Sunday, March 26, 2023

A Crumpled Poem

 Recently Gena Branscombe’s grandson, Roger, sent me a copy of a poem he had found in the family files. Over many years the crumpled piece of paper held the words to a  poem titled, “Farewell to THE OLD TIMER”    To the right of the title is typed, “American Folksy Song of 1942 (With apologies to all concerned.”) 

With great humor the poem writers, who were Branscombe Choral members, describe in great detail the demise of Miss Branscombe’s “rack.”  Gena raised her wand to beat the time and the rack went down!  The “rack” is obviously her conductor’s stand that with much assistance could not be revived.  The Choral members found the “dough” to gift their beloved conductor a new rack hoping she doesn’t want the old one back!  What wonderful humor and one does wonder what the “American Folksy Song of 1942” was. 

This poem/song must have been performed by Choral members at their annual Spring luncheon.  

In 1942 with World War II raging in Europe and the South Pacific, America’s armed forces were fighting to preserve our country’s freedom.  The women of the Branscombe Choral collected money to replace her conductor’s music stand and kept their humor about the entire happening.  Their loved ones may have been abroad fighting in the war.  The Choral members were making music and memories with their conductor, Gena Branscombe.

No matter our country’s hard times, no matter our personal stories whether happy or sad, music doth soothe the soul….as does humor. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Dr. Regan Russell - The Arts Songs of Gena Branscombe


Work on doctoral dissertations is arduous with specific guidelines for research and writing form.  For over 3 years Regan Russell researched Gena Branscombe’s life through publications from over 100 years ago and interviews.  She sought out scores of 150 arts songs many of which were out-of-print, some not available because Miss Branscombe lost or destroyed them and the original manuscripts of some were in libraries where copies had to be made.  Persistence….that describes Regan and her dedication to Gena Branscombe’s songs!


On November 17, 2022 at Boston University, Regan presented her doctoral dissertation “Love in a Life: The Art Songs of Gena Branscombe.”  Her presentation included a lecture on Branscombe’s life, song development and a performance of five songs beautifully sung by baritone Gray Leiper with Regan accompanying him.  Regan’s work was scholarly, passionate about the subject matter and her musicianship exceptional.


Her dissertation includes a complete list of Branscombe’s songs, listings of songs for specific voice ranges, suggestions for groupings of songs with program notes explaining how the group works.  With explanations of the poets and their poetry, how the songs fit together and more, her understanding of Branscombe’s songs will be an informative aid for teachers and singers alike. Gena Branscombe’s songs – all 150 – of them are now alive in the 21st century!  Thank you, Dr. Regan. 


There was a live stream of Regan’s presentation.  At the Q&A after she finished, the surprise came when Dr. Morgan Scott Phenix, Gena Branscombe’s grandson, congratulated Regan on all of her work and added his family’s thanks. 


Congratulations, Dr. Regan Russell – “you were chosen.”  It was an honor and privilege to be part of your doctoral degree journey. 

Below is a link to Regan’s dissertation.  Enjoy reading it. 

Read her dissertation on OpenBU here.




Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Gena Branscombe Project has announced applications for their 2023 scholarships are now open.  They are awarding a $400 scholarship to an up-and-coming student composer, arts administrator and conductor. The deadline for applications is April 30th..

Honoring Miss Branscombe's belief in education and mentorship we offer these scholarships in her name.   

Share this information with your students and colleagues

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Women's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago - January 1930


Dear Mr. Austin:

Am leaving for New York in the morning – after a very wonderful visit.  Kindness of every sort has been showered upon me – officially and personally.  Am enclosing two notices which I’d like back – please later.  All the papers were good to me – and the consensus of opinion seems to be that I really can conduct!

(January 18, 1930 Gena Branscombe letter to her publisher, Mr. Austin, at Arthur P. Schmidt Co. in Boston- held at the Library of Congress)


On January 8, 1930 a woman conductor, Gena Branscombe, led The Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago in a performance of her music, “The Dancer of Fjaard, ‘On Over the Water’ from “Pilgrims of Destiny,” and the ‘Symphonic Suite for Orchestra’ from her “Quebec Suite.”  From this concert she noted the importance of kindness, positive press coverage and the recognition that “…I really can conduct.”

The Chicago women’s orchestra was found in 1925. Their mission was to premiere music by women composers, play under the direction of acclaimed women conductors, award scholarships and give female professional orchestral brass and woodwind musicians the opportunity to perform on a high level.

Having been part of the Chicago music culture from 1896 through 1907, Gena Branscombe was invited to conduct The Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.  

“…I really can conduct.” 

