birdsong for the melodic content of the movement. The first audio recording captures the familiar “caroling” figure in robin birdsong, a sound which closely resembles the triplet figure in Figure 1. Beach describes this as a waltz theme, noting how the birds would sing “in perfect waltz rhythm, with strong accents and a beautiful, rich quality of voice.”[20] By contrast, the “whinnying” call in measures 37-39 is less lyrical and more agitated and abrupt (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Robin Redbreast, mm. 37 – 39

Audio: robin “whinnying” sound – Gregory F. Budney, Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Used with permission


Audio: robin “caroling sound” – Wilbur L. Hershberger, Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Used with permission


The poetic lines associated with this movement, written by Charles H. Lüders, associate the robins’ song with “heart-bells.” Beach’s use of the piano high register, especially in connection to the grace-note motive, serves the dual purpose of illustrating both the warble of the birds and this bell imagery.

In country lanes the robins sing

Clear-throated, joyous, swift of wing,

From misty dawn to dewy eve

(Though cares of nesting vex and grieve)

Their little heart-bells ring and ring.[21]

For Robin Redbreast, Beach creates a sort of conceptual Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) in which visual, auditory, narrative, harmonic, and melodic elements converge and interact as symbolically charged stimuli. While we could appreciate the work without close analysis, the integration of the musical and natural worlds through details and nuance demonstrates Beach’s unique creative perspective in a profound way.

Another prominent color association is in the third movement, “Twilight,” set in Beach’s blue key of A-flat major. The poetic incipit, written by Beach herself, is as follows:

The birds have hushed themselves to rest

And night comes fast, to drop her pall

Till morn brings life to all.

Video: Twilight

The blue key helps demonstrate the evening giving way to night. Melodic nuances also depict the birds dropping off to sleep. Specifically, the recurring use of a sighing motive (often expressed as a suspension figure) sharply contrasts with the active birdcall of the previous movement, and illustrates the lull of nightfall. The most common expression of this figure is a dissonant downbeat prepared by common tone (sometimes tied over the barline), and resolved down by step. The opening passage of Twilight features this sighing motive on the downbeats of measures 2, 4, 6, and 7 (Figures 3a and 3b). This movement is only 40 measures long, but contains numerous iterations of this motive in both the Primo and Secondo parts (Table 2). The use of a plagal cadence to conclude the movement further conveys this sighing idea; the tonic pedal in the primo part and the conjunct voice leading of the final three measures amplify the imagery of peaceful slumber (Figure 4).

Table 2: Examples of Sighing Motive in Twilight Opus 47 No. 3

Primo Secondo Harmony
Measure 2 4-3 sus V7
4 4-3 sus (LH doubles) 6-5 APT I
6 6-5 sus V7/vi
7 7-6 sus Chromatic APT resolves upwards ii6
10 4-3 sus I6
12 6-5 sus vii°7/ii
19 7-6 sus vii°4-3/vi
21 6-5 sus vi
23 3-2 sus V4-2/iii
24 3-2 sus V4-2/ii
25 4-3 sus V7/vi
26 4-3 sus I6
29 6-5 sus vii°7/ii
39 altered/cadential IV (iiø6-5)
Figure 3a: Twilight, Primo part, mm. 1 – 7
Figure 3b: Twilight, Primo and Secondo parts, measures 1 – 2
Figure 4: Twilight, Primo and Secondo parts, mm. 38 – 40


Other synesthetic associations in Summer Dreams are even more nuanced. The ternary form of the fifth movement, “Elfin Tarentelle,” involves a harmonic shift from A minor to its parallel major, and back again. This framework helps convey the accompanying Shakespearean incipit, “Fairies, black, gray, green, and white,/You moonshine revelers, and shades of night.” The use of A minor in the outer sections of “Elfin Tarentelle” helps to convey blackness and night, not only in its minor mode character (recall that both her minor mode key associations were black) but in its opposition to the relative major, her white key of C. By extension, brief tonicizations of C major in the movement hint at white fairies and moonlight revelry. Gray and shades of night are suggested through the relationship of black and white key associations (black + white = gray). The use of A major in the contrasting middle section is an overt connection to the color green, and the juxtaposition of A major and minor overall further suggests layers of both color and brightness. Finally, the frequent use of the Neapolitan (flat-2) chord—typically interpreted as a symbol of death or loss in theories of musical hermeneutics—adds an additional element of darkness. Table 3 summarizes how Beach’s harmonic choices in “Elfin Tarentelle” relate to the Shakespeare quotation.

