Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Memory

Recently a CD of turn of the century symphonic works was released on the Naxos label.  Entitled American Romantics III,  the CD includes works by Carl Busch, Edward MacDowell, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Cecil Burleigh, Ludwig Bonvin, David Stanley Smith and Gena Branscombe.  The music is performed by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Reuben Blundell

All the music on the CD was provided by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Edwin Fleisher (1877-1959) did not intend to have an orchestral library but rather a Symphony Club that trained students interested in playing orchestral music.  One of the first employees of the Symphony Club was William Happich (1884-1959), a teacher and conductor.  For his students, Happich would arrange works from the collection.  Miss Branscombe’s violin and piano work, “A Memory” was arranged for harp and strings.  The work is beautifully played on the CD.

Two months after the CD was released in late April, Miss Branscombe’s original 1911 violin/piano sheet music for “A Memory” came up for sale on E-bay. 
Several days later her “An Old Love Tale” also composed for violin and piano came up for sale.  Both works were published by Arthur P. Schmidt of Boston and are inscribed to Ilse Niemack with good wishes to her from Gena Branscombe.  Ilse was an American violinist and composer who concertized across the United States.  She was known for having a warm tone and a sincerity of expression.

Gena Branscombe dedicated “An Old Love Tale” to Kathleen Parlow, a Canadian born violinist nicknamed “The lady of the golden bow”. 

Congratulations to the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra for releasing these lesser known American works.  What a gift to the music world at large.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Ellen Repp

Arriving in New York City in late February 1980, finding a voice teacher was a top priority for me.  Through recommendations of friends and colleagues, I called Miss Ellen Repp who lived near Lincoln Center.  Her resonant and warm voice answered the phone, “Hello, Repp here!”  That was a bit of a surprise way to answer the phone.  I quickly learned she always answered her phone calls with, “Repp here” or if she called me she would say, “Kathy? Repp here”.  Amusing and quite telling of her humorous warm personality.

Our conversation proceeded when I introduced myself, explained who recommended her as a teacher and then asked if I may please audition for her voice studio.  A time was agreed upon for a week later and I was assured she would have a pianist on hand to play for me. 

I arrived at Miss Repp’s apartment, knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman in her 70s with red hair beautifully arranged on the top of her head, dressed elegantly with a shawl over her shoulders.  Miss Repp invited me into her living room where her grand piano took up only a small portion of the room.  She seated herself in her favorite chair, the pianist and I conferred on my repertoire and the audition began.  It went well and she agreed to take me as her student. 

Miss Repp’s warm and inviting apartment became my voice lesson home for the next six years.  Together we would work on vocal exercises.  I would sing repertoire during which she would give insightful vocal corrections and style suggestions.  I left each lesson with something new to work on. 

Over the years of studying with her, I learned that prior to her becoming a professional singer and voice teacher, Miss Repp had been a social studies teacher in the state of Washington, her home state.  Her prize student was Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington state.  The two stayed in touch and he credited her with his love and understanding of government.

Ellen Repp studied voice, moved to New York City in the 1930s where her career took off as an oratorio soloist, church soloist and with forays into opera.  In 1947 she appeared on Broadway in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene performing the role of Olga Olsen.  She returned to Broadway in 1948 in the musical Sleepy Hollow in the role of Wilhelmina.  She traveled to Europe where she sang in Wagner operas. 

Miss Repp had a wicked sense of humor and could catch you off-guard with some of her slightly off-color jokes.  Always with a great heart-felt laugh, she let you know she was not being offensive.  She enjoyed her daily "after work" cocktail with her neighbor down the hall. 

At the time I studied with her, she taught nine months of the year in New York City and two months of the year in Germany where her students performing in opera houses there had lessons with her.  When she retired in 1993 at the age of 91, she informed her students she was going to take up dancing.    She died in 1999 at age 97.  She was a force of nature.

Of course, in my blog postings there is a connection to Gena Branscombe.  Quite to my complete and utter surprise I recently found out that Miss Repp knew Gena Branscombe and performed an aria from her dramatic oratorio Pilgrims of Destiny on a 1940s WNYC radio broadcast.   

Several months ago I obtained audio files of the acetate records of the broadcast.  I was excited to hear how Miss Branscombe had conducted her score.  With my own piano/vocal score of Pilgrims of Destiny open in front of me, I began to listen to the broadcast with all its scratches and blips of old recordings.  The announcer explains the plot of the upcoming scene, the names of the characters and the soloist’s names.  “Singing the role of Dorothy Bradford is Ellen Repp”. 

I thought to myself, “Yes, I know that person” but didn’t give it any further thought as I concentrated on listening to the music.  My husband, Dan, said, “Kathy, that’s your former voice teacher, Ellen Repp!”  I stopped playing the recording and went back to make sure we were right.  Miss Repp’s rich voice filled the haunting lullaby with the emotion of the pilgrims’ long journey and their children’s unknown future. 

