Amy Beech “The Gaelic Symphony”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! It’s interesting how much our focus determines our reality, and what we perceive as “truth”. St. Patrick is known because he apparently drove the snakes out of Ireland. I’m not sure that Ireland was ever really known for it’s snakes, more likely it is a metaphor for the religious conflicts of the time. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in Roman Britannia in 385 AD and originally carried the name Maewyn Succat. He lived a relatively peaceful existence until the age of 16, when he was torn from his home by Irish pirates and taken as a slave. He was sold to a local chieftain in Ireland named Miliue of Antrim and was forced to herd sheep and swine for six years, bitterly isolated and poorly clothed for the harsh winters.
In Saint Patrick’s Confession, he reflected on the reason for these events… “At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved. The Lord brought his strong anger upon us and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth. It was among foreigners that I saw how little I was.” During this time as a slave Patrick turned to religion and pleaded to God for a way to escape his hell. Finally, his answer came in a vision, in which he was told to flee to the coast, where a ship would be waiting to take him home. Patrick traveled through 185 miles of wilderness to the shoreline, where he found a British ship waiting. Patrick boarded the ship and went home.
Amy Beech had perhaps even a more interesting life. Anecdotal stories say that should could sing and harmonize all of the lullabies that her mother sang to her by the time she was two, and then composed three waltzes for piano in one summer while staying at her grandfather’s house. Her grandfather did not own a piano, she had composed them in her mind and played them when she returned home. By seven she was actively studying and performing classical piano works, especially Beethoven, and at age 16 she made her debut in Boston Music Hall. Because she was a woman, and in keeping with the conventions of the time, she did not have the formal training that her male counterparts enjoyed. She read, studied, was taught by local teachers and tutors and apparently studied theory and composition largely on her own.
The Gaelic Symphony was premiered in 1896 by the Boston Symphony. Notable are the sophisticated themes, expert orchestration, and (as a violinist I might add) a pretty terrific concertmaster’s solo! This performance is conducted by JoAnne Falletta and performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic. Interesting to note, in 2021, though women are very accepted as soloists, it’s still considered the “exception” to have female composers and conductors. I myself have been told any number of times that women are not suited for conducting, for a variety of reasons, all so silly they barely merit mention here. What I have found, is that whether organizing a performance, playing first violin in a chamber ensemble or conducting, there are any number of highly talented, successful male musicians, who have said, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it!” or “I don’t know how to handle this situation” or asked for editing suggestions for compositions or writing. In my own life, I have learned so much from people of every age, race, gender and background, with I guess the unusual idea, that it’s the person not the package that matters. I would not be the person that I am or have the skills and knowledge that I do if I had placed preconceived notions of who to learn from out in front of my life experience. The world would benefit for taking wisdom, work, talent, and creativity in whatever package it presents itself.