Video: Elfin Tarentelle

Table 3: Harmonies and Color Associations in Elfin Tarentelle

Black Gray/Shades of Night Green White/Moonshine revelers
Use of minor key (A minor) Juxtaposition of A minor and C major: black + white = gray A major Tonicization of C major
Frequent use of Neapolitan (B-flat) chord


The final movement, “Good Night” begins and ends in C major, Beach’s white key, with brief excursions to A-flat major in measures 17 – 20 and 29 – 32. The juxtaposition of white and blue keys illustrates imagery in the text incipit that accompanies this movement:

Goodnight! The crimson scented rose

Droops low her pretty head,

And the little grasses long ago

Their evening prayers have said.

Night’s starry eyes are blinking

At the moonbeams silvery light,

While the lily hides her golden heart

And whispers soft, – “Goodnight.”[22]

This text, an excerpt of a poem by Beach’s friend Agnes Lockhart Hughes, emphasizes the juxtaposition of darkness and light in its reference to the moon, stars, and moonbeams. The use of C major seems to suggest the silvery moonbeams and night’s starry eyes, and the interplay of the blue and white keys could be interpreted as a depiction of the night sky.

Video: Good night

Structurally, the interpolation of A-flat major involves a structural process of development of a repeated phrase found in the A section. This repeated six-measure phrase can be further divided into three two-measure segments based on three distinct ideas. The first segment (mm. 1 – 2) involves a rising, arpeggiated pattern built on tonic and predominant-function chords; the second (mm. 3 – 4) is a repeated one-measure tonic expansion (V4-3 – I), and the third (mm. 5 – 6) is more lyrical and involves a drive to a cadence on the dominant.

A transitional passage related to the second and third phrase segments follows in measures 13 – 16. The key of D minor is tonicized before A-flat major is established, introducing

the A’ (A prime) section. Here the repeated phrase from the A section is reworked. The first phrase segment appears in the key of A-flat; the second segment is also in A-flat but voiced differently (stated clearly in the secondo part but now embellished in the primo part); and the final segment snaps back into C major. Perhaps to account for this harmonic shift, the end of the phrase is extended by two measures. The subsequent repetition of both the transition and the reworked phrase completes the building out of the initial repeated phrase of section A: what was initially a compact, repeated phrase has now grown into a more elaborate structure in which repetition of the phrase is achieved in a large-scale way (Figure 7).

Figure 6: Good Night, Primo part, mm. 15 – 24


Measures 36 – 43 constitute a coda that reiterates the key of C major. The structural reiteration of C major, especially in its abrupt usurpation of A-flat major in the A’ section, is not only a triumph of tonality, but could be seen to represent the idea of light over darkness.

Figure 7: Structure of “Good Night”


Beach uses her blue key to different effect in her piano piece By the Still Waters. Here, the association between the key of A-flat and the idea of peaceful, blue water is overt. However, the impressionist nature of the piece and the pentatonic pitch content of the melody obscure this connection. Figure 8 shows the pentatonic content of the melody in the first ten measures. The pitch A-flat has centricity, but its tonic function is jeopardized by the frequent interpolation of the submediant scale degree (the relative minor tonic, F). The final sonority (Figure 9) reiterates this harmonic ambiguity. While the association of still waters and Beach’s blue key is suggested, this association is not as overt as in other works. As Beach became more harmonically adventurous in her later works, color key associations in turn become more sophisticated and nuanced. In By the Still Waters, The lack of conventional chord progressions, as well as coloristic harmonies and the absence of traditional cadences, collectively obfuscate the blue key from seeming blasé.

Audio: By the Still Waters

Figure 8: Pentatonic melodic content in mm. 1 – 10

Figure 9: By the Still Waters, m. 52 (final sonority)


Similarly, Beach’s Three Piano Pieces Opus 128 submerge synesthetic associations beneath the coloristic harmonies and dissonance of a modernist aesthetic. The first movement, Scherzino (“A Peterborough Chipmunk”), is loosely in G major, Beach’s red key. It is, of course, easy to associate the color red with the typical North American chipmunk. However, vibrant patterns of coloristic harmonies, tonicizations, extended chords, and nonfunctional progressions obscure G major as a tonal center. Instead of a home “key,” we can observe more of a central sonority, namely a tonic thirteenth chord (add6). The avoidance of a concrete tonal center obfuscates the color association of G, while (as in By the Still Waters) effectively juxtaposing the major mode and its relative minor, E. This results in a sophistication and nuance of harmonic and melodic content, as well as of synesthetic associations.

