Johanna Magdalena Beyer (July 11, 1888 – January 9, 1944) was a German-American composer and pianist. She composed on of the earliest recordings of Electronic Music with a piece she wrote in 1938 called “The Music of the Spheres.”
Johanna Beyer was born in Leipzig, Germany, but very little is known about her life prior to her move to the United States in 1923. She sang for three years at the Leipziger Singakademie and graduated from the Deutscher Konservatorien and Musikseminare, having studied piano, harmony, theory, counterpoint, singing, and dancing. Colleagues in New York recalled that her pianism and musicianship were excellent and that her musical training seemed traditional and solid. She spent 1911–1914 in America, though nothing is known of her activities during those years. Returning to the U.S. in 1923 (according to the biographical notes she provided in a Composers’ Forum concert program), she studied at the Mannes College of Music, receiving two degrees by 1928. She taught piano to support herself, and may have taught at Greenwich House Music School, but struggled to make ends meet, resorting at times to WPA work and Ladies’ Home Aid. In the late 1920s or early thirties she began studying with Ruth Crawford, Charles Seeger, and Dane Rudhyar and in 1934 took Henry Cowell’s percussion class at the New School for Social Research. Her musical life during these years was intertwined with Seeger, Crawford, Cowell, John Cage, and others in this modernist circle such as Jessie Baetz, a now-forgotten composer and painter who studied with Beyer. Her most intimate friendship was with Cowell; surviving correspondence reveals a tumultuous, and possibly romantic, relationship between the two composers. Beyer acted as Cowell’s informal agent and secretary from 1936 to 1941 on a voluntary basis (only receiving partial compensation in 1941).
Though she was largely ignored as a composer, even by the experimental music community in New York, she did have a number of important performances. The first was at the New School for Social Research in 1933, where her Three Songs for Soprano, Piano, and Percussion were performed. A year later, the second movement from her Suite for Clarinet and Bassoon, performed in one of Henry Cowell’s New Music Society of California concerts in San Francisco, was perceived as a “doleful dull duet.” Aaron Copland reviewed a New Music Quarterly Recording of the movement. John Cage performed two movements of her “Three Movements for Percussion” in his northwestern percussion tours during the late 1930s. In 1936 her skills in multiple media came to the fore in her play, The Modern Composer, for which she wrote the lyrics, composed the incidental music, choreographed the modern ballet, designed and created the costumes, slides, and advertisements, directed the production, and performed the piano part. The play was performed under the auspices of the Federal Music Project at the Central Manhattan Music Center, but manuscript sources for it have not yet been found. Her music was performed twice in the New York Composers’ Forum, in 1936 and 1937.
Beyer battled with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, during the final years of her life. She died in New York, New York, in 1944.