Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Her/Music:Her/Story


An e-mail from Allison Charney arrived in my mailbox asking me how to pronounce Gena Branscombe’s first name.  She went on to explain that with her colleague and friend, Donna Weng Friedman, the two would be hosting four one-hour radio shows featuring women composers entitled -  Her/Music:Her/Story. 






The shows were broadcast on WQXR on four consecutive Friday evenings at 9 PM starting on September 13th.  

The first show celebrated the 200th birthday of pianist/composer Clara Schumann (October 13, 1819 – 1896).  Allison and Donna took us on a journey discussing Clara’s life as a piano prodigy, wife to composer Robert Schumann, mother of eight children and composer.  Interspersed with their informative discussion were examples of Clara’s music - piano, instrumental and vocal. 

The second broadcast was the Three B’s: Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), Gena Branscombe (1881-1977) and Amy Beach (1867-1944).  How creative that is!  Again our hosts discussed each composer’s life and music then highlighting that with examples of their music.  Congratulations to Allison and Donna for performing live one of Miss Branscombe’s and Mrs. Beach’s songs. 


French composer Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944) was the subject of the September 27th broadcast.  A popular and successful composer who won the French Legion of Honor award and was an internationally recognized artist, she died alone in 1944.  There have been nearly 200 Cecile Chaminade clubs in existence some of which continue to honor her today.  We were treated to the composer’s piano and vocal music.


The final broadcast featured Women of our Time – composers Jennifer Higdon, Stefania de Kenessey, Thea Musgrave, Kim D. Sherman, Gabriela Lena Frank and Jessie Montgomery.  To listen to these composers’ music and hear Allison and Donna’s personal stories of connection to these women was fascinating.


Congratulations and thank you to Allison Charney and Donna Weng Friedman for creating informative and wonderful radio broadcasts.  They definitely gave life to the title Her/Music:Her/Story.  The countless hours put into producing these shows more than proves dedication, passion and support of women composers across the ages.  Their knowledge of each composer’s life and music along with the ability to discuss them was an education for the listener.  

From this listener and supporter of women composers, I hope you will continue these broadcasts and may they be heard across the country inspiring musicians and arts organizations to perform, promote and commission works by women composers!



Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Recordings


In 2018 two recordings were released that included works by Gena Branscombe.  Orchestral music of American composers from the late 19th century and early 20th century represents one of the CDs.  The second recording features the piano music of 13 American women composers. 

American Romantics III garnered the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Reuben Blundell, the Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music.  Recording the music of David Stanley Smith, Carol Busch, Edward MacDowell, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Cecil Burleigh, Ludwig Bonvin and Gena Branscombe – not all the composers are familiar names to everyone, the music is beautiful and a tribute to  the wide range of American music.  Congratulations. 


Gena’s piece on this CD, “A Memory” was originally composed for violin and piano.  As a gift to the founder, Edwin Fleisher, of the Philadelphia Symphony club, composer William Happich arranged the work for harp and strings in 1922.  The arrangement is now held in the Free Library of Philadelphia.

On the Centaur Label, pianist Joanna Goldstein released her Nasty Women CD.  Along with Miss Branscombe’s “The Squirrel Party,” this recording includes works by Gena’s friends and colleagues Florence Price, Mary Howe, Harriet Ware, Amy Beach, Ethel Hier, Mana-Zucca and others.  Listening to each of these women composer’s distinctive piano works and musical styles is an aural and emotional treat. 


Gena Branscombe’s home country has never forgotten her.  Over many years Canadian musical artists have recorded her songs, violin and piano works.  Elaine Keillor, piano, has been a champion of Miss Branscombe’s music recording her “Valse Caprice” on her CD By a Canadian Lady – Piano Music 1841-1997.  With violinist Ralitsa Tcholakova, the two recorded Gena’s “Sonata in A minor” on their Remembered Voices CD.






