Friday, January 11, 2019

Declassified - Women Composers Hiding in Plain Sight

 “Declassified: Women Composers Hiding in Plain Sight”.  What an interesting title for a blog written by Melissa Wertheimer, Music Reference Specialist, at the Library of Congress.  Click on the link below and read about Melissa’s first days working for the Library of Congress, finding a picture of five women composers with no identification.  Her search through the Library’s various collections to solve the mystery of the five women in the photo is intriguing.

The five women are (left to right):  Phyllis Fergus, Ethel Glenn Hier, Amy Beach, Harriet Ware and Gena Branscombe.  They were in Washington, DC having been invited to join the League of American Pen Women.  These five were the elite women composers of their day. 

This past November, Melissa presented her research in a lecture also entitled, “Declassified: Women Composers Hiding in Plain Sight”.   When the Library of Congress announced the lecture, Dan and I decided to take a long weekend trip to Washington to attend the lecture.  Also included in that long weekend was two mornings of research for me at the Library of Congress and tourist time. 

Entering the Music Division of the Library of Congress on Thursday, November 16th, my mission was to complete photographing Gena Branscombe’s letters to her publisher Arthur P. Schmidt.  I had begun the process of photographing her letters a year earlier but ran out of time to complete the project. 

At the help desk, I called up the second box of her letters which included 18 folders of her correspondence organized by year.  When the box arrived, I decided to re-read the 1923 and 1924 letters in the first two folders.  I wanted to remind myself what was transpiring in her life and musical career.  A letter dated February 18, 1924 held quite a surprise.

Written on two 4x6 cards, front and back, it is sides 3 and 4 of the letter that are most important.  As a P.S., she mentions,

“I forgot to say – I just had an interesting letter from Mrs. Dorothy DeWitt Watson – asking me join the League of American Pen Women – (all sorts of interesting people belong) – to come along to Washington in April – and have my things performed – (with Mrs. Beach, Harriet Ware and Fay Foster) at the convention.  Tea at the White House – a luncheon with President Coolidge presiding.”

“Won’t it be fun.  I’m as thrilled as a child at Christmas!   GBT”
(Gena Branscombe Tenney)

There in my hand was additional proof of why the women in the photograph were together and why there were concerts of their music.  I asked Melissa Wertheimer to join me at my research desk and then showed her the letter.  We stood in silent surprise.  Here was another display item to support declassifying women composers in plain sight. 

Two days later, Melissa presented her lecture with written historical commentary by men about women composers, the composers’ sheet music, pictures and Gena’s letter.  Congratulations, Melissa.  Job well done!  As with any research, it is an open ended project and I know Melissa will continue to dig deeper for facts about these five wonderful composers!

By the way, during our government’s shutdown, the Library of Congress is open for business.  Go search through the astonishing collections our nation’s library holds. 

Photograph credit:  All photos in this blog entry are in the Library of Congress, Music Division.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

For the Love of Two Countries

Please click on the link below to read a recently published article I wrote for the Association of Canadian Women Composers Fall/Winter Journal.  

Entitled, "For the Love of Two Countries", the article focuses on the music Gena Branscombe wrote for her country of birth, Canada, and her adopted country, the United States.  

Her song settings and her oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny allow her to share her dedication to and love of both countries.  

When the journal opens in your browser, scroll down to page 5.  Enjoy!

Composer Gena Branscombe

Monday, November 26, 2018

Greenwood Cemetery - Picton, Ontario, Canada

Destruction of cemeteries is a painful process for the family members whose relatives’ grave markers have been harmed.  Is the thrill of doing something bad and maybe never getting caught what gives the perpetrators the right to cause this harm?  Does being disrespectful of other people’s property ever cross their minds? 

In June of this year, the 140 year old Glenwood Cemetery in Picton, Ontario was vandalized with headstones and monuments nearly being destroyed and 150 of them being toppled off their foundations.  The cemetery estimated it would cost $150,000 to make all the repairs.  Fund raising has begun.  

Fortunately, my friend and helpful research colleague in Picton, John D. Lyons, went to the cemetery to inquire about Branscombe family records only to find out that their headstone had been harmed.  Buried in this cemetery are Gena Branscombe’s father - Henry William Branscombe, her mother – Sara Elizabeth Allison Branscombe and their infant son - Allison Arthur Branscombe.  Their headstone was broken off from its foundation. 

Mr. Lyons informed the manager of Glenwood Cemetery that he was in contact with someone who knew descendants of the Branscombes.  The cemetery manager had no known family contacts on file and was happy to hear the Branscombe headstone was not an “orphan”. 

With the information John e-mailed me, I in-turn e-mailed Gena’s grandsons and great nieces. Family members took action by contacting the cemetery.  We were informed of the amount of money it would take to have the Branscombe grave marker remounted on the foundation.  In addition, the grave marker has metal inlays to the lettering which is rare and was expensive to have made in its day.  The metal is tarnished and needs restoration work for an additional fee.