Audio: Scherzino – A Peterborough Chipmunk

Figure 10: Centric sonority of Scherzino, voicing in m. 3


Along these same lines, the second movement, “Young Birches,” juxtaposes F-sharp minor, Beach’s black key, with its relative major, A (green).  The movement begins with quintal (fifth) and quartal (fourth) harmonies moving in parallel motion, launching a murmuring motive that will press on unabated until the end (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Murmuring pattern in Young Birches

Audio: Birches

The tonal center of the first two measures is unclear; while we begin with an open fifth on the tonic and dominant of the major mode (A and E), the parallel voice-leading and quartal stacks deny us a true sense of security in A major. Moreover, when the primary melody begins soon after (Figure 12), it quickly outlines an F-sharp minor triad; yet, the continuing murmur pattern, with the metrically accented fifth on A and E, prevents us from fully accepting the minor key.

Figure 12: Primary theme, Young Birches


It is not until the appearance of the E-sharp leading-tone in measure 15 that we can reasonably identify F-sharp as the tonal center. Even then, and for some time afterwards, the continued emphasis on the A and E open fifth complicates the situation. This ambiguity continues until the very end. The final chord (Figure 13), an F-sharp minor seventh, continues to juxtapose the major and minor modes. The placement of the open fifth (A and E) in the highest sounding range not only reiterates the importance of the relative major, but it continues to highlight the opposition of major and minor, darkness and light, and black and green.

Figure 13: Final chord, Birches


The contextual clash of green and black keys—A major and F-sharp minor—is also prominent in Beach’s earlier work Four Sketches (1892). My research on nature imagery and synesthetic key associations in Four Sketches has demonstrated the symbolism of these specific tonal centers on structural and narrative levels. As in Summer Dreams, each movement of Four Sketches features an accompanying poetic incipit. These incipits are preoccupied with ideas of mortality, change, and loss that are often associated with the fall season; the bridge between summer and winter is symbolic of leaving youth behind and facing death. At many points throughout the work, life and abundance is represented by the green key, A, while loss and mortality are depicted by its relative minor, F-sharp. A brief glance at the first movement, In Autumn, demonstrates how tightly specific key colors, nature imagery, and narrative ideas are interwoven. The accompanying quotation, “Ye yellow leaves, that now the plain bestrew,” suggests in its brevity the nature of human mortality and vulnerability. While the entire poem—included below—illustrates in depth the relationship between autumn and loss, this one line is especially poignant given the imagery (fallen, scattered leaves) and color (yellow, dying).

Audio: In Autumn

Beach’s color-key associations involve not only the colors themselves, but interpretation of extra-musical significance. Beach’s yellow key, E major, often has connotations of brightness and strength, as we will see shortly in the discussion of Canticle of the Sun. While it might have been logical for Beach to have used E major to illustrate the yellow leaves in In Autumn, this key would actually have counteracted the imagery she was trying to convey. Instead of using her yellow key, she used the opposition of A major and F-sharp minor to convey the autumnal season’s interpolation of life and death.

The first movement begins with a parallel progressive period—F-sharp minor modulating to the relative major, A—only to be immediately pulled back to the minor mode. The contrasting B section interpolates both A major and A minor with references to the symbolically charged Neapolitan chord. The reprise of the A section culminates with a final cadence in F-sharp major, a reference to the bittersweet acceptance of death in the conclusion of the quoted Lamartine poem.

All hail! ye woods, with ling’ring verdure crown’d;

Ye yellow leaves, that now the plain bestrew;

Ye last bright days, all hail! when gloom spreads round,

It suits with sorrow, and it charms my view.

I pensive tread the solitary way,

And love the latest farewell gleams to see

Of yon declining sun, whose feeble ray

Scarce penetrates the wood’s obscurity.

Yes, dying Nature can my heart beguile!

