The Mass in E Flat, Op. 5, was Amy Beach’s first major success, and it was the first mass written by an American woman. The piece marked Beach’s entry into the upper echelons of American composers.
Amy Beach began work on the mass in 1886, following the tradition of composition of a Mass as a demonstration of skill. The set text of the Mass provides a framework for young composer to hone their skills in the creation of a large work. This work appears to be based on models, a technique which Beach believed to be very important when composing in a new form. She may have used Luigi Cherubini’s Deuxième Messe Solenelle in D minor and Bach’s B-Minor Mass as her models, as the Handel and Haydn Society held performances of both of these masses around the time that Beach was beginning her work on the Mass, later premiering her Mass in 1892. Although the Mass was well received, it was not performed again until the 1980’s.
Following the traditional form of the Mass, the movements consist of Kyrie, Gloria in 4 movements, Credo in 4 movements, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. An unusual choice is Beach’s inclusion of a “Graduale” – a tenor aria with a text that corresponds with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This extra solo was written for the star performer Italo Campanini at the request of the Haydn and Handel Society. Other than this deviation, Beach’s text divisions are identical to the divisions in Cherubini’s mass. The mass is in a Romantic style, with lush harmonies and wide-ranging tonality. The individual movements are in third-related keys, as well as the dominant, with frequent modulations to third-related keys within movements. There is slight evidence of unfamiliarity with Latin accentuation; a number of words, such as peccata, patris, altissimus, adoratur, and nostram, are accented in a slightly controversial manner, though not all find that to be the case. There are also many repetitions of less important words, such as quoniam. The mass was praised for contrast in instrumentation and the solos for oboe, English horn, cello, and harp. Evidence of Beach’s models can be seen in the Kyrie and the Gloria.
The Kyrie is likely modeled on Bach’s “Dona nobis pacem," although the resemblance deviates in rhythm and intervals employed, leaving that theory highly speculative and superficial. In movements of the Gloria, most prominent in the “Quoniam”, Beach uses characteristic double-dotted rhythms– which also appear in Cherubini’s Kyrie. These rhythms give a march-like quality to the movement; they are paired with trumpets and drums to evoke a sense of the church militant. Beach’s use of modulating to third-related keys can be seen in “Laudamus te.”, in which she uses the keys of E flat major, G flat major, e flat minor, and C major. Beach frequently uses C major to indicate heaven or light, and it is used appropriately here, referring to divinity.
Most of the mass received praise, but one problem area cited by critics was the opening solo trio in the “Laudamus te”. One critic maintained that the pitch and ensemble problems were due to insufficient instrumental support. There are very few recordings of Beach’s mass, and the most popular one– by the Michael May Festival Chorus in 1989– is not done with a full orchestra. This particular recording is criticized for inaccurate tempos, inappropriate rearrangements, and overall interpretation. No scholarly reviews have been made with regard to the other recording, this one by the Stow Festival Chorus and Orchestra.
- Block, Adrienne Fried. Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Amy Beach: Grand Mass in E flat Major. Performed by The Michael May Festival Chorus. Compact disc. Newport Classic, 1989.
- Amy Beach: Grand Mass in E flat Major. Performed by Stow Festival Chorus and Orchestra. Albany Records, 1995.
- Block, Adrienne Fried: “St. Peter: an oratorio and Grand Mass in E-flat Major” (in Record Reviews) American Music, Vol. 10, No. 2. (Summer, 1992), pp.229-232.