Classical music: Revisiting composer Amy Beach’s Mass

An absolutely delicious writing for orchestra with instrumentation and dialogue between parts.

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Grand Mass in E-flat Major

Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m.

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Pacific Spirit United Church

2195 West 45th Ave., Vancouver


Vancouver Cantata Singers enjoys the paradoxical pleasure of introducing something old, a major composition written over a century ago, which will be brand new to Vancouver’s many choral fans. At the end of this month, they join members of the Allegra Chamber Orchestra to perform the Grand Mass in E Flat Major by Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944). This is certainly the first time the work has been done here in Vancouver, and, quite probably, the first time in Canada.

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Who was Amy Beach? As Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, she was known as a composer/pianist in her own time, those far-away days when respectable women took their husbands’ surnames in public. She was privately educated and had the beginnings of a nascent career before she married Boston surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. He was 42, while she was 18. Dr. Beach did not forbid musical activity, but did restrict his bride to no more than two public performances a year, otherwise devoting herself to the roles of a society matron and a patron of the arts.

amy beach
The young Amy Cheney Beach.

Amy Cheney Beach, as we now refer to her, was happy enough with her status in society, but saw no reason to forsake music. In 1892, her Mass was premiered, to excellent reviews by Boston’s distinguished Handel and Haydn Society, and her reputation was secured for a time, at least on the American scene. In the early decades of the 20th century, her music, firmly created in the Late Romantic tradition, was increasingly viewed as passé, as was the work of another duo of women composers, Cécile Chaminade (1857-944) and Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). To be fair, the music of the other Boston Classicists — all men — didn’t fare much better, as new generations of composers wanted to distance themselves from the Romantic era.

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Given the burgeoning interest in rediscovering and reassessing music written by women in earlier ages, it is now high time to dust off the Mass. An edition of the work was published, and the Mass has the potential to join the rather slim list of what choral folks call “great sings,” appealing works designed for choral societies, as a major project with orchestra.

Cantata Singers music director Paula Kremer, who takes an expansive view of the vocal repertoire, recently became interested in the Mass. A small problem: Mrs. Beech’s concept wasn’t just serious, it was on a grand scale, combining soloists, a very large choir, and a full-sized orchestra. Even though the Cantata Singers has special event funds to mount the piece, it was obvious that a 30-voice ensemble wouldn’t possibly work against full orchestral forces.

Learning one movement of the Mass had been arranged for string quartet and choir, Kremer asked associate artistic director Dave Rosborough to re-cue the orchestral parts for chamber orchestra, beefing up a somewhat insubstantial organ part with materials originally intended for heavy brass. It’s a pragmatic solution — the choral community will get to hear a long-forgotten work with reduced but complementary forces.

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Kremer explains, “I have had the Beach in mind for quite some time, and am thrilled we are now able to present this fascinating work, filled with charm, drama, exuberance, and sensitivity. It has it all!” She adds, “There are moments which feel as if they belong in a Spielberg film soundtrack or the overture of a tragic opera.”

Ultimately, it is an ambitious, grand, serious work from a young composer. “There moments of sublime spiritual depth, such as the solo tenor ‘Sanctus’ statement appearing out of nowhere after an intro with the English Horn; or the choice she made of setting the awe of ‘et incarnatus est’ with only soprano solo and organ” says Kremer. “Throw in a few harp cadenzas, a fugue, a robust Gloria which seems to travel to every key possible, and absolutely delicious writing for orchestra with instrumentation and dialogue between parts — this really is a grand work indeed.”

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