Documentary features Henniker woman’s musical genius

  • Amy Beach —Courtesy

  • Amy Beach —Courtesy

  • Amy Beach —Courtesy

  • Amy Beach —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 9/28/2021 4:17:53 PM

Filmmaker John Gfroerer knows that most Granite Staters, even lovers of symphonies and the classics, haven’t heard of a Henniker native whose musical genius turned this male-dominated arena upside down.

Her name was Amy Beach and she was born in Henniker in 1867. She began playing piano at 4 years old, building a reputation that inspired women and continues to do so today. At least for those who know what she later accomplished. 

Gfroerer will show you the depth of this woman’s gift and her pioneering spirit in his latest documentary, “Composer Amy Beach,” which will premiere Thursday night at the Bank of New Hampshire Stage on Main Street in Concord.

Beach's accomplishments scream for recognition. Chew on this: At age 17, she played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A girl, at 17 years old no less, wowing this boys’ club, playing the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 with the best in the world?

Unheard of.

And in 1897, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, the first ever composed and published by an American woman. Indeed, Beach at the time, as Gfroerer wrote, was “a national symbol of women's creative power and was the dean of American women composers.”

“No, you don’t find a lot of people who have heard of her,” said Gfroerer, the former news director at Concord’s Channel 12 and the former director at the New Hampshire Folk Festival.

“Some people know of her in Henniker and Hillsboro, where she spent summers, but there’s a small group around her, mostly musicians, and students play her a lot, but she’s not a household name. Not Like Beethoven.”

Still, don’t underestimate the impact of Beach, who died in 1944 at the age of 77. She was born to play, and nothing was going to stop her. Not men and not a culture at the time that frowned mightily on women who played music professionally, especially in solo concerts, at night. No matter how good they were.

She lived with her husband, a wealthy doctor, on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. He was 24 years her elder, and when he died in 1910, he left behind a musical giant whose talents had long been muted in a chauvinistic society.

“They loved each other, but when he died, her life changed,” Gfroerer said. “She became more outgoing, and when he was alive, she did not have a concert career. Wives stayed home and worked. It would have been a sign that he was a failure if his wife worked as a concert pianist, playing at hotels at night by herself. Rumors fly.”

“But,” Gfroerer continued, “this did not mean she was going to give up. Music was too much a part of her life to shut that door.”

Luckily, solo appearances aside, Beach's husband encouraged her to continue writing, and she never stopped dreaming of making a historical breakthrough in the arts. Maybe it came from her parents, who, ironically, forbade her from playing the piano during her early years to create a hunger that would lead to big things.

Or maybe it was that gift people mention a lot. The gift you’re born with. Maybe that was the driving force, acknowledging what she had inside herself that she was eager to share.

Whatever pushed her to break through boundaries, Beach's writing and playing could not be denied. She was hired to write a choral piece for the start of the Women’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. She was just 25 at the time.

She wrote 150 songs and that one symphony, the one performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. No, she wasn’t Mozart or even Gershwin in stature or recognition, but she was Amy Beach, and that was plenty good enough.

In fact, one of her original songs paid the couple enough in royalties to purchase property on Cape Cod.

“When her husband died,” Gfroerer said, “she was sad and there was a period of time of her being unmoored, but she got herself together and took on the world.”

That world will be presented in documentary form Thursday night beginning at 7 at the Bank of New Hampshire Stage. The film had been scheduled for release last fall, but the COVID quarantine delayed its opening for a year.

Tickets are $12, and all proceeds will benefit the Concord Historical Society.

This woman made history. The odds were long.

“Nothing,” Gfroerer said,  “could ever stop her from playing. Nothing.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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