With family members and a few others contributing, the Branscombe headstone in the Picton Greenwood Cemetery will be remounted and restored.  May those who lie beneath the headstone rest in peace knowing they are cherished.  Their memory has been preserved by the Branscombe descendants.   

*photos taken my John D. Lyons

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Red Folder and Records

Every other blog entry I make seems to be about Gena Branscombe items that have been given to me or that I purchased from E-bay or Amazon websites. 

This past week two people sent me Branscombe items.  From the daughter of Agnes Conway, a Branscombe Choral member, I received 45 rpm records of the December 1953, Spring and December 1954 performances the Choral gave at the Broadway Tabernacle Church and Town Hall.  Thank you to Mary Conway for these recordings.  Agnes Conway passed away on December 31, 2017.  I am fairly sure she was the last Branscombe Choral member.  

From the grandson of  Branscombe Choral member, Marie Zieres, I received her choral folder.  Covered in red fabric, the folder matched the robes and hats the women wore for their concerts.  Neatly tucked inside the folder were the programs from the Choral’s December 1949 and May 1950 concerts.  The small treasure inside the folder was a receipt made out to Marie Zieres dated March 6, 1950 in the amount of $5.00 paying for her dues. 

In June 2008, my husband, Dan, and I traveled to Jamestown, NY to visit with Mrs. Zieres.  Her grandson, Mark, had been researching the Branscombe Choral, his grandmother’s beloved singing group.  After contacting me, it was decided that a visit with his grandmother would be helpful in understanding the members of this women’s chorus who were dedicated to their conductor.  Taking with me the Branscombe Choral scrapbooks, Mrs. Zieres looked at them reminiscing about her days singing with the Choral and recognizing fellow members.  She had brought her letters from Miss Branscombe, concert programs, records and the red folder to show me. 

Her descriptive stories about Miss Branscombe always being the leader who dressed beautifully for rehearsals and performances, spoke eloquently, was a true professional teacher, musician and conductor with patience and encouragement asking that her ladies sing to the best of their ability were a delight.  Notice the folders held by the Choral members in the photo below!

To Mary Conway and Mark Curtis who gave me these treasured possessions of their family’s Branscombe Choral members, I thank you.  The red folder, programs, receipt and records add to the story of conductor, Gena Branscombe, and the impact her music making had on the world at large.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pilgrims of Destiny - Performance at Clark University

In May 2015, I wrote a blog entry about Gena Branscombe’s dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny.  There was a detailed description of what was happening in Miss Branscombe’s and her family’s life at the time.  Also, I had found an original 1929 piano/vocal score online and purchased it.  Please go back and read the posting.

This blog is about Pilgrims of Destiny and wonderful news to share with you. 

Pilgrims of Destiny will be performed Saturday, April 27, 2019 at Clark University in Worcester, MA.  Dan Ryan, Director of Choral Activities at Clark University, will conduct this work which has not been performed since 1940.  

When I began work on my Gena Branscombe Project, it was always my dream to see that Pilgrims of Destiny be performed once again.

Last year I received an e-mail from conductor Dan Ryan telling me had found the score and was interested in performing the work.  Several weeks later we spoke by phone.  He was quite excited by the historical story of the Mayflower's arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  In addition, he loved the music.  He wanted to know about Gena Branscombe, her life, music and much more.

In August 2017, along with my friend, Heather Seaton, the two of us spent two and a half days at the Library of Congress taking photos of the original orchestral score and parts.  That is the only complete conductor's score there is.....preserved in that wonderful library.

Over the past year, Dan Ryan and I e-mailed back and forth about Pilgrims.  He is an energetic, positive energy and determined musician.  Approaching the powers that be at Clark University, he proposed the school perform Pilgrims of Destiny.  They agreed!  We were off and running to see that a performance would happen. 

Over the past two days, Dan and I began creating a new score in the music program Finale.  Tedious, note-for-note entry with the end product being a complete conductor's score and a piano/vocal score.  We spent time at the Lincoln Center New York Public Library for the Performing Arts looking through Gena's collection held in the Special Collections department. 

In particular, we studied Gena's own pencil written conductor's score, the one she then handed off to a professional copyist to create the score that is in the Library of Congress.  To see her markings, where she placed a voice part due to a lack of space on the staff paper, how she changed from Clarinets in A to Clarinets in B flat and more was a delight.

Dan asked questions about Gena, we discussed details of the concert, a possible display of Gena items I have in my collection and much more.  Dan and I became Gena buddies!

To say the least, Gena's family is thrilled and will be in attendance.  The Library of Congress and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts are happy that this work long held in their collections will be performed.

Within the next week or so, Pilgrims of Destiny will have its own blog.  Dan and I will make entries explaining our work.  A beautiful and historic piece of music finds its way from its premiere in 1929 to a performance in 2019.  A woman composer of renown in her day, to near obscurity and now her Pilgrims of Destiny will return to the concert hall.