To me her beauty veil’d, more beauty shows;

‘Tis like a friend’s farewell, the last sad smile

Of lips, which death will soon for ever close.

And thus, prepar’d to quit this mortal sphere,

Mourning the hope of all my days destroy’d,

I turn once more, and with a wistful tear,

Behold the blessings I have not enjoy’d.

Earth, sun, and vallies! nature soft and bright!

A tear I owe you ere my spirit flies;

How balmy breathes the air! how pure the light!

How beautiful the sun to dying eyes!

The cup, where gall and nectar mingled flow,

I now could wish unto the dregs to drain;

There, whence I drank the stream of life and woe,

A drop of honey might perhaps remain.

Futurity might still have kept for me

Return of bliss whose hope has long since flown;

Some heart unknown, could I but live to see,

Perchance would beat responsive to my own.

The flow’rs farewell to life and to the day

Is sigh’d in perfume to the passing gales;

I die:—my spirit, as it fleets away,

Like sounds of mournful melody exhales![23]

Throughout the entire movement, the green and black keys are locked in a metaphorical clash. More broadly, this symbolic clash characterizes the entire work. Each of the four movements presents A major in competition with another tonality, regardless of whether A is the home key. But A major is ultimately unable to establish its sovereignty at the end of the work; both harmonically and narratively, this key is eventually overcome. The background harmonic structure of the work reveals an overall trajectory from F-sharp minor in the first movement to A minor in the fourth. The ternary form of the final movement, “Fire-flies,” further involves a shift from A minor to the parallel major, and then back again (similar to “Elfin Tarentelle”). The failure of A major—green key, symbolic of life—to overcome the minor mode in this movement and over the course of the work as a whole suggests the inevitability of change and death. While the melodic and harmonic material of Four Sketches is much different from that of her Three Piano Pieces or Summer Dreams, it is helpful to note that particular keys seem to have held very specific significance for Beach throughout her career, even as her compositional ideas and aesthetic continued to evolve.

Audio: Fire-flies

Sometimes Beach’s color key associations involve not only nature imagery, but evocations of the sacred and divine. The union of the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual realms was central to Beach’s compositional philosophy.

To begin with the emotional—which is the side of music most easily understood by the average human being—music plays an enormous, part in our whole lives, from the lullabies which our mothers sing to us in our cradles to the funeral march played after we have reached the end of our earthly course. Even the most primitive peoples perform many of their daily acts to the accompaniment of music. In Labrador, even the Esquimaux children cannot play their little games without singing, and the people have songs descriptive of the returning hunter, the wedding, the ancestral deeds of valor, the battles of former epochs, in fact of everything connected with their lives. The Zuño has his call to the awakening at dawn when the Sun-priests march through the pueblo, chanting the praises of the Sun-god, and urging the people to arise and salute him. Almost everywhere in the world there is dancing of some kind, accompanied by music. As for the influence of music upon soldiers, it is too well known to require even mention. The appeal to our patriotism which is being made all over the land, through the influence of community singing, is growing in its intensity to an extent almost incalculable. All this has to do with the emotional side of music.

Then there is the intellectual side. This can only be best understood by those who have entered in all seriousness into the composition of music in its most abstract forms. At the same time, knowledge of this is being more and more widely disseminated, through the medium of lectures in our clubs and courses in our schools and universities. The study of musical form can be made as fascinating as any other branch, if the teacher has the true knack of imparting the knowledge.

Then there is what I have called the spiritual side of music. Of course, this has two aspects, the point of view of the listener, and that of the creator. There is music which uplifts us to a point far above and beyond the mere emotional plane. Many works of Bach, César Franck, Beethoven, above all, Mozart, seem to carry us to a height where we leave everything earthly behind.[24]

In Canticle of the Suna cantata for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual find equal expression through a prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi.

O Most High, almighty, good Lord God, to Thee belong praise, glory, honour, and all blessing!

Praised be my Lord God with all His creatures; and especially our Brother the Sun, who brings us the day, and who brings us the light, fair is he, and shining with a very great splendor, O Lord, our Brother the Sun, he signifies to us Thee!

Praised be my Lord for our Sister, the Moon, and for the stars,
the which He has set clear and lovely in heaven.

Praised be my Lord for our Brother the Wind and for Air and Cloud. Calms and all Weather by the which Thou upholdest in life all creatures.

