Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Where Are All The Black Female Composers


Where are all the black female composers?  A great question we should all consider.   Have we studied the black female composers in music history?  Have they been included in women composer reference books or were they presented at women composer and women in music conferences?  The answer to those questions is no. 


A recently published book, “Where Are All the Black Female Composers?: The Ultimate Fun Facts Guide,” written by Nathan Holder with captivating illustrations by Charity Russell, answers the questions.  Mr. Holder is a London based musician and author.  Ms. Russell, originally from Zambia, now resides in Bristol, England.  


Written for ages 8-14, the book covers over 150 years of music composed by Black Female Composers.  Four young guides take the reader on a journey introducing each of the composers.  They ask questions, share facts about the composers’ music and lives as well as offering titles of their compositions.  Before you begin reading, scan the QR code in the back of book.  Spotify will play the compositions of these women. 

The reader experiences Florence Price, Errollyn Wallen, Margaret Bonds, Leila Adu, Julia Perry, Shirley Graham Du Bois and more.  These women span the world coming from the United States, Ethiopia, United Kingdom, Brazil, Nigeria, Cuba and Jamaica. 

Black Female Composers long forgotten, ignored or lost  are brought to life in this 21st century book.  Celebrating Black History Month and Women’s History Month will be made easier because we have Nathan Holder’s book that honors the achievements of black female composers. 


Where Are All the Black Female Composers? is a gift to the world and to music education for children and adults. 




Monday, July 6, 2020

Pandemic 1919 - COVID 19

Dating back to 1929 the six degrees of separation theory was first proposed by a Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthy.  By 1967 a sociologist tested the theory and proved that an unknown person is connected to someone you know through six other people.  The theory proves how small the world is.

Then, there are experiences where the separation is even smaller, maybe one degree of separation.  Recently it came to me that through one degree of separation I had known of a child who died in the 1918-1919 flu epidemic, the Spanish flu.  Yes, this was a century ago.

Reading Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow’s dissertation on Gena Branscombe, the composer recounted the influenza outbreak and how it tragically affected her family.  Their three year old daughter Betty died of the flu. Reading the description of the family’s illness with Gena caring for her husband and three daughters was heart-wrenching.

Later I had the privilege of meeting Gena Tenney Phenix, Gena Branscombe’s oldest daughter.  There on her living room wall was an oil painting of a little girl.  I inquired as to who she was.  The answer was her sister Betty.  Mrs. Phenix, who was eight years old at the time of her sister’s death, was able to describe in detail how sick her family was except for her mother.  She explained how Betty declined and nothing could prevent her death.  Eighty years after Betty’s death, the experience of losing her sister had left an indelible mark on her heart. 

Whether through six degrees of separation or one degree of separation, our country is ravaged by COVID-19 and all of us will know someone who has had the virus or died from it.  For me the one degree of separation from a century ago and knowing 17 people who have had COVID-19 with three of them dead, makes me realize our individual responsibility for caring for one another and respecting each other’s lives rather than selfishly thinking of our own comforts and rights.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

While in Berlin

While in Berlin, Germany in 1909-1910, Gena Branscombe was studying piano, practicing five to six hours a day, composing, performing recitals of her works at the American Women’s Club of Berlin, gaining recognition for her talents with an article in the Musical America magazine in the United States and accompanying recitals for singers and instrumentalists. 

One such recital was at a dinner party given by the American Ambassador to Berlin, David Hill and his wife, whose honored guests were President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.  Gena accompanied her soprano friend, Belle Forbes.  Late afternoon of the dinner party, the two musicians were invited to perform with a car picking them up at 9 PM.  Even with this late notice, the two ladies were ready which Gena described in her Thursday, May 12, 1910, letter to her future husband, John Ferguson Tenney:

“I was ready when the auto came, with Belle looking like a queen.  She had Harriet Illsey’s diamond tiara and Mrs. Shayne’s yellow gown and was the most beautiful thing you ever saw.  I wore my ancient – and honorable lace gown with one pink rose on the left shoulder and no “jools” except a pearl pin.”

Gena went on to describe their performance:

“In spite of Belle’s being so tired, she sang superbly, and they praised her so.  I came in for my share too, and Mrs. Roosevelt said so many sweet and kindly things…..”