By the way, if you hear loud screams and expletives, it is me entering the voice parts into Finale.  I am learning and I am slow and I will conquer this computer program.....somehow.
To Dan Ryan, thank you for your passion and understanding of Gena's music.  You were chosen!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Mary Sharratt - Ecstasy - Book Review

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Mary Sharratt's new book, Ecstasy.  A fiction based on fact  book about composer, Alma Mahler, who was the wife of composer Gustav Mahler.  Many thanks to her publisher for sending me the book.   

Below is my review of Ecstasy with hopes that you the readers of my blog will read the book.  

The late 19th century was witness to three women composers of renown – Clara Wieck Schumann, Fanny Mendelsohn Hensel and Alma Schindler Mahler.  All three had their compositional talents repressed by the men in their lives - Clara’s husband, Robert, and Fanny by both her brother Felix and father.  Alma Mahler’s pianistic skills, as well as her intuitive and subtle understanding of music, portray a woman of musical talent beyond the norm.  Her career was stifled by not only her mother but her composition teachers and future husband.  Clara and Alma’s husbands were over-achieving and depressed individuals. 

In Mary Sharratt’s new book, Ecstasy, we are given an in-depth look at the music and life of Alma Mahler.  Sharratt takes us on an emotional and musical journey with its highs bordering manic behavior to lows of despair. And, through it all the author guides the reader to see Alma as a woman who not only survives what comes her way, but finds her own life’s path choosing whatever manner she deems correct for herself.  Ecstasy, an historical and coming of age book, is one to read slowly while you absorb an era long gone.

History tells us that Alma was not a soft, demure person.  She was anti-Semitic yet married twice someone of the Jewish faith.  She had her edges and demands based on her family’s connection to the rich and famous of Vienna. 

Alma’s allure caused artist Gustav Klimt to give her her first kiss.  He wanted to paint her and seduce her.  Alexander von Zemlinsky taught her piano and yearned for her.  He saw her passionate understanding of the poetry she set to music.  Penniless and knowing he could not afford to support her in the manner she was brought to expect, he desperately wanted to marry her.  Alma, who caught the eye of nearly every man of importance in Vienna, was a beauty with a personality that absorbed adulation.

Vienna’s high society parties, the opera house, walks in the park and the beautiful clothing worn by the rich are described by the author with vivid attention to detail.  The reader felt immersed in the moment of Vienna’s magical glory.

The depth of research about Alma Mahler is apparent from the opening sentence of the book.  We are introduced to her accompanying her mother, a soprano, singing art songs.  Alma is easily drawn to the audience member, Gustav Klimt, who has given her a great deal of attention.  Thus begins the path of each man who enters her life.  A slight flirtation by this beautiful woman and men become her love interest.  With great concern over proper behavior and correct manners, she insists her music comes first.  Her songs with their painstaking choice of texts to express her longings, despair and ongoing fear of love express what is suppressed in her.

Ms. Sharratt’s colorful and descriptive language paints for the reader a woman of some naiveté whose underlying goal is to marry a man of fame and be kept as properly as she wants.  We see a soft, feminine side with disappointment and despair that make us sympathetic to her. 

At the opera, Alma is introduced to Gustav Mahler. 
Her infatuation with the famous composer and conductor, a man considerably older than she, becomes intense and his interest in her is ignited.  Her mother and stepfather voice their concern over her involvement with someone of the Jewish faith.  They express to Alma the crime of her future children having a Jewish father.  No one will stop Alma from marrying a man of high esteem in the music world who would not disregard her songs and who she loves passionately.

The couple’s engagement and marriage were the highlight of Vienna’s season with the press following their every move.  Sharratt captures the monetary woes, destination travel exhaustion and two creative personalities bound together in love and a husband’s career.  With clarity she describes the roller coaster marriage of Gustav and Alma.  She leads the reader to believe you are one of the characters involved in their everyday happenings. Gustav’s total commitment to his conducting career and in his off-season vacation, composing, leave Alma alone, void of a partner to participate in her emotions and desires.  She has become, in some ways, a trophy wife who is deeply loved yet must understand her place as wife, mother and organizer of her composer husband’s hectic career.  With the loss of their oldest daughter, a chasm of grief and non-communication grows.  Sharratt’s writing connects us with Alma’s grief and the reader hopes she will come through this time.  We feel her doubts and anger.  We crave for her to express herself in a more forthright fashion.

Alma’s passions and desires culminate in an affair with architect Walter Gropius, who would become her second husband.  She has made a decision of the heart to attend to what she defines is her need for love and understanding.  She openly admits to ardently loving both men.  When Mahler challenges her about the affair, Alma returns to him.  Mahler falls ill and she becomes his caretaker until his death.  Only after his death, does she realize how much Gustav wanted her to be his soul mate, the love of his life and the person who kept him grounded amidst the demands of his music career. 

Author Mary Sharratt completes Ecstasy with Alma’s return to her lover, Walter.  A confrontation between the two questioning each other’s fidelity and love is a scene where Sharratt leaves the reader with a view of the woman Alma was in real life.  Alma was a determined, self-absorbed, articulate woman in control of her life no matter what may come her way. 

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.