By Esther Abrami | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Amy Beach was one of the very first female composers I came across, and when I heard her Romance for violin and piano, I fell in love with it straightaway. Before I found this piece, I had spent 15 years in music education, from my local music school in the south of France when I was 10 to the Royal College of Music in London. During all that time, during the countless hours spent learning and practicing hundreds of pieces, I had never performed, learned, or even sightread a single work written by a woman. That realisation only struck me when I graduated from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with my master’s degree. It is a reality that I am still processing, so dominant are men among composers of the classical canon.
Player: Violinist, recording artist, and social media influencer Esther Abrami studied at the Royal College of Music in London before earning her master’s degree from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Abrami’s eponymous debut album was released on Sony Classical.
Title of Work Being Studied Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23
Composer Amy Beach
Date Composed 1893
Name of Edition Studied Boston & Leipzig, ©1893 by Arthur P. Schmidt
From that moment on, I spent a lot of my time searching and discovering classical music works written by women. I felt like an archaeologist on a dig, uncovering pieces of art that I did not even know existed!
When I “discovered” Amy Beach’s Romance, I just could not understand how it had not become one of those “hits” of the violin, like Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs or Elgar’s Salut d’Amour. I felt strongly it should take the place it always deserved, as one of the hits that people need to hear. This is why I decided to learn this piece. It is also why I decided to record it for my debut album on Sony.
Amy Beach dedicated this work to her friend, violinist Maud Powell, with whom she shared a lot of similarities, including their impressive talent and hard-earned recognition in the male-dominated music profession. The Romance takes you on a real emotional journey. It is not just a melodious piece of music with one mood all along. It is complex, passionate, and delicate. The first time it was heard, performed by Amy Beach herself and Maud Powell in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it was described as “graceful though difficult of performance.”
When I’m performing it, one of my all-time favorite moments is the recall of the opening melody near the end. After all the emotional highs, with blood rushing and a racing heart, Beach brings back the opening melody in a pianissimo dynamic with the marking dolcissimo. That opening melody comes in as a long-distanced memory.
This I find particularly effective when played over the fingerboard; one may even try it without vibrato. The choice of fingering has an important role in this piece. In the opening melody, I found the use of same finger shifting brought a real singing quality to the phrase.
Amy Beach was a pianist, and you cannot help but notice the quality of writing in the piano part, each melody being equally shared between the violin and the piano. This nearly gives this Romance the qualities of the first movement of a sonata. For that reason, I would recommend that any violinists learning this work should thoroughly study the piano score and spend time rehearsing with their pianist partner. Most of the magic of this piece can only be created if the violin and piano are working as one.
I find the original edition of this piece by Arthur P. Schmidt the best one to learn from, as it is the truest version of what Beach intended for this work. Despite its being harder to read, I would also advise having a look at the manuscript, which is available online. There is something incredibly enlightening and inspiring about seeing the original writing of the composer.
Amy Beach and her passionate Romance will always inspire me.
What Esther Abrami Plays
Violin: Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume
Bow: Chien-Fu Tsai
Strings: Larsen Aurora