Local legend has it that for her aunt's birthday Amy Beach performed an original song on the piano. She was four years old. Thus began the career of America's greatest female composer, a woman born in our own back yard. Her early life and works will be highlighted in a new performance by Henniker Youth Theatre.
Despite her international stardom, Beach has never been the subject of a movie or television series. Only a few years ago, even Henniker Youth Theatre’s artistic director Tom Dunn didn’t know much about her.
Dunn said his children often went on Henniker heritage tours and he remembered the guide pointing to a house and saying that was the childhood home of the famous composer Amy Beach. But Dunn, who has spent his entire life in musical theater, assumed Beach was “locally famous.” It wasn’t until having lunch with Minnesota composer Libby Larsen that Dunn learned just how important Beach was to music. After that, Dunn went to a concert by the North Country Chamber Orchestra, which performed Beach’s works. The evening was narrated by former New Hampshire poet laureate Marie Harris. Dunn began a correspondence with Harris, who has spent years researching and uncovering old works of Beach.
Beach was born in Henniker in 1867 and lived there until she was six, when she moved to Boston. In Boston she became a member of the Attic Club, a group of young girls who would meet once a month and share stories. Beach was a child prodigy. Dunn said she was incredibly versatile, able to write art songs, operas and full orchestra pieces by 16. Beach made her professional debut with the Boston Symphony at age 16. It was at this concert, according to Dunn, that Beach (then known as Amy Marcy Cheney) caught the eye of prominent Boston surgeon Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, who was very much her senior.
Eventually the two wed. Dr. Beach did not want Amy performing publicly, according to Dunn, but he would do all that he could to help her compose music. So he bought her an expensive European piano and she went to work composing in their Beacon Hill town house. Prior to this, Beach thought of herself as a performer and only secondarily a composer. But because of the strange pact they made, she had time to focus on composing, which, at that time, no women were doing and very few men.
When Dr. Beach died, Amy was only in her 30s. She toured Europe and was even hailed by the president as the greatest living composer. Later in life, she returned to New Hampshire and was instrumental in forming the MacDowell Colony, according to Dunn. In fact, even today all profits from purchasing the rights to her works go to the artists colony in Peterborough, according to Dunn.
As Harris, who is writing a book on Beach for young readers, said, Beach was the Lady Gaga of her generation. She wasn’t crazy, but she was insanely famous. Dunn said some of her compositions sold a million copies, sales John Philip Sousa was barely making.
Dunn said Harris has been an invaluable source of information. At the show, which will be held Friday, July 15, at 3 and 7 p.m., Harris will begin with stories about Beach and will conclude by leading a public discussion on the composer. In between, the kids in Henniker Youth Theatre will use the Attic Club as a way to tell seven different stories from Beach’s life. They will also perform some of her early works, which were inspired by her time in Henniker.
Dunn said music director Will Ogmundson has done an amazing job of adapting the music for kids. Rehearsals for the production have taken place at John Stark Regional High School, only half a mile from where Beach was born. Dunn said he hoped to eventually stage an adult version of Beach’s life.