Over 90 years ago the inequity in the classical music world was jarring.  Inequity? Has the inequity vanished?  Does it continue to be a problem?   Hmmmm – let’s take a look at those questions. 

Gena was conducting a women’s orchestra because of gender gap.  She was capable of conducting any orchestra whether men or women or a combination of both.  Women were not auditioned or hired by all –male orchestras.  They were considered second rate musicians unable to handle long, arduous rehearsal schedules and extended hours of touring and concertizing. 

To right this obvious wrong – as we roll our eyes in disbelief - women formed their own orchestras to perform music they were capable of playing.  The same music men played.  From the mid to late 19th century through the mid-20th century women’s orchestras such as the Vienna Damen Orchester, The Berlin Lady Orchestra, Ladies Philharmony, Montreal Women’s Orchestra, Women’s String Orchestra of New York, The Cleveland Women’s Orchestra and the Boston Fadette Orchestra existed.  These women orchestral musicians were as serious, capable and as well trained as their male counterparts.  Yet they had to be self-made orchestras, self-promoted and self-supporting through their own fund-raising! 

“…I really can conduct.” 

By 1919 women were admitted to the Queen’s Hall Orchestra of London.  World War II opened chair positions for women orchestral musicians as men went off to war.  Women were able to keep those positions post war.  A small part of the gender gap was eroding. 

  Edna Philips, harp, joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.  It was 1997 before the Vienna Philharmonic allowed harpist Anna Lelkes to become full member status of the orchestra.  In 1982 the first woman was allowed membership in the Berlin Philharmonic.

 “…I really can conduct.” 

And, what about women orchestral conductors?  Where were they in this gender gap?  When did they begin conducting orchestras? 


Mary Wurm became the first woman conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1887.  Since then women such as Antonia Brico conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930.  Of today’s women conductors Simone Young and Susanne M√§lkki have performed with the Berlin Philharmonic.  Major American orchestras have opened their podiums to women conductors.  Nathalie Stutzman is the Atlanta Symphony’s Music Director and recently made her New York Philharmonic debut. Jo Ann Falletta is Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic.  Marin Alsop was Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2007-2021 and continues to conduct orchestras around the world.  The gender gap continues to erode yet we want more women on the podiums as Music Director of the major symphony orchestras!

“…I really can conduct.” 

And, what about women composers whose music is being performed by orchestras?  Recently the media published articles about the increase in the number of women composers whose music is being performed by leading orchestras.  The Orchestra Repertoire Report research shows a 638% increase in performances of music composed by women at symphony halls and women composers of color – the increase in their music being performed is 1425%!  Yet, why has it taken this long to get where we are today? 

Composer Julie Wolfe has said she has battled sexism in the classical music world.  She gives credit to her mentors and predecessors who had career paths more difficult than she as no one in classical music recognized them or their fight to have their music performed.  Quoting Ms. Wolfe, “You just want to be a composer.  You don’t want to be a “female composer.” 

Isn’t this what women composers from Hildegard von Bingen to Clara Schmann to Alma Mahler to Margaret Ruthven Lang to Fanny Mendelssohn to Amy Beach to Meredith Monk to Florence Price to Margaret Bonds to Gena Branscombe have been saying across the ages?  Why has it taken this long? 

Orchestras are giving heed to the gender gap and programming women’s music.  From the Philadelphia Orchestra to the New York Philharmonic to the Chicago Symphony, Sarasota Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, San Diego Symphony and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra -  programming the music of women composers has become important, yet, in reality, it is music composed by people whose hearts are expressed in their art. The gender gap is eroding.

Conductors raise your batons to give downbeats because you are a conductor no matter your gender. 

And, in Miss Branscombe’s words, “…..I really can conduct.”


Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Ladies Speak Podcast - Gena Branscombe

It has been an honor and wonderful experience to work with the creator and producer, Matt Spangler,  of the podcast "The Ladies Speak."  This past November outside Boston we recorded the new episode about Gena Branscombe.  

Miss Branscombe's passion filled life of music, women composers, American music and especially education is highlighted in this episode.  We, The Gena Branscombe Project, carry on the example she set for us.


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Rosewood Piano


In today’s world it is difficult to observe the number of pianos that are left on the curb for pick-up that will then be destroyed.  Yes, there is a video online of a large furniture hauler hoisting a spinet piano into the back of a garbage truck which then crushes the instrument into pieces.  There are also countless pianos listed on E-bay.  From concert and baby grands, to spinets, uprights, old and new, electronic and more, they are for sale or offered for free if you come get them.  Are pianos becoming a musical instrument of the past?

