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Johanna Beyer

Johanna Beyer

Amy C. Beal
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 128
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  • Book Info
    Johanna Beyer
    Book Description:

    Composer Johanna Beyer's fascinating body of music and enigmatic life story constitute an important chapter in American music history. As a hard-working German émigré piano teacher and accompanist living in and around New York City during the New Deal era, she composed plentiful music for piano, percussion ensemble, chamber groups, choir, band, and orchestra. A one-time student of Ruth Crawford, Charles Seeger, and Henry Cowell, Beyer was an ultramodernist, and an active member of a community that included now-better-known composers and musicians. Only one of her works was published and only one recorded during her lifetime. But contemporary musicians who play Beyer's compositions are intrigued by her originality. Amy C. Beal chronicles Beyer's life from her early participation in New York's contemporary music scene through her performances at the Federal Music Project's Composers' Forum-Laboratory concerts to her unfortunate early death in 1944. This book is a portrait of a passionate and creative woman underestimated by her music community even as she tirelessly applied her gifts with compositional rigor. The first book-length study of the composer's life and music, Johanna Beyer reclaims a uniquely innovative artist and body of work for a new generation.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09713-3
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: From Leipzig to the Bronx
    (pp. 1-8)

    IN JANUARY 2013, while researching independent American music publishing in the Peter Garland Papers held by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, I unexpectedly came across several references to the composer Johanna Beyer:

    Who is this lady, Johanna Beyer? I haven’t been able to find anything out about her yet. I’ve been looking in the more obscure places, but to no avail. (Letter from Michael Byron to Peter Garland, November 28, 1973)

    A brief question, about Joanna [sic] Beyer. Have you found any further biographical information about her, other than that she was born in...

  5. 1 Sunnyside, 1927–1933
    (pp. 9-14)

    ASIDE FROM OFFICIAL PAPERWORK—birth and death certificates, residency registrations, ship manifests, passport numbers—the earliest currently knowable fact of Beyer’s biography occurred in 1927, when she was thirty-eight years old. Therefore, our survey of Beyer’s life begins on October 30, 1927, when the Smith College social worker Bertha Reynolds first recorded Beyer’s existence in her diary. Now working at the Institute for Child Guidance and the Jewish Board of Guardians in New York, Reynolds sought a place to live outside the metropolis: “I had dreaded New York City as a home, feeling it would offer only the rock-bound canyons...

  6. 2 Compositional Beginnings, 1933–1936
    (pp. 15-22)

    BEYER’S COMPOSITIONAL BEGINNINGS soon brought her into the orbit of the New School for Social Research. For the 1933– 34 school year, the New School listed among its instructors Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, Harry A. Overstreet, Paul Rosenfeld, Charles Seeger, and Roger Sessions, among others. As the first fascism-fleeing wave of European immigrants started to descend upon New York, the New School became an important intellectual and cultural center. Sally Bick writes: Beginning in 1933, the School initiated advanced workshops in modern music that were addressed to a select group of students. These courses were directed...

  7. 3 Having Faith, 1936–1940
    (pp. 23-31)

    BEYER’S LIFE WENT THROUGH many changes in 1936, not the least of which was her move in September from her Sunnyside house and community—her home since 1927—to a small apartment at 40 Jane Street in the West Village.¹ Earlier that summer she started a new job teaching music in Harlem; perhaps this new steady income was the reason she could write to Olive Cowell (Cowell’s stepmother) that she had “some money to spare.”² Optimistically expecting Cowell to be released from his imprisonment soon, Beyer met frequently with the architect Alvin Johnson, director of the New School for Social...

  8. 4 New York Waltzes: Works for Piano
    (pp. 32-39)

    BEYER WAS A SKILLED PIANIST, so it is not surprising that she wrote a number of solo piano pieces. The titles for her three major piano suites (Gebrauchs-Musik ; Dissonant Counterpoint; andClusters) derive from techniques in the air during the mid-1930s. Beyer’s use of the term Gebrauchsmusik (or, as she wrote it, “Gebrauchs-Musik”) must have been ironic, given the atonal and abstract nature of her pieces under that title. Beyer may have become aware of the principles of Gebrauchsmusik—a German term for “utilitarian music,” or music that served some specific social or situational function—through a lecture given...

