Amy Fay: Pianist, Author, Piano Conversationalist

Pianist? Check.

Friend and student of Liszt’s? Check.

Bestselling author? Check.

Inventor of new educational concert formats? Check.

Co-founder of an important women’s musical organization? Check.

Largely forgotten today? A woman? *sigh* Check, check, yes, of course.

Amelia Muller Fay was born in 1844, the fifth of nine children. Her father was a Harvard-educated Episcopalian priest. Her mother was an artist, pianist, and singer who had been denied an education and encouraged to marry at sixteen. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Fay died young. Amy’s older sister Zina believed it was from overwork and thwarted ambition:

I saw her in her coffin…and I resolved to remember the woe and earthly wreck of her thwarted nature, and never to cease until I saw some better way for women than this which can so horribly waste and abuse their finest powers.

So that’s one way of dealing with grief.

Amy’s first piano teacher was her mom. After Mrs. Fay died, the adolescent Amy moved in with Zina and her husband, and began studying music at the New England Conservatory of Music and with John Knowles Paine, one of the first American composers of note. Paine recognized Amy’s abilities and encouraged her to take a leap: to move to Europe (alone!) to study abroad. Zina, perhaps remembering her coffin-side resolution, told her sister to go for it. So in November 1869, a twenty-three-year-old Amy Fay arrived in Berlin, ready to take on the world.


Amy Fay spent a whole six years studying in Germany, faithfully updating Zina every step of the way. She wrote with awe about seeing celebrities like Clara Schumann, Joseph and Amalie Joachim, Richard Wagner, and others, but her most affecting encounters were with Franz Liszt, who eventually became her friend and mentor.

Five years after Amy returned to America, the sisters collaborated on a slender book called Music Study in Germany. Zina (an accomplished author herself) took Amy’s letters, edited them, and published them. The book became an international sensation, sold out print after print, and was translated into a variety of languages. (Liszt himself commissioned the German translation.) Music Study in Germany is actually credited with inspiring hundreds, if not thousands, of American students to travel overseas in search of a first-rate musical education. Not surprisingly, Amy’s story was especially inspirational to girls.

If you have even a passing interest in 1870s music history, Amy Fay’s book is awesome. It’s just as rewarding to trace her personal development as it is her musical one. The letters begin somewhat hesitantly. Her self-doubt is palpable, and oh-so-freaking-relatable. But by the end of the book, after years of setbacks and hard work, she has evolved into an independent and self-assured artist.

There are so many highlights, but here are some of my favorites:

I send you Madame [Clara] Schumann’s photograph, which is exactly like her. She is a large, very German-looking woman, with dark hair and superb neck and arms. At the last concert she was dressed in black velvet, low body and short sleeves, and when she struck powerful chords, those large white arms came down with a certain splendor.

You can imagine what an ordeal my first lesson was to me. I brought him a long and difficult Scherzo, by Chopin, that I had practiced carefully for a month, and knew well. Fancy how easy it was for me to play, when he stood over me and kept calling out all through it in German, “Terrible! Shocking! Dreadful! O Gott! O Gott!” I was really playing it well, too, and I kept on in spite of him, but my nerves were all rasped and excited to the highest point, and when I got through and he gave me my music, and said, “Not at all bad” (very complimentary for him), I rushed out of the room and burst out crying.

Did you read my letter to N. S. in which I told her about Alicia Hund, who composed and conducted a symphony? That is quite a step for women in the musical line. She reminded me of M., as she had just such a high-strung face. All the men were highly disgusted because she was allowed to conduct the orchestra herself. I didn’t think myself that it was a very becoming position, though I had no prejudice against it. Somehow, a woman doesn’t look well with a bâton in her hand directing a body of men.

I have been learning Beethoven’s G major Concerto lately, and it is the most horribly difficult thing I’ve ever attempted. I have practiced the first movement a whole month, and I can’t play it any more than I can fly.

He has one little fairy of a scholar ten years old. Her name is Adele aus der Ohe—(isn’t that an old knightly name?)—and it is the most astonishing thing to hear that child play! I heard her play a concerto of Beethoven’s the other day with orchestral accompaniment and a great cadenza by Moscheles, absolutely perfectly. She never missed a note the whole way through.