How painful it is to watch that beautiful piano be destroyed.  Maybe that piano had been in a family for a generation or two.  Maybe that piano was purchased by parents who saved for years to buy it for their children hoping they would learn to play.  Maybe they practiced every day, maybe not willingly,  but they practiced under the watchful eye of their parents.  Maybe those children would love making music, major in piano in college and on and on it goes.  Now the piano has gone into non-use, hasn’t been tuned, is taking up too much space and “let’s get rid of the piano” becomes a mission.


Before radio and television a piano was a center piece of a home.  Children took lessons and if parents knew how to play, in the evenings people would gather around the piano for family sing-alongs or for an impromptu piano concert by someone.  Imagine how a home filled with live music-making drew family, neighbors and friends together.  It is a time of the past. 


In the Branscombe household in Picton, Ontario resided two

pianos…..two pianos!  There was a large square piano and a much smaller rosewood piano.  The rosewood piano was Gena Branscombe’s piano of choice where she practiced for hours after school each day.  There was a romantic history to her favorite rosewood piano.  The instrument had been brought to Canada from India by an English family.  It had been shipped around the Cape of Good Hope.  This was verified in a letter to Gena’s grandson, Roger.   

Recently Roger told me he has the rosewood piano.  In its present state it is not a piano but a desk.  Along with the piano/desk, Roger shared with me the letter his grandmother wrote him explaining the history of her beloved rosewood piano.


In her September 1974 letter to Roger, Gena wrote:

It was a little piano (not a spinet) and was brought by an English family out from India, in a sailing ship, ‘round the Horn and bought by your great great grandfather, the Rev. Cyrus Richmond Allison for his young lady daughters to play upon.  You’ll notice that the little holders where candles were placed, are still there.  It was in my mother’s house when I was little and I regarded it as mine, tho’ mother also had a lovely old square piano (and later, a stylish, shiny upright.).

 But the little piano was dear to me.  My Aunt Jennie, (mother’s youngest sister) took the little piano with her when she left town.  And my cousin Eva – (her daughter) later had it made into a desk.  .....  She had the cretonne or whatever, put in those glass panels, it matched the draperies in her drawing room.  I tried to get it out once, (the desk finally came back to me) but failed. How the Metropolitan Museum would have loved the little piano in its original state.  There aren’t many of them.  Am so glad you have it, I love it dearly.


A treasured, loved piano nearly 200 years old is held dear to the Branscombe family descendants as a desk.  Its history known. The music played upon it over 100 years ago only heard and remembered by the rosewood.   



Monday, December 19, 2022

Frederick Swann and Riverside Church


At age 92 Gena Branscombe received what would be her final commission.  Frederick Swann, organist of the Riverside Church in New York City, requested she compose an “Introit” and “Prayer Response” for a morning church service to be held on Mother’s Day in May 1973. 

 Not to be deterred by her failing eyesight, Gena began writing her own poems then set them to music she quietly held within herself.  Daughter Gena Phenix provided the staff paper and pencils as well as offering to help, but, Gena’s intention was these final pieces would be entirely her own.

 By the end of March 1973, the “Introit” was complete followed in April by the “Prayer Response.”  She added a concluding “Amen” to finalize the Mother’s Day Service. 

 On Sunday, May 13, 1973 accompanied to Riverside Church by daughter Gena and her husband Philip, Gena Branscombe listened to the choir sing her “Introit,” ”Prayer Response” and the closing “Amen.”  Her final compositions were sung in the church where four years later her funeral would be held.

Gena and Philip Phenix were active members of Riverside Church.  During their years of worshipping at the church they began the food pantry which is in existence to this day.  Gena Phenix was a community organizer through the church.  Ten buses filled with community members traveled to Washington, DC for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech because of her work. 


Recently, Frederick Swann died at age 91.
  He was a master of the organ serving as Music Director at Riverside Church, the Crystal Cathedral and First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.  He was a renowned recitalist playing organs around the world.  He thrilled his audiences with his deep understanding of music and he played his programs from memory!


Four years ago I contacted Mr. Swann through e-mail as I was curious about his working relationship with Gena Branscombe.  After exchanging several e-mails, we spoke by phone.  I explained my Gena Branscombe Project and why I wanted to speak with him. He apologized for not remembering her, the music he commissioned or playing her music at her funeral.  He proceeded to say that his career had spanned decades, many churches, playing countless organs and directing many choirs.  He could not rely on his memory.  This is understandable. 

 We chatted for a few more minutes, then, as we were about to say good bye, he thanked me for working to promote a woman composer, for bringing her music back to the mainstream and then encouraged me to continue my work.  RIP, Mr. Frederick Swann.  You touched the world with your music making.  Thank you!