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.


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

Friday, May 10, 2019

Recognition from Canada





With many thanks to the Honourable Neil Ellis, Member of Parliament, Bay of  Qunite, for the letter below:






Monday, April 22, 2019

Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Richard Duckett of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette wrote a feature article about this Saturday's performance of Gena Branscombe's dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny.   Conducted by Dan Ryan, Director of Choral Activities at Clark University, the concert includes the Clark University choirs, soloists, children's choir and orchestra.  A woman composer's award winning work will have its first performance in the 21st century!

https://www.telegram.com/entertainmentlife/20190420/rediscovered-choral-drama-by-woman-composer-to-be-performed-at-clark-university-in-worcester


#BringingBackBranscombe




Saturday, April 13, 2019

Pilgrims of Destiny Concert at Clark University

On Saturday evening, April 27th, the Clark University Choirs under the direction of Dan Ryan will perform Gena Branscombe's dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny.  

Composed in 1919, the 1929 premiere of this work was given in Plymouth, MA with the last known performance in 1940.  This performance will mark the 21st century premiere of Miss Branscombe's masterpiece.  

The concert is free and open to the public.  Please join us in Worcester, MA at Clark University's Atwood Hall for what will be an exciting evening of beautiful music. 

#BringingBackBranscombe