- Johanna Beyer by Amy C. Beal
Johanna Beyer, a native German born in Leipzig in 1888 who settled in the United States in 1923 and became a citizen in [End Page 310] 1930, was active in the compositional life of New York City during the second quarter of the twentieth century, yet she has almost completely vanished from the history of American composition. “An original composer in the school of American ultramodernism, whose compositions ought to be performed and analyzed alongside those of Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, and Carl Ruggles” (p. 6), Beyer was active as a composer, pianist, piano teacher and copyist, and had a particularly close relationship with Cowell. Biographer Amy C. Beal, professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who focuses her research on the history of American experimental music and is an active performer of contemporary music, seeks to solve as fully as possible “the enduring mystery of this prolific yet elusive composer” (p. 2) in this first book-length study of Beyer’s life and music.
Research about Beyer began around 1970 with the efforts of Larry Polansky and John Kennedy, who continue to contribute to the dissemination of Beyer’s music through the Frog Peak/Johanna Beyer Project, which has issued editions of Beyer’s music in transcription and manuscript since 1994 (http://www.frogpeak.org/fpartists/fpbeyer.html, accessed 27 June 2016). Only one of Beyer’s works was published during her lifetime. Since then, a few manuscript facsimiles have appeared, as well as two works for clarinet and piano published by Friedrich Hofmeister Musik-verlag and three works for percussion ensemble with Smith Publications, with the remaining twenty-one published by Frog Peak Music. Information about Beyer’s published music is found in Beal’s appendix C, which has one serious omission: Horizons for percussion ensemble, edited by Ron Coulter (Sharon, VT: Smith Publications, 2012). Research on Beyer has relied primarily on four sources: (1) her manuscripts, most of which are housed in the Music Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL); (2) Beyer’s correspondence to Cowell, located at NYPL; (3) the diary of educator, social worker, and long-time friend of Beyer’s Bertha Capen Reynolds, held in Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collection; and (4) a curriculum vitae from 1937 held in the Library of Congress Music Division’s Serge Koussevitzky and Nicolas Slonimsky Collections. Additional primary sources are included in Beal’s “Sources and Bibliography.” Beal’s bibliography reveals a growing interest in Beyer since the late 1980s, with a surge in publications in this century. Two relevant publications that did not make it into Beal’s bibliography are Tom Nevill’s Rediscovering a Forgotten Voice: The Percussion Ensemble Music of Johanna Magdalena Beyer (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010) and Mary Christine Craddock’s D.M.A. dissertation Performance, Analysis, and Interpretation in the Solo Double Bass Works of Johanna Magdalena Beyer and Vivian Fine (University of Oklahoma, 2015). Beal completes her overview of Beyer resources with appendix D, a selected list of recordings of Beyer’s music from 1938 (the only recording produced during Beyer’s lifetime) through 2012. At least one recording has appeared since 2012, Plot: Music for Unspecified Instrumentation (Ravello RR7916 , 2 CDs), containing Beyer’s Percussion.
Beyer’s music displays the dissonant counterpoint and ultramodernism so prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s, employing then-innovative methods of composition such as serial techniques, clusters, sliding tones, polyrhythm, and tempo melodies—as Cowell explained, “If we wish to use tempo as melody, we have but to establish the tempo value of various tones, and change them as the piece progresses” (Henry Cowell, New Musical Resources [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 92). Lou Harrison noted that Beyer “had the typical 1920s and 30s attitude of geometry in music, or schemes that were carefully carried out and beautifully executed” (p. 6). Beal dedicates individual chapters to...