 Le Souvenir – Canadian Songs for Parlour and Stage features baritone Russell Braun singing Gena’s song “Serenade.”  The same song was included on the CD, When You and I were Young Maggie – 19th Century Canadian Salon Music.  There is a slight twist to this CD as Gena’s song was performed on flugel horn and piano. 



Then, there is my CD, Ah! Love I Shall Find Thee: Songs of Gena Branscombe.  Songs and piano works by the composer.





Among the CDs, the individual’s work, dedication, effort and musical abilities gives voice to American and Canadian composers.  The composers are not as famous as the three male B’s.  The recording artists have given their listeners music from the past that warrants being heard.  Open your ears and soul to lesser known composers and artists as they have much to offer the classical music world!




Sunday, September 22, 2019

Kings of Hearts - Betty Tenney


“The youngest member of our family is to be called Elizabeth – as her next oldest sister put it - “Elizabeth for long, and Betty for short.”  If you ever see the frivolous “Cosmopolitan Magazine” – please look at the cover of the September issue and you will see Betty – good as she is.  It’s an excellent likeness.  She’s the most responsive little mate imaginable ….  loves to be sung to, will stop short in the loudest howl if her mother sings – and makes a funny little “high up” sound all the time one is singing, as tho’ she were trying to sing too. “

The quoted excerpt is from a September 4, 1916 letter to Gena Branscombe’s publisher, Mr. Arthur P. Schmidt, of Boston. 

The baby she refers to is the Tenney’s third daughter Betty who was born in June 1916.  At the time of this letter, Betty’s two older sisters, Gena and Vivian, were staying with their maternal grandmother in Picton, Ontario.  Mother Gena and her husband John were home in New York City tending to their newborn.



It was quite a surprise to find out that baby Betty was on the September 1916 cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine.  Entitled, “King of Hearts,” and illustrated by Harrison Fisher, it shows Betty and two adoring parents.  The parents in the picture are not Gena and John. 



This revelation led to an online search for an original copy of the magazine.  I did find a picture of the cover but not the actual magazine.  If one keeps searching online, you may find something even more intriguing and so I did. 

An offering for an autographed antique “King of Hearts” print came up for sale and I purchased it.  Renowned artist Harrison Fisher (1877- 1934) was a highly sought after illustrator in his day.  By 1918 the "King of Hearts" image had been made into postcards and prints were available for people to purchase.



It is unknown how Betty came to be painted for the cover and if Gena and her husband knew the artist or someone who worked for Cosmopolitan magazine.  With great pride and sentiment of her parents, little Betty was on the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine!



#BringingBackBranscombe

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

That Richard Wagner Letter


The insights of the written word when given to its reader are limitless.  Recently I have been reading Gena Branscombe’s letters to her publisher, Arthur P. Schmidt of Boston.  Her letters begin in early January 1911 and continue through December 1951.  The correspondence is abundant covering what works will be published, royalties, what concerts she was performing and the singers who were performing her songs.  She included personal matters of what her children were doing, their shenanigans and the advice her husband gave her. 


Then one particular letter caught my attention with Miss Branscombe’s philosophical and heartfelt admiration of a composer.  Her writing style is in the moment of what goes through her mind.  She uses dashes as a way of pausing to think of what she will express next. 

In her letter to Schmidt dated June 26, 1915, she writes,

“The work of Wagner is to me so transcendental -  that I personally feel that he – as a man – would only be carrying out a sacred trust when he demanded – if he ever did – that the world – for whom he wrote should give him a living.  I couldn’t find it in my heart to criticize him for anything – the scales are so mightily over balanced in the world’s debt to him.  It sounds very wonderful to me that you have a letter actually written by him in the flesh.  I have such reverence for Wagner and Beethoven as revealers of God through the medium which means most to me – that I feel as though I could hardly have born it to have known them in the flesh - and lived.  That sounds young – perhaps – but it’s most true.” 

