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.

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!


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! 


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. 


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!


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. 


Friday, March 15, 2019

National League of American Pen Women Article

The National League of American Pen Women's Spring magazine features an article about their illustrious former member, composer Gena Branscombe.  Miss Branscombe became a member in 1924.  In 1928 the Pen Women awarded her dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny, their National Best Composition Award.

The upcoming performance of the oratorio at Clark University under the direction of Dan Ryan, Director of Choral Activities, is mentioned in this article.

Click on the link below to read the article.


Clark University, March 10 and 11, 2019

On Sunday, March 10th and Monday, March 11th, I was invited to Clark University to work with conductor, Dan Ryan, his chorus and student soloists.  To say the very least, it was two fun-filled days of meeting students, listening to them sing Gena Branscombe’s music, answering questions about the composer’s life and music as well as participating in the evening chorus rehearsal for Pilgrims of Destiny.  What a great job these musicians are doing to make the concert happen. 

This is the beginning of a dream coming true!  Twenty years ago when I met Gena Tenney Phenix, Gena Branscombe’s eldest daughter, she showed me her copy of the Pilgrims’ score.  When I asked if I could borrow the score to make a copy of it, she replied that she did not want the music to leave her house.  That was fine and I understood.

Over the ensuing years I studied the Pilgrims of Destiny score in the Special Collections section of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  At the Library of Congress I studied the original conductor’s score.  A copy of the 1929 piano/vocal score came up for sale on E-bay and I purchased it which only made my dreams of a future performance stronger.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, Dan Ryan, Director of Choral Activities at Clark University, purchased a copy of the score at a yard sale and made it his mission to perform this piece of music.  His mission will come alive with the Saturday, April 27th performance.  Thank you, Dan.

With his students, they have created the hashtag #BringingBackBranscombe.  They have put news of the performance on all levels of social media including the Pilgrims of Destiny blog, Facebook, Twitter and more.  They have applied for and been given grant money to cover the expenses of the performance.  Two of Dan’s students have programmed Gena’s art songs on their recitals.  How wonderful is that?  The enthusiasm that the Clark University students have shown for Miss Branscombe’s music is heart-warming. 

Thank you Dan Ryan and the Clark University Choir for your hard work.  I look forward to seeing all of you at the end of April and hearing this beautiful music. 


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Below is the hyperlink to the Pilgrims of Destiny blog.  The students at Clark University led by their conductor, Dan Ryan, are preparing for the upcoming April concert of this beautiful and historical piece of music.  I love their hashtag  #BringBackBranscombe!  

When you read the blog, click on the "FOLLOWERS" button.  You'll be notified when new blogs are posted.  You will get updates on their rehearsals and more.

Last evening via Skype, I was able to see and listen to their rehearsal.  Dan Ryan is preparing his students for April's performance.  It will be special  Great job, Dan!  


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Clark University - Gena Branscombe's Pilgrims of Destiny

Clark University has officially announced the performance of Gena Branscombe's dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny

Last performed in 1940, this oratorio gave Miss Branscombe an avenue to express her great passion for the understanding of the pilgrims' journey to their new country.  Filled with love, conflict and deep seated faith of the travelers, her rich romantic music is a reminder that the word composer is gender neutral. 

Seemingly lost to the world of music by the mid 1950s, Pilgrims of Destiny is brought to life in the 21st century by Clark University's choir directed by Dan Ryan.  

Please join us on Saturday, April 27th.


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.