Yes, Ellen Repp knew and worked with Gena Branscombe in 1940.  I was stunned as I put our story together.  I had no idea in the early 1980s, while I studied with Miss Repp, that during the 1990s I would discover the music and life of a woman composer named Gena Branscombe.  Surprises like this one ….. there are no words to describe them.  

Gena, “Repp” and I are all connected now.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Agnes Conway

Earlier today the funeral of former Branscombe Choral member, Agnes Conway, was held in East Rockaway, New York.  She died at the age of 95 on December 31st.  I send her daughter, Mary, and extended family my sincerest sympathy for their loss.

When Martin Hennessy and I performed, Life! Love! Song!  A Visit with Gena Branscombe, at Hofstra University in 2008, Agnes attended the performance. 

An ad for our concert appeared in her local newspaper.  She ordered tickets for herself and her daughter.  Days before seeing the ad, she had been sorting through her possessions trying to decide what to keep and what to throw out.  When she came across her Branscombe Choral memorabilia, she chose not to throw any of it away.  After making the arrangements to attend our concert and much to our surprise, she gathered her Branscombe Choral pictures, programs, letters and more, cross-stitched book covers, put the items in binders and gave me her treasured possessions. 

As I have said frequently in my blog postings about Branscombe Choral items and Gena Branscombe personal letters that come my way, I am astounded by how long the women of the Choral held on to these items.  Gena Branscombe was not only charismatic, a fine conductor, a well-rounded teacher of music but also a kind, caring human being who cherished the people with whom she came in contact.  In return for Gena’s dedication to the Branscombe Choral, the women singers were loyal members who performed to the highest ability they could muster for their conductor.

In the Fall of 1953 Agnes joined the Branscombe Choral on the suggestion of a friend.  She performed the Christmas concert of 1953 at the Broadway Tabernacle Church, the spring 1954 Town Hall concert and the final Branscombe Choral concert of Christmas 1954 again at the church.  For fifty four years Agnes preserved her programs, personal letters, pictures and articles about Miss Branscombe. 

Since 2008, Agnes and I were friends on Facebook.  We occasionally communicated by e-mail.   As part of an ongoing project about Miss Branscombe, I asked Agnes to please answer a list of questions about Miss Branscombe, her rehearsal and conducting style, and her own personal experiences singing with the Choral.  She graciously and with great detail took the time to type answers to each and every question. 

Agnes may be the last Branscombe Choral member to have died.  If there are other members alive, they have not found me nor I them.  A passing of an era as 63 years has gone by since the Choral’s final concert.

The universal language of music is a mystery, something that words fail to define yet our mind frees our souls to absorb its impact on us.  In Agnes’s case, music’s subtle language touched her as a member of a women’s Choral performing with a revered conductor.  How lucky she was. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

An undated letter

As prolific a letter writer and correspondent as Miss Branscombe was, it never ceases to surprise me when one of her letters appears on E-bay for sale.   For many years the owner of the letter held onto it.  They or someone processing their estate made the decision to put it up for sale.  Maybe there was hope that a Branscombe family member or someone with knowledge of the writer would purchase the letter understanding the importance of its message.

An undated letter of Miss Branscombe’s was listed on E-bay and, of course, I acquired it.  The address at the top of the letter is 180 Claremont Avenue, New York, NY where she resided with her family after their return to the city from Mountain Lakes, NJ. 

The salutation is to a Miss Diane. The first paragraph acknowledges that Gena knew Diane’s mother and that she had driven by their “fine old place” belonging to the family.  Apologies are said for Diane’s mother not feeling well.  There is no indication who Diane or her mother are or how they knew Miss Branscombe. 

Now for the clues of when this letter was written.  Gena mentions her oldest daughter, “another  Gena”  being thirteen years old who has had a bad time with asthma.  She mentions they lived in the “hill country” while daughter Gena was recovering and healing from asthma. Oldest daughter Gena was born in 1911 thus the letter was written in 1924 or 1925.  The family lived in Mountain Lakes, NJ from 1921-1923 due to young Gena’s health problems.  The move back to New York City had been rather recent when the letter was written.

Ever the one to promote her own music, Gena enclosed with her response to Diane an autographed copy of one of her songs.  Exactly which one it was is not made clear. 

Gena closes the letter by mentioning she will soon be traveling to Picton, Ontario to visit her mother and bring home two of her children who were visiting their grandmother.  Miss Branscombe then tells Diane to tell her mother that she will be driving through Wellington, a city near Picton.  

Diane and her mother are from Canada, most likely acquaintances of the Branscombe family.  Research will have to be done to seek out who Diane and family are.  In the meantime, another of Miss Brancombe’s letters is preserved and a snatch of her daily life revealed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Musical Courier 1933

Beginning in 1880 and continuing into the mid 20th century, Musical Courier was the weekly classical music trade magazine.  Nearly every angle of the classical music world was covered from obituaries, laws and legal business in the world of music, scholarly articles on music and instruments.  African-American music and women’s rights were topics of interest as well as the Nazi influence on European culture. 