Arthur Schmidt had a Richard Wagner letter thirty years after the composer’s death.  Did someone give it to him, did he know someone connected to the Wagner family or did he purchase it?  We will never know yet he obviously shared that information with Gena.  She then waxes poetic about her admiration for both Wagner and Beethoven. 


Another letter written, February 7, 1916, caught me by surprise when she says,

“My Wagner’s letter hangs right by my piano – and I find it very much of a friend.  Have you the slightest idea to whom it was written?  Julien says he only lived at “4 Rue Uralign” a short time – so it must have been written to someone he really liked or he wouldn’t have taken the trouble so soon after his arrival in Paris.  Julien never mentions Mathilde Wesendonck – does he – and quite minimizes the friction between Wagner and Mrs. Wagner.  It is to me – an interesting history – most illuminating in just the ways that some of the other histories are not so helpful.  It was more than good of you to let me have it – ………”    (For clarification – Julien is Julien Tiersot was a French musicologist who wrote about Wagner.) 



Gena had in her possession a Richard Wagner letter gifted to her by Schmidt.  Was it his Wagner letter mentioned in her 1915 letter or another he managed to purchase?  What happened to the Wagner letter, I do not know.  She may have kept it for a short while and returned it.  

Possessing a hand written letter of Richard Wagner today would be any serious musician's most treasured item.  You would hold this giant of a composer in your hand with his spirit emanating off the page.  The power of the written word in an actual letter is something e-mail does not have the ability to convey.

#BringingBackBranscombe

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Library of Congress Interview

In late April, Wendi Maloney of the Library of Congress e-mailed to ask if I would be willing to be interviewed about my work on the music and life of Gena Branscombe.  Most important, was the work on reviving Miss Branscombe's dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny.  Below is the hyperlink to the interview.

https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2019/07/inquiring-minds-rediscovering-one-of-americas-leading-songwriters/

Over the past 20 years, it has been my honor to work on Gena's music and life.  There is more to come in the future - stay tuned!



#BringingBackBranscombe

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How to spend a Thursday afternoon


We are hectic and over scheduled people who allow work and other responsibilities to rule our lives.  We take little time to step back, breathe and assess what is happening.  Maybe there will come one day when an unexpected opportunity arises and we question whether we should tear ourselves away.  Maybe we should take a step forward to do something that will bring us joy.  Thus it was Thursday afternoon, June 6th, for me. 

A late morning e-mail from Gena Branscombe’s grandson, Roger Branscombe Phenix, said he wanted to go to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to look through his grandmother’s music.  Should he call or e-mail to let the Special Collections department know he was coming?  In a return e-mail I explained you went to the third floor, requested the music and then waited to see it.  An idea came to me, “Would you like me to go with you?  I have some work to do with the collection.”  The answer came back, “yes!” 

After a difficult morning of dealing with two telephone customer service debacles, I needed a breath of fresh air to change the day despite my long “to do” list.  Roger and his wife, JoAnn, picked me up in front of my building and off we went to the library at Lincoln Center. 

Entering the third floor Special Collections Department, we filled out a request form for the boxes of the pencil workings and sketches for Pilgrims of Destiny, then waited for them to be brought up to the study area.

Once they arrived, Roger and I spent time looking through numerous folders of Gena Branscombe’s original workings of her dramatic choral oratorio.  The one hundred year old staff paper was dusty with that “old” musty smell to it. 

Among the pages of music would be a typed page of the libretto.  I wondered if the typed pages were done by Gena’s husband, John, who edited the libretto for his wife.  With knowledge of his family archives, Roger was quite sure they were not typed by his grandfather as they were too neat with no mistakes!  Another page might have a note that said it was a sketch of a theme for a soprano.  Many pages had workings with X’s across the page, not to be used and obviously Gena was not pleased with what she had composed. 

The original orchestra workings were definitely not in Gena’s script which means she had a professional person write out her work.  Gena’s script is not precise, rushed and at times quite messy. 

