Sunday, April 20, 2014

New Discovery in Johanna Beyer Research

by Amy C. Beal

Our government may not work quickly, but in some cases it eventually gets around to something useful and important. Eight months ago, I ordered composer Johanna Beyer’s passport records from the State Department. (Since she died seventy years ago, in 1944, these documents are a matter of public record.) Last week, to my surprise, I received a registered envelope from U.S. Passport Services with a facsimile scan of two passport applications filed by Beyer: one in 1930, and the other in 1935. Beyer (18881944) traveled back to her native Germany in those years to visit her mother in Leipzig and to do musical work in London. She had emigrated to New York in 1923 and was naturalized as an American citizen on 24 January 1930.

Beyer’s familiar cursive script covers the applications. Some new facts emerge from her responses to the form’s questions. We learn that her father, Bernhard Hermann Beyer, was born in 1843 and was deceased at the time of the first application. Her mother turned 85 in the summer of 1935. On the first application Beyer listed her occupation as “Music Teacher”; on the second, she augmented that description to “Music Teacher and Composer.” (Beyer’s earliest known work, a waltz for piano, is dated 1931, and she composed two music-theoretically significant clarinet suites in 1932.)

In Beyer’s 1930 application, she requested that her passport be mailed to an organization called Open Road, Inc., which resided at 20 West 43rd Street in New York City. A quick web search reveals that Open Road, Inc. was an organization that arranged for students and professional people to travel to Europe for the purposes of studying labor and socialist practices overseas, including in Soviet Russia. Though there is no indication that Beyer participated in one of these tours, she may well have known some of the organizers. Her connection to a socialist-friendly group during this time coincides with a lot of documentation I’ve found in the course of my recent research that places Beyer in the middle of a community of political activists sympathetic not only to socialist ideals, but to racial and civil rights struggles as well. (These details are laid out more fully in my forthcoming book on Beyer for University of Illinois Press.)

Finding new primary sources after so many years of searching is particularly exciting—the detective in me gets great satisfaction out of finding new clues. But these documents are made even more valuable because they contain two new photographs of Beyer. Up until now, we have only had one photograph of Beyer: a dramatic, black and white, sideways, semi-profile shot found by musicologist Melissa de Graaf in the Composers-Forum Laboratory archive at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Other photographs existed at one time, but have not been found: a close friend writes in her diary of a photograph taken of Beyer and her niece in front of the Library of Congress in July of 1928 while the two women were on holiday in Washington, D.C., for example. If only I could locate it.

The newly surfaced photos are striking. They reveal the steady gaze of a 41- and 46-year-old woman, respectively. The 41-year-old Beyer still looks young: her short hair is dark, and she wears a long, flapper-like bead necklace and a scooping V-neck blouse. The contrast with the later photograph is almost shocking. In a mere five years her hair appears to have gone completely gray (on the 1935 application itself she lists her hair color as “brown-gray”). The corners of her mouth appear to be a little more down-turned. Unlike the earlier photo, she is looking slightly to the left of whoever was taking the photo, an indirect glance that makes her seem a little uneasy.

The profile photo has always troubled me. It is dark, and her sunken eyes are obscured. The severity and drama of the image has helped reinforce a long-handed-down assumption that Beyer was harsh, cold, difficult, shy, awkward, lonely, depressed, and isolated. In fact, for much of her life, and before the onset of the illness that killed her, she appears to have been none of those things. The new photographs allow us to imagine a woman in the middle of her life, a life vibrant with friends, music, work, books, travel, entertainment, restaurants, theater, political activism, interest in global affairs, piano students, and, last but not least, her gradual discovery—and then enthusiastic cultivation—of herself as a composer.

Beyer’s passport photos are reproduced below.

Johanna Beyer, 1930

Johanna Beyer, 1935

Amy C. Beal is professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is  director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble. Her research explores the history of American experimental music.She is author of New Music, New Allies—American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification (University of California Press, 2006); Carla Bley (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series; 2011); and Johanna Beyer (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series, forthcoming).

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