Amy Fay

There are a couple of reasons that I chose to write my first blog on Amy Fay. The first reason is that I just finished a paper on her for my master’s seminar in Historical Musicology, so I’m pretty brushed up on my information about her. Second of all I am intrigued by the title of her biography, Amy Fay: America’s Notable Woman of Music. I’m not sure if the problem is that I really take issue with the title, I think I am just a little uncomfortable with it. I sincerely believe that Amy Fay is a notable woman of music in America, I just don’t think she is the only one as the title somewhat insinuates. Last, Amy Fay wrote many articles in journals like Etude in around the turn of the century, one of which was titled “Women and Music” in the journal Music in October 1900. The poignancy of this article for a woman 111 years later is startling and I feel perfectly introduces why I am working on this project.

Amy Fay was born May 21, 1844 in Bayou Goula, Louisiana. One of seven children, she was taught by her mother and older sisters (after her mother’s death) music in the home. This was a standard practice for girls in America. Eventually her sister, Zina Fay Peirce, was able to use her Cambridge connections to help Amy get piano lessons with some of America’s best teachers, first composer and pianist Otto Dressel, a Prussian immigrant and then John Knowles Paine, Harvard’s first professor of music. After her piano skills surpassed her educational opportunities available in the States she did what most musicians (but few female musicians) did: went to study in Germany.

Once Fay arrived in Germany she first sought to study in the conservatory of Carl Tausig, whom Paine had described to her as playing, “like forty thousand devils”. She studied with Tausig for a year before he suddenly closed his school. Fay then moved on to study with Theodore Kullak for 3 years before moving on to her most famous teacher, Franz Liszt. She studied with Liszt for 5 months before Liszt left for Rome and she finished her time in Germany with Ludwig Deppe for a year and a half before returning home. All in all, Fay spent 6 years studying the piano in Germany.

While Fay was abroad she wrote letters constantly to her sister, Zina. Zina saw potential in these letters and eventually had them compiled and published into what would be Fay’s legacy, a book called Music-Study in Germany. In Fay’s lifetime alone the book saw 25 printings and was translated into German and French with forewords by George Grove and Vincent d’Indy.  The book was enthralling because in a colloquial style Fay proceeded to bring to life living conditions, fashion, musical culture and celebrities for the American public. Her character sketches of Franz Liszt are still an important resource for Liszt scholars today.

When Fay returned to the United States she quickly immersed herself in the American music scene. She immediately played concerts in New York and Cambridge. One of the first concerts she played was with the famous orchestra conductor Theodore Thomas. This was a great opportunity for a woman like Fay, or any musician in the United States for that matter. Her biographer Margaret William McCarthy describes the opportunity saying, “Of all the opportunities an aspiring musician could hope for, none could surpass this chance presented to Amy. Theodore Thomas was, after all, one of the leading conductors in the world who had stimulated growth and development of sophisticated audiences for symphonic music in the United States.” Eventually Thomas would go on to marry Rose Fay (Amy’s sister and the topic of another blog) and would partner with Amy’s brother Norman to begin the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Among Amy’s other musical accomplishments includes the beginning of many amateur music clubs. These clubs gave the opportunity for women to hone their musical skills, playing for one another and in concert as well as act as patrons for the arts. Along with her sister Rose, Amy began The Amateur Music Club, one of Chicago’s most important music clubs, and the Artists’ Concert Club. Amy also helped her sister Zina begin the Women’s Philharmonic Society in New York City.

Fay, while a talented pianist, suffered from nerves. One way she found to help ease her nerves was to give her concerts in the form of “Piano Conversations” where she would give a brief talk before each piece she played. These conversations were wildly popular and soon many other people began to imitate what may very well of been Fay’s invention of the modern lecture recital. Between her talks and the many student’s Fay had in both Chicago and New York, Fay was responsible for much musical learning in the United States at the time.

Finally, I would like to add to Fay’s many accomplishments, how she felt about being an American woman musician. She had a great influence on music in the United States, playing, teaching and writing but also in setting the standard for music study abroad. With her wide view of music, both in the United States and in Europe, Fay developed some very important views about women in musical culture. In her article, Women and Music, she tackles the question of why, to this point, there have been so few women composers. She quotes an article from the Musical Times that reads:

“It is impossible to find a single woman’s name worthy to take rank with Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Brahms, Wagner, Schubert; we cannot even find one to place beside Balfe or Sir Arthur Sullivan. As a writer to the Musical Times remarked nearly twenty years since, “A few gifted members of the sex have even more or less fortunate in their emulation of men, and that is all. Not a single great work can be traced to a feminine pen” Nothing has been done since to lessen the truth of this remark. Year by year or great festivals produce new works; it is rare for even a minor production to be from the pen of a woman”

This obviously does not sit well with Fay and she returns with many valid points. The first of which, she cites that if the world is in fact 50,000 years old (Fay’s estimate, not my own) then why did it take from 48,000 years ago till the seventeenth century to create a great male composer. She also cites that within this time women have been dedicated to bolstering the males in their lives, supporting them in their musical endeavors without the opportunity to seek their own. She cites that women are now discovering their own musical style, “Women are beginning to realize that they, too, have brains, and even musical ones. They are, at last, studying composition seriously, and will, ere long, feel out a path for themselves, instead of being “mere imitators of men’” and she fully expects the great American woman composer to materialize quickly saying, “It has required 50,000 years to produce a male Beethoven, surely one little century ought to be vouchsafed to create a female one!”

Fay makes many critical points, citing women’s history, education history and music history, and many of her points ring true with readers of the 21st century. I have often spoken with musicians who have said, “I just prefer a male conductor, I’ve never had a female one who’s any good”. Unfortunately I doubt they realize that the first doctorate in conducting was not given to a woman until well into the second half of the twentieth century. Many people proudly proclaim “I hate listening to women composers, they only compose weird stuff!” Well hopefully I can change a few minds about women in music. I know Amy Fay did.

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7 responses to “Amy Fay

  • Catherine

    Well done, lady! Also, excellent photograph. 🙂

  • valeria

    I just found “Music Study in Germany” online. I read it 30 years ago lent to me by my teacher.

  • valeria

    Now I will get her autobiography.

  • David Campbell

    I, also, have greatly enjoyed Amy Fay’s book about her studies in Germany.
    However, I find myself at odds with the assertation that no great women composers are acknowledged.
    Perhaps your musical tastes do not go back as far as my own.
    A very clear candidate, to my mind, is Hildegard von Bingen, (1098-1179).
    Let me say that I am not a feminist, nor, indeed a believer, but I can readily recognise great music when I hear it.
    David Campbell.

  • Donald Wright

    I’m currently reading Amy Fay’s Music Study in Germany. It’s thrilling! She heard everyone who was anyone: Clara Schumann, Joachim, Tausig, Kullak, Liszt, N. Rubinstein, Bülow, Adele aus der Ohe (at age 10); she played for the redoubtable, elderly Herr Wieck; she witnessed Wagner conduct. And she describes the attitude, performance mannerisms, and personality of all of them. The book is also a well-written and engaging travelogue. She was also in Germany during war with the French, whom she jaw-droppingly describes as “insane barbarians,” “a savage people,” and “possessing a mad thirst for glory”–hardly perspectives with which we might agree, but fascinating in context. Highly recommended!

  • AT

    Cool, thanks. I read about Amy Fay in a book in passing, and wondered who she was. Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry, but you do!

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