Praised be my Lord for Sister Water, who is very serviceable unto us, and humble, and precious and clean.

Praised be my Lord for our Brother Fire, through whom Thou givest light in the darkness and he is bright and pleasant, and very mighty, and strong.

Praised be my Lord for our Mother the Earth, the which doth sustain us, and keep us, and bringeth forth divers[e] fruits and flowers, of many colors, and grass.

Praised be my Lord for all those who pardon one another for His love’s sake, and who endure weakness and tribulation;

Blessed are they who peaceably shall endure, for Thou O most Highest shall give them a crown.

Praised, praised by my Lord for our Sister, the Death of the Body from whom no man escapeth, Woe to him, who dieth in mortal sin!

Blessed are they who are found walking by Thy holy will, for the second death shall have no power to do them harm.

Praise ye and bless ye the Lord, and give thanks unto Him, and serve Him with great humility.[25]

Before analyzing synesthetic associations in Canticle, it is worthwhile to briefly take a critical look at the text. Aside from presenting the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual domains central to Beach’s creative philosophy, this text reinforces certain gendered ideas of the natural world. The dualities of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Water, Brother Wind and Air and Sister Death, and the Lord with Sister/Mother Earth subliminally reinforce gender binarism. The association of the feminine with moon cycles and water implicitly associates womanhood with symbols of fertility and symbolically entraps women within the roles of wife, mother, and caregiver. At the same time, the association of womankind and death (Sister Death and original sin in the Garden of Eden) suggests that emotional weakness and shame are inherent to womanhood. By contrast, the association of masculinity with the sun, light, reason, and enlightenment; fire, with its primal connotations of hunting and providing; wind and air, as fundamental to the human’s life force; and the Lord as himself male, present masculinity as the ideal. These gender stereotypes do not necessarily detract from the musical qualities of Beach’s Canticle, but it is nonetheless important to observe these ideas in operation when placing the work in context—especially since, as I have shown, Beach’s color associations are not always direct (yellow leaves are not always depicted via the yellow key; sometimes yellow means something else!).

Beach’s Canticle of the Sun opens with tonal ambiguity, yet the first section of the work, Lento con maesta, is largely governed by the key of D-flat major, with some interpolation of both the parallel and relative minor keys. With the color purple’s biblical connotations of wealth, royalty, and splendor, it is logical that Beach’s violet key features prominently in the first section. The exclamatory use of a D-flat major triad on the word “God” after the opening harmonic ambiguity (measure 11) suggests a marriage of tonal clarity and spiritual revelation.[26] At the same time, the color association of the key suggests awe and reverence for a majestic God.

Audio: Canticle

As in other works, large-scale structure and tonal function in the Canticle often together imply color-key associations. The Allegro con brio section (measures 152 – 213) involves the keys of E major and G major (yellow and red, respectively). This is especially evocative given the section’s text: “Praised be my Lord for our Brother Fire, through whom Thou givest light in the darkness and he is bright and pleasant, and very mighty, and strong”. Here Beach’s yellow and red keys are utilized to great effect to convey fire, light, and strength. In addition to these larger-scale structural connotations, specific instances help unify color-key associations, as in the conspicuous E major triad on the word ‘fire’ in measure 160.

Audio: Allegro con brio section

As discussed earlier in reference to Summer Dreams, Beach’s use of C major often symbolically conveys a narrative of darkness to light. While use of this tonality in this way is far from novel, it is important to recognize her white key often evokes not just whiteness, but divine light or revelation. For instance, in measure 31 of the Canticle, the word “Sun” involves a jubilant C major chord, depicting the brightness of divine light, and is again reminiscent of the shift from darkness to light and the simultaneous shift to C major in Haydn’s The Creation. Two measures later, the word ‘day’ is sung on a resounding E major (yellow) triad.

Audio: “Sun” and “day”

Written in 1925, the Canticle has a harmonically adventurous, perhaps even modernist sound. Moments of triadic harmony are therefore more conspicuous than in some of her earlier works, and stand out as symbolically charged moments. Highlighting particular words with color-associated chords conveys not only Beach’s synesthetic associations, but is also a narrative strategy meant to illustrate Saint Francis of Assisi’s evocative text.