“That night, Mrs. Roosevelt said, wouldn’t Belle sing something of mine, and Belle said what a pity it was that she had brought nothing with her.  As an advertisement, I could have had nothing better, and it was the place for it – they wanted English songs….”

“It would have been so easy for Belle to have done it for me, she knew all the stuff…”

“I settled it all about Belle and am perfectly happy and comfortable about her –have no feeling of resentment – and it’s all right.  It came over me that that was Belle’s chance, and that it was wrong of me to in any way detract from her complete and undivided success – which would have been the case had I appeared in the light of a composer, for that art is taken very seriously over here…. it was wrong for me to have wanted my things done,… Belle has gone through tortures over here, and all these lovely things were coming to her, and I mustn’t feel hurt or resentful, only glad for her.  And it’s all right, and I’m sunny again” 

A great disappointment for Gena became an opportunity to take personal stock of her role in the evening’s performance and she makes peace with Belle’s decision.  Gena’s personality trait of looking within herself, assessing the situation and finding a resolution with which she could live is what made her a great musician, colleague and leader of women throughout her career. 

What brought this blog to be written?  My friend and researcher extraordinaire, John Lyons of Picton, Ontario, Gena’s hometown, sent me a clipping from the May 21, 2020, Picton Gazette’s “Stories from the Past” section.  Noted there in 1910 is the announcement that Gena was to play at the American ambassador’s home for President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.  It also mentions that the Emperor of Germany was to be in attendance.  Unfortunately, King Edward of England had died and the Kaiser traveled to England for the funeral. 


Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Gena Branscombe Project 2020 Scholarship Winners

The Gena Branscombe Project announces their 2020 scholarship winners. Congratulations to these talented winners who will carry on Miss Branscombe's legacy of high musical standards, leadership, equality and inclusivity.


Genevieve Welch

Catherine Willingham

Sydney Pepper


Michaela Gleason


Friday, May 15, 2020

Always a student

The scene – the summer of 1978 in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn in Pendleton, Indiana.  On an out-of-tune upright piano my friend and colleague, George Daugherty, is accompanying me as  I am singing for Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano, Rosalind Elias - a private master class with this wonderful singer. 

I finish an aria, Miss Elias corrects a few things, makes suggestions and gives compliments.  George and I then launch into a second aria and when finished Miss Elias again offers a critique and praise.  She is gracious, honest, kind and proffers professional advice.

Miss Elias asked where I was going to school and I respond that George and I are students at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.  Immediately she asks, “Do you study with Italo Tajo?”  Yes, I had been directed by him in the opera La Cenerentola and had taken his opera characterization class. 

In our continuing conversation, she states that Italo is a great teacher and colleague.  A year or two earlier, Miss Elias had performed Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Mr. Tajo directing.  Watching her face light up while she described the experience indicated the joy she had working with him. She had sung the role of Rosina many times before working with Italo.  Rosalind recounted how he had opened her eyes with new insights into Rossini’s music and his staging brought her a whole new perspective on the character.  The opera had come alive like she had never experienced previously.  She poured compliments on the great Italo Tajo as a teacher, director and colleague.  She then said I should make sure to listen to all he has to offer as Italo had a deep connection to an operatic era that must be kept alive.

Adding to her Italo Tajo story, she went on to recount her recent performances of Charlotte in Werther with tenor Alfredo Kraus in the lead role.  Again, her face lit up with the excitement of having worked with a wonderful colleague, someone who also taught her something new.  Each evening as Mr. Kraus sang the aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller” he held a letter in his hand and at the exact moment each evening, the letter floated out of his hand to the stage floor.  Miss Elias said that every evening her heart skipped a beat as the letter left his hand as it always took her by surprise.  It was organic, it was intense, it was a transcendental love sick poet moment where his emotions gripped his colleague’s heart.  She asked Mr. Kraus how he was able to recreate that moment every evening making it new and yet always the same.  His response was that the moment was in the music waiting for him to express it.  She held great respect for him as he taught her something new and something to add to her own musical knowledge.

As I listened to her stories I realized that though Miss Elias was an accomplished Metropolitan Opera star, someone who performed around the world, she was vulnerable, warm and always a student seeking out new ideas and ways to improve her craft.  Always a student!