ME: *wrinkles brow* *Googles Adele aus der Ohe* *sighs* *slaps Adele aus der Ohe’s name on a Post-It for part 6 / ???,???*

Not long ago Mr. Bancroft invited me to drive out to Tegel, Humboldt’s country-seat, near here, with the Joachims, and so I had a three hours conversation with that idol! He is the most modest, unpretending man possible. To hear him talk you wouldn’t suppose he could play at all. I’ve always said to myself that if anything would be heaven, it would be to play a sonata with Joachim, but have supposed such a thing to be unattainable—these master-artists are so proud and unapproachable. But I think now it might not have been so difficult after all, he is so lovely. Joachim was very quiet during the first part of the excursion, and I couldn’t think how I could get him to talk. At last I mentioned Wagner, whom I knew he hated. His eyes kindled, and he roused up, and after that was animated and interesting all the rest of the time! He said that “Wagner was under the delusion that he was the only man in the world that understood Beethoven; but it happened there were other people who could comprehend Beethoven as well as he,”—and indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any one understanding Beethoven any better than Joachim.

Liszt is the most interesting and striking looking man imaginable. Tall and slight, with deep-set eyes, shaggy eyebrows, and long iron-gray hair, which he wears parted in the middle. His mouth turns up at the corners, which gives him a most crafty and Mephistophelean expression when he smiles, and his whole appearance and manner have a sort of Jesuitical elegance and ease. His hands are very narrow, with long and slender fingers that look as if they had twice as many joints as other people’s. They are so flexible and supple that it makes you nervous to look at them. Anything like the polish of his manner I never saw. When he got up to leave the box, for instance, after his adieux to the ladies, he laid his hand on his heart and made his final bow,—not with affectation, or in mere gallantry, but with a quiet courtliness which made you feel that no other way of bowing to a lady was right or proper. It was most characteristic.

After the preliminary greetings we had some little talk. [Liszt] asked me if I had been to Sophie Menter’s concert in Berlin the other day. I said yes. He remarked that Miss Menter was a great favourite of his, and that the lady from whom I had brought a letter to him had done a good deal for her. I asked him if Sophie Menter were a pupil of his. He said no, he could not take the credit of her artistic success to himself. I heard afterwards that he really had done ever so much for her, but he won’t have it said that he teaches!

ME: *wrinkles brow* *Googles Sophie Menter* *sighs* *slaps Sophie Menter’s name on a Post-It for part 7 / ???,???*

But why just read excerpts when you can read the whole thing? It’s in the public domain and available for free download.

Although the book helped make her famous, her career certainly didn’t stop with it. After she returned to America, Amy worked as a performer, teacher, arts administrator, and writer.

One of her most noteworthy innovations was the idea of the Piano Conversation. A “Piano Conversation” was her name for a concert in which she both performed and discussed musical works. She gave Piano Conversations in small towns and big cities alike, winning at outreach before the field even coined the term.

In 1899, the ever-zealous Zina formed an organization called The Women’s Philharmonic Society of New York, and Amy was president of it from 1903 to 1914. The Society’s goal was to support “women musicians in performance, composition, theory, and music history.” To further that goal, they supported an all-women’s orchestra and a chorus, organized concerts and meetings, and even issued scholarships.

In addition, both Amy and Zina wrote extensively. Zina actually wrote a whole novel called New York: A Symphonic Study. (This in addition to another book called Cooperative Housekeeping, which laid out a proposed method for freeing women from the drudgery of housework.) Amy wrote many articles for magazines like The Etude, Music, the Musical Courier, and others. She had a special interest in the topic of women and music.

(Also, two of Amy and Zina’s siblings, Charles Norman Fay and Rose Emily Thomas, were pretty much the reason the Chicago Symphony exists, but that’s a story for another day.)

By 1917, Amy’s memory began to deteriorate, and by 1919 her family moved her out of New York. Stubbornly independent until the end, she kept expressing a desire to return home and to her piano students. She died in 1928 in the same nursing home that Zina had passed away in five years earlier.

After reading about Amy Fay – enjoying her brilliantly written observations about 1870s Germany – learning about her innovative educational programs – and seeing how she advocated for both art and women throughout her career – I find myself asking yet again:

How the f*ck did I not know this woman?


As always, come back in two weeks (on September 20th) for the next installment of the series: in this case, a look at the career of fabulous pianist Adele aus der Ohe.

You can support this series of entries on forgotten female musicians for as little as $1 a month on the blog’s Patreon page! Thank you thank you thank you to those who have pledged!!

1 Comment

Filed under Women In Music

One response to “Amy Fay: Pianist, Author, Piano Conversationalist

  1. Pingback: Author Marie Lipsius: Because Not All Female Liszt Fans Were Shrieking Maniacs | Song of the Lark

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s