Composers as well as performers were chosen to be featured on the cover.  Publicity of this kind was and is priceless for a musician’s career. 

Promoting performances of her work, Youth of the World, Gena Branscombe was featured on a 1933 cover of Musical Courier.  Now added to my Gena collection is an original framing copy of the cover.  

By 1890 Musical Courier had its own British version and in 1897 the publisher, Mr. Marc Blumenberg, split the magazine into two editions; one being for musical news and the other for industrial departments.  Purchased by Professor Lisa Roma in 1958, Musical Courier remained in print until 1961. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

MacDowell Club Christmas Concert Program

“Christmas Festival ~ MacDowell Club of Mountain Lakes”  -  a green program held together with gold colored thread.  Delicate and fragile inner pages spell out a concert given by the MacDowell Club chorus conducted by Gena Branscombe.  The concert was presented on Tuesday evening, December 20, 1932 at 8:30 PM at the Community Church House.   The performance was given nearly 85 years ago during the height of the great Depression. 

Established in 1896, MacDowell Clubs formed to honor American composer, Edward MacDowell (1860-1908).  At the height of their popularity there were 400 such clubs across the United States.  In the ensuing years the number of clubs has dwindled to only five remaining clubs; Mountain Lakes, New Jersey being one of them.

The MacDowell Clubs were community organizations where lectures were presented by renowned people of their day, concerts of piano or vocal literature were performed, some chapters established their own symphony orchestras as well as choruses.  Like the Mountain Lakes MacDowell Club, most often the clubs were for female members only though a few had male members.  Individual clubs maintained their financial backing of the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Miss Branscombe along with her husband and three oldest daughters moved to Mountain Lakes, New Jersey in 1922 residing there until 1924 when they returned to New York City.  It was in the Fall of 1922 when she was invited to conduct the MacDowell Club chorus.  She held that position until 1943 when World War II gas rationing prevented her from driving to Mountain Lakes. 

Two of the members of the MacDowell Club chorus, Emma Davidson and Madeleine Davis, went on to become charter members of Gena’s Branscombe Choral in New York City. 

In my possession now is a MacDowell Club of Mountain Lakes Christmas concert program from 1932.  The original owner of this program was most likely a member the Mountain Lakes Club and its chorus.  A cherished memory of making music with Gena Branscombe, she held onto this program for nearly 85 years.  

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Women Composer News - Aprirl 2017

The recent announcement that the opera, Angel's Bone, composed by Du Yun had won her the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music is cause for the continuing celebration of women's musical accomplishments. My sincere congratulations go to Du Yun and past Pulitzer Prize winning women composers, Jennifer Higdon (2010), Caroline Shaw (2013), Julia Wolfe (2015), Shulamit Ran (1991), Melinda Wagner (1999) and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (1983).  These composers' Pulitzer Prize winning compositions span the musical genres of Violin Concerto, Oratorio, Symphonies, Partita for 8 Voices, Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion and now an opera.  Our assignment as supporters of women composers is to listen to their music, celebrate their works and educate, educate and educate continuously that women composers be heard without gender barriers.

Along with the Pulitzer Prize for Music announcement, there have been other articles recently written about and by women composers.  Each article highlights their musical interests and life's journey to get where they have been and are.

The BBC published an article about Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) and her sister, Lili Boulanger (1893-1918).  Nadia was known for her teaching and mentoring of some of the 20th century's greatest composers.  Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass, Igor Stravinsky and others benefited from her knowledge of theory, composition and her encouragement to find their own musical expression.  She was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic!  Envious of her sibling, Lili, who also was a composer and the first woman ever to win the Prix de Rome competition, Nadia went on to promote her sister's music after her untimely death from intestinal tuberculosis at age 24.  Two women composers, who left an indelible mark on an era, require us to read and know more about them.

New Music Box published an article by composer Emily Doolittle, who shared the emotional and physical challenges of composing and motherhood.  Her honesty as well as her suggestions to the professional music world is insightful.  Thank you, Emily, for sharing your experience of being a working mother composer.

Canadian composer, Carol Ann Weaver, was featured in an article on The CWC Project, Facebook page.  She is quoted at the beginning of the article, "Music has always been within me.  It's the magic, the breath, the liquid in life.  It's why I'm here, and it's always been that way."  Read about her life story filled with music and the explanation of her in-depth study and work before beginning a composition.  She is the Chair of the Board of Directors at the Association of Canadian Women Composers.

Yes, I know that my blog is filled with entries about women composers and that I continuously promote their music.  Bear with me because I shall continue to champion them, always!  I want to feature women composers who are known and unknown to me, then share them with you, my readers.

Here are four women composers featured in various media outlets and publications.  Their individual lives are bound together by their compositions.  How lucky we are to be listening, experiencing and sharing their gift of music.  Now, we stand up and work to promote all women composers, their lives and music.