  9. 5 Horizons: Percussion Ensemble Music
    (pp. 40-46)

    BETWEEN 1933 AND 1942, Johanna Beyer composed eight works for percussion ensemble—a total of nineteen movements and about seventy-five minutes’ worth of music. Copies of five of these pieces were archived in the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Frank J. Oteri has called Beyer “after William Russell, . . . the single most prolific composer of percussion music in the 1930s.” ¹ Beyer’s four suites and four short standalone pieces cover the full range of her formal and expressive capabilities. Two of these pieces—“ Endless,” from Three Movements for Percussion...

  10. 6 The People, Yes: Songs and Choral Works
    (pp. 47-53)

    BEYER’S ENTIRE OUTPUT FOR VOICE—songs and choral works—was composed between 1933 and 1937. Her three single songs and two three-song sets make use of her own poetry and that of two other writers (see Appendix E for Beyer’s original poetry.) Beyer’s earliest songs reveal the influence of Ruth Crawford, whom Beyer met in early February 1932. Beyer’s composition lessons with the Seegers might have continued until they moved to Washington, D.C., in late 1935. Crawford’s settings of Sandburg’s work, in particular herThree Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg(for contralto, oboe, piano, and percussion with optional orchestral...

  11. 7 Sonatas, Suites, and String Quartets: Chamber Music
    (pp. 54-62)

    BEYER COMPOSED AT LEAST EIGHTEEN instrumental chamber works and eleven pieces for symphony orchestra or large ensemble. The clarinet was a main focus for Beyer, perhaps because of her acquaintance with Rosario Mazzeo (E-flat and bass clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1933 to 1966), for whom she wrote several pieces. Though it is unclear how Beyer came to know Mazzeo, he obviously appreciated her work. He performed her Three Songs for Soprano and Clarinet in Boston and New York in 1936, recorded two movements of the Suite for Clarinet and Bassoon for New Music Quarterly Editions in 1938,...

  12. 8 Symphonic Striving: Works for Band and Orchestra
    (pp. 63-68)

    BETWEEN 1935 AND 1941, Beyer wrote eleven works for large ensembles, from her nine-instrument March of 1935 to her full-orchestra Symphonic Movement II of 1941, which she dedicated, optimistically, to Leopold Stokowski. Seven of these works were for the forces of the Romantic orchestra, with enhanced percussion sections; five were copied and archived at the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia.¹

    According to musicologist Judith Tick, the notion of a “woman composer” of orchestral music was not established until just a few decades before Beyer began composing: In 1893 the Boston Symphony Orchestra...

  13. 9 Status Quo
    (pp. 69-78)

    ONE OF BEYER’S MOST AMBITIOUS PROJECTS was a plan for an opera calledStatus Quo, for which she decided to apply for a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in the summer of 1937.¹ Composers who won Guggenheim awards between the fellowship’s establishment in 1925 and the year Beyer’s proposal was submitted in 1938 included Aaron Copland (1925), Leopold Damrosch Mannes (1926), Roger Sessions (1926 and 1927), Roy Harris (1927 and 1928), Quincy Porter and Randall Thompson (both 1929 and 1930), Ruth Crawford (1930), Otto Luening (1930 and 1931), Henry Cowell (1931), George Antheil (1932 and 1933), Adolph Weiss (1932), William Grant Still...

  14. 10 Beyer’s Final Years, 1940–44
    (pp. 79-88)

    THE SUMMER OF 1940, which coincided with Cowell’s release from prison, was busy for Beyer. She continued working on Cowell’s behalf and also visited him in White Plains after he had settled at the Graingers’ house.¹ She taught piano at a number of schools and private homes around the greater New York area, and the families for whom she taught were central to her social life. She spent much of July in Grant City, Staten Island, house-sitting for the family of her gifted ten-year-old piano student Roland Leitner, with whom she was particularly close and to whom she dedicated one...

  15. Conclusion: “May the Future Be Kind to All Composers”
    (pp. 89-94)

    SHORTLY BEFORE MOVING to the House of the Holy Comforter in June 1943, Beyer supervised the packing of her life’s work. These boxes of manuscripts rested at the American Music Center in New York for over two decades. Paul Price, a percussion instructor and assistant professor of music at the University of Illinois in Urbana, was among a small number of people who maintained interest in Beyer’s work after her death; in 1953 he attempted to gain information about any heirs. He enlisted Vladimir Ussachevsky (then editor of New Music Editions), who, after consulting with Cowell, provided no information.¹ In...

    (pp. 95-97)
    (pp. 98-100)
    (pp. 101-102)
    (pp. 103-104)
    (pp. 105-108)
  21. NOTES
    (pp. 109-120)
    (pp. 121-126)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 127-134)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 135-140)