A music prodigy from the age of one year, Amy Cheney taught herself to read at age two, and by four she was composing. She studied in the United States, what little formal training she had taking place largely in and around Boston, and she learned orchestration on her own, reading Berlioz's treatise of the subject, which she translated herself from the French. She had already begun a successful career as a concert pianist at the age of 16, when she performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Her marriage to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, however, ended any possibility of a performing career, for it was unheard of in those days for the wife of a prominent and successful physician to engage in public performance for pay. Instead, as a compromise that her husband found acceptable, for the next 25 years, Amy Cheney Beach pursued a career as a composer of songs, chamber pieces, and a handful of large-scale works, including one major symphony.
Her works were taken very seriously at the time. In 1892, she became the first woman composer to have a work performed by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, when it performed her Mass in E flat, and that same year she became the first woman to have a composition performed by the New York Philharmonic. Her music is treated even more reverentially today, in view of its accessibility and contrasting "newness." Beach's "Gaelic" symphony, for example, sounds very much in the tradition of Brahms, but not quite like any Brahms piece ever heard.
After the death of her husband in 1910, she resumed her performing career, and became a celebrated virtuoso at the piano in Europe, especially in Germany during the years before World War I. Performances of her symphony in Leipzig and Berlin were very well received, and she was regarded as a major modern composer in Germany. She returned to the United States in 1914 and moved to New York, and spent most of the rest of her life working full-time as a performer and composer. In 1932 she completed her opera Cabildo, and she unveiled a very successful piano trio in 1938. She found herself, during the final 30 years of her life, as the de facto dean of female composers, and her success paved the way for serious music careers by dozens of women who followed in her wake.
Beach's major influences during the first half of her career were Wagner and Brahms, while later on she showed the strong influence of McDowell and Debussy. Her songs and chamber works were much better known in America than her orchestral works, but in Europe the Gaelic symphony found a respectable audience. Beach showed a natural gift for memorable melody in all of her work, and startlingly assured development. She tried to use folk sources where suitable, in the manner of the 19th-century romantics, and even much of her original material has the feel of folk.