How did this experience happen?  Well, my friend and colleague, George Daugherty, made it happen and I am thankful to him for asking Rosalind Elias if she would take the time to listen to me sing.  All these years later, I remember her warm and encouraging spirit.  Thank you, George.   

George was the founder, conductor and director of his own Pendleton Festival Symphony in his hometown of Pendleton, Indiana.  That summer Miss Elias was his featured soloist with his orchestra and the Harvard Glee Club.  George invited me to be Miss Elias’s understudy -  learn her arias and the Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, then rehearse with the orchestra and George the night before Miss Elias arrived.  What an honor and privilege to work with George and his fine orchestra.  And, I learned a great deal from the experience - always a student. 

Ever the student and not one to pass up a new opportunity to perform …. in 2011,  Miss Elias made her Broadway debut at the age of 81 in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies!  Sadly, Rosalind Elias died on May 3, 2020.  I’m sure she continues her quest of always being a student!


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

WNYC - The Branscombe Choral

Found in the New York City Municipal Archives was a March 15, 1949 recording of the Branscombe Choral performing on WNYC.  The women’s chorus was led by “one of America’s foremost woman musicians,” Gena Branscombe. 

The four pieces featured on this broadcast were arrangements of folk tunes about the out-of-doors and the beauties of nature:

1.      “Girls in the Garden” -  arranged by H.A. Schemerling
2.       “O River Flowing Dark and Wide” – A Czech folk tune – arranged by Gena Branscombe
3.      “The Soldier” – a Kentucky folk tune – arranged by Katherine Davis
4.      “Murmur on, Sweet Harp” – a newly discovered Stephen Foster song – arranged by Gena Branscombe

The year 1949 marked the 15th Anniversary of The Branscombe Choral with members celebrating at an anniversary dinner.  They began the year performing on WNYC, then Town Hall in May and completing the year with their annual Christmas concert at the Broadway Tabernacle Church in December.  

Scroll to the bottom of this  hyperlink and you will find the 13 minute performance.  Another blog posting will feature Pilgrims of Destiny.

Enjoy listening to the broadcast which is Courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives. 


Thursday, April 23, 2020

Honorary Degree

“Am only just back from my trip to the coast – have had a simply marvelous time, hospitality – friendliness, two concerts, speeches – interviews – my honorary degree – (Marion Bauer also received one) – and such scenery from the southern desert to the Canadian Rockies.”

July 12, 1932….a letter to Mr. Austin at the Arthur P Schmidt Company in Boston – her publisher.

Gena Branscombe recounts the honorary degree conferred on her from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.  She was proud and thankful to be given a Master of Music degree alongside fellow composer and colleague, Marion Bauer.

Gena joined the faculty of Whitman College as Head of the Piano Department in 1907.  During her two year tenure at the college, she taught piano, theory and composition.  Concerts of her music were performed there. Metropolitan Opera soprano, Lillian Nordica was on concert tour in Seattle and performed Gena’s song “Hail Bounteous May.”  She met her future husband, John Ferguson Tenney, while teaching at Whitman. 

Miss Branscombe’s career went on to include studying in Germany, becoming a recognized composer whose music was often performed, being a conductor and a promoter of American women composers.  The honorary Master’s degree was well deserved.

Composer Marion Bauer was a native of Walla Walla, Washington, who taught at New York University and Juilliard.  Her promotion of American music helped to found the American Music Guild, American Music Center and the American Composer’s Alliance.  The honorary Master’s degree was well deserved.

During an interview Miss Bauer mentioned that Gena Branscombe, Amy Beach and she are known to be “the triad of American women composers……the “three B’s of music.”  She admitted that Amy Beach was America’s outstanding woman composer and Gena was a close second.  What a great colleague Marion Bauer was. 

In 1932, the “three B’s of music” usually referred to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.  Marion Bauer meant three living American women composer B’s!

It may seem strange that only a Master’s degree was conferred.  In the early 1900s, a Bachelor’s degree was required to teach in college.  Today, colleges require a doctorate and it is an honorary doctorate that is given to an individual for outstanding contributions in their given field.

A little background - the first honorary degrees were given in the Middle Ages.  The first recorded degree was awarded by the University of Oxford to Lionel Woodville in the 1470s.  He became the Bishop of Salisbury.  The same university conferred a doctorate on Franz Joseph Haydn in July 1791.