To sit in the library with Gena’s grandson holding and experiencing her original scores was quite a treat.  Normally I sit in the library alone with her music.  This time, we shared her music from 100 years ago. 

By the way, June 6th was a special day for Roger.  It was his birthday and he had wanted to go to the library to look at his grandmother’s music.  We celebrated with coffee and his wish was granted! 

#BringingBackBranscombe

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


Twenty years have passed since I began my Gena Project, as I call it.  Many of you have read and heard how I discovered her music, my journey through her life, co-authoring and performing a one-woman show, writing articles and giving talks about composer Gena Branscombe.

Through the twenty years there have been countless people who have helped me, encouraged me, contacted me and been cheerleaders for the work I was doing.  As I look back, I have been blessed by each of these people, what they have generously given me and for their friendship.

Very few of my Gena people had met one another and in some ways, they were compartmentalized because of their location or expertise.  Yet, each day I have been thankful for all of their contributions to my work.

When Dan Ryan, Director of Choral Activities, at Clark University in Worcester, MA, announced he would be performing Gena Branscombe’s oratorio Pilgrims of Destiny on April 27, 2019, I knew that was the day all my Gena people would come together.  Following the concert at a reception, I would be able to thank each of them and they would be able to meet one another.

In attendance were Gena Branscombe’s grandsons, Roger Branscombe Phenix and his wife, Joanne, and Morgan Scott Phenix.  Gena’s family has been most generous with their time sharing stories, pictures, newspaper clippings and more.  Their thanks for the work I have done warm my heart. 


Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow and husband Bill.  Laurine met Gena and wrote her dissertation on her.  Over the years Laurine shared with me her time spent with Gena as she listened to the composer tell her life story.  What a friend and generous colleague she has been and will continue to be. 


Allison Branscombe and husband Bob Remen.  Allison is Gena’s great niece and my writing mentor.  Allison makes sure to let me know I must continue writing and get that children’s book finished!

Martin Hennessy and partner, Tom.  Martin is my friend and fabulous pianist.  Truthfully, without Martin’s encouraging me to record Gena’s songs, the Pilgrims of Destiny concert would probably never have taken place. 

Heather Seaton, a friend and champion of Gena’s music.  The two of us photographed each and every page of the Pilgrims of Destiny score at the Library of Congress.  A dear person!

Linda Johnson and her sister, Carol, who are the great granddaughters of Gena’s publisher, Arthur P. Schmidt.  Linda found me on the internet and contacted me to recount her family’s story with Mr. Schmidt.  Someday soon, Linda and I will meet at the Library of Congress to look over the Schmidt Company business papers. 


 George Boziwick and his wife, Stephanie.  George, now retired, was head of the American Music Collection and Special Collections at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  In the early days of my Gena Project, George listened as I explained all I wanted to do.  He gave me solid advice and over the years we would see one another as I made another trip to the library to look through Gena’s collection.  George’s encouragement was instrumental in my getting started on Gena’s life and music. 


Dan Ryan, conductor of that evening’s concert.  What a wise man, a good conductor and friend.  It has been a pleasure working with someone determined to present a piece of music composed by a woman.  He understood the historical importance of Pilgrims and will continue to put forth Gena’s music.  You have made my twenty years’ dream of having this work performed….a dream come true.  Thank you. 

Charles Peterson – my voice teacher from far longer ago than 20 years.  All those years ago he tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to study voice with him.  Several years later, he opened his studio door encouraging me to find my place in the music world.  I did!

Dan Holland – my husband of 33+ years and champion of the work I have done.  Thank you for comprehending what a project this was going to be, what it was and where it will go in the future.   

And, to all my other dear friends and neighbors who traveled to attend the concert, thank you.  

A weekend filled with real people, real Gena Branscombe people.  The conversation flowed, friendships were renewed, friendships were made and a dream came true.  Thank you all.  May Gena’s music live on in the 21st century. 

#BringingBackBranscombe