Another exemplary instance of Beach’s revelatory use of C major is in her Opus 74 choral piece Panama Hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name). The piece begins straightforwardly in A major, but veers off in an unexpected direction by the end of the second phrase. The harmonic structure of the first stanza (Figure 15) demonstrates the integration of harmony, color-key associations, and narrative imagery.

Figure 15: All Hail the Power of Jesus’ name, SATB voicing mm. 2 – 10


Beach uses a contrasting progressive (modulating) period to set this first stanza. The first two lines of text involve a four-measure phrase in the home key of A concluding with a half cadence. The consequent phrase (and lines three and four) are in the key of C. That the entire period ends with a resounding perfect authentic cadence in the key of C—corresponding to “crown Him Lord of all—demonstrates the revelatory and divine implications of this tonality. This structural shift to C major is repeated at certain later reprisals of “crown Him Lord of all,” reinforcing the significance of the key.

This foray into the work of Amy Beach has demonstrated how her color-key associations relate to nature imagery and narrative in several of her works. I have shown how these synesthetic associations range from overt—as in Robin Redbreast’s red key of G major—to the subtle, as in the symbolic use of isolated chords in Canticle of the Sun. Beach’s unique harmonic perspectives give us insight into her creative process as a woman composer in the early twentieth century. By exploring her spiritual connection to nature and her synesthetic tendencies, we can begin to truly understand Amy Beach as artist, performer, and trailblazer.


[1] The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume XV (New York: James T. White and Co, 1916), 165.

[2] Ednah Aiken and Amy Beach, “Why I Chose My Profession: The Autobiography of a Woman Composer: An Interview Written by Ednah Aiken,” Mother’s Magazine (February 1914): 7 – 8.

[3] Adrienne Fried Block, Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6 – 7.

[4] Hazel Gertrude Kinscella, “Play No Piece in Public When First Learned, Says Mrs. Beach; Distinguished American Composer and Pianist Discusses Her Methods of Study – Names Compositions of Especial Value to the Student – Reminisces of Her Early Work as a Composer,” Musical America (September 7, 1918): 9.

[5] Jeanell Wise Brown, Amy Beach and Her Chamber Music: Biography, Documents, Style. (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1994), 32.

[6] Block 48

[7] Block 50

[8] Block 198

[9] Block 103

[10] Henry T. Fleck, “Music Lovers’ Supplement: Women as a Composer,” Arts & Decoration Vol. 1, No. 5 (March 1911): 212.

[11] Ibid.

[12] J. Swinburne, “Women and Music,” Proceedings of the Musical Association, 46th Sess. (1919 – 1920): 24 – 32.

[13] Ernest Newman, “Women and Music,” The Musical Times Vol. 5, No. 808 (June 1, 1910): 361.

[14] William Armstrong and Amy Beach, “A Talk with Mrs. H.H.A. Beach,” Etude Magazine Vol. 22, No. 2 (February 1904): 51.

[15] W.S.B. Matthews, ed., “Things Here and There: A New Symphony by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach,” Music: A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XI, No. 1 (November 1896): 202.

[16] Claudia Macdonald, “Critical Perception and the Woman Composer: The Early Reception of Piano Concertos by Clara Wieck Schumann and Amy Beach,” Current Musicology No. 55 (1993): 44.

[17] Block 294

[18] Block 10

[19] Sabrina Clarke, “Synesthetic Associations and Gendered Nature Imagery: Female Agency in the Piano Music of Amy Beach,” Paper presented at the Women in the Creative Arts Conference, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, August 2017.

[20] “Bird Songs Noted in the Woods and Fields by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach for this Article,” The Designer (May 1911): 7.

[21] The full poem, “The Redbreast,” can be found in The Magazine of Poetry: A Quarterly Review Vol. III (1891): 391.

[22] The full poem, “Good Night,” can be found in Good Health Vol. XLV (1910): 699.

[23] J. Churchill, Solitude, and Other Poems, with Translations from the “Meditations Poetiques” of Lamartine and from Metastasio. (London: Hookham, c. 1830), 105 – 109.

[24] Amy Beach, “To the Girl Who Wants to Compose,” Etude Magazine Vol. 36, No. 11 (November 1918): 695.

[25] Translation by Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888)

[26] Betty Buchanan describes this moment in her introductory notes to her edited version of Canticle of the Sun, Recent Researches in American Music 57 (Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2006): xiv.