Monday, February 28, 2011


Music teachers…..the words evoke memories of our first piano teacher who helped us learn the names of the lines and spaces on the staff, note names and values, rhythm, and, practicing every day for a half hour as our fingers fumbled on those first pieces.

What has that piano teacher memory to do with Gena Branscombe? In her extensive career Gena had numerous music teachers and professors whose guidance and teaching abilities help jettison her into the public eye. Yes, those teachers had a diligent pupil who took her studies seriously, who strove to have a music career by her hard work and determination, never sitting on her laurels yet always looking for an opportunity of self-promotion.

One-on-one lessons with music teachers are more than just one hour of playing or singing your assigned pieces. They are sessions of intense personal happenings that deal with not only notes, phrasing, tone color and technique, but also, one’s emotions in expressing what the composer intended. Teachers become your champion, disciplinarian, therapist and the person who gets under your skin to bring out your expressivity. Intensely personal!

Who were these teachers and professors? From her hometown of Picton, Ontario, Canada there were piano teachers who gave her basic skills; in Chicago piano, composition, counterpoint and song writing professors who were well known in music circles in the US and abroad, and, eventually in Berlin, Germany, her composition teacher was very famous.

In the Branscombe home there were two pianos on which young Gena could explore the wonders of musical sound. One can only surmise that Gena was born with an exceptional musical memory, an easy ability to sight read and improvise. With her mother’s encouragement Gena began lessons with her first piano teacher Stella Fralick, the local church organist. By age eleven she studied piano with her cousin Effie Campbell, followed by Edith Anning who taught her how to produce beautiful pianistic colors but taught her little of Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms nor did she give Gena a background in music theory.

Once she arrived at the Chicago Musical College in 1896 the expertise and high level of teachers Rudolf Ganz, Felix Borowski, and Alexander von Fielitz must have been an incentive to buckle down and learn the fundamentals and techniques of music.

Private piano lessons with Swiss born Rudolf Ganz, a pianist, cellist, conductor and composer in his own right, were the backbone of her four years at the Chicago Musical College and continued after graduation when she joined the faculty of the school. During her one year’s study in Berlin, Germany, 1909-1910, she again had lessons with Professor Ganz, who had returned to Europe to perform and teach. She was known to practice five to six hours a day and reported there were times the skin on her hands cracked. What dedication. She admitted Ganz was a much stricter teacher in Germany!

Under Ganz’s tutelage Gena’s piano technique and musicality grew by leaps and bounds. She was sought after as an accompanist for the school’s choir, recitals and as a private teacher. In her professional life in New York City she accompanied countless recitals for singers, chamber music groups and instrumentalists. She was often called upon to either learn music for a concert on very short notice or sight read the concert.

In an interview for the Continental Times, Ganz said the following about his student:
“What do I think of Miss Branscombe’s work? Well, let me see. I think that her songs are among the best ones America ever produced. I think that some among them, like “The Tender Sweetness,” are real model songs, in invention, form, and sincerity. The fact that most of the words which she uses are of a deep and serious nature shows the direction of her artistic purpose, and her few German songs are the first victorious steps towards this ambitious goal. The violin pieces which I have seen are also charming; musically complete. All her works have a personal stamp, and this, to me, is the very gratifying part of her splendid talent.”

British born Felix Borowski (1872-1956) was Gena’s composition teacher in Chicago. No doubt his deep appreciation of the rich, lush and complex harmonies of the German Romantic era greatly influenced Gena’s compositions. Her harmonies are intricate, deeply rooted in the understanding of how dissonance and resolution affect word painting in her songs and instrumental works.

In his own words Borowski’s admiration for Gena’s music is glowing. “I can say with all truth and sincerity, that in my opinion, your ability and originality as a composer, will win for you a very distinguished place among the musical creators of this continent.”

Gena studied the art of song writing with German born Alexander von Fielitz. I surmise that her great understanding of setting words to music may have come from von Fielitz. Her songs have piano accompaniments that are challenging and demonstrate her understanding of the wedding of the sung word with the piano

Von Fielitz said of Gena – “She is a pupil of mine – in composition, my best, my most talented, and my favorite one. I think hers a great and true talent. Some of her songs are so exquisite that I would be proud to have composed them.”

The most well-known of Gena’s teachers…....Herr Englebert Humperdinck…..the real Englebert Humperdinck not the “pop” singer who stole her honored teacher’s name. This was the man who wrote the beloved and often performed opera “Hansel and Gretel.” Humperdinck, the composer and teacher, was deeply steeped in the late German Romantic compositional style studying with the master of them all, Richard Wagner.

Little is really known about Gena’s studies with Herr Humperdinck. She traveled from her apartment in Berlin to his studio for lessons. Maybe the composition lessons were group sessions with other student composers. She infrequently spoke of her studies with this great master composer. Later in her life while on a trip through Europe with her daughter Gena Tenney, Gena Branscombe stopped outside Humperdinck’s house and pointed out where her lessons had taken place.

Still we learn from my colleague Laurine’s dissertation that before leaving Germany in July 1910 to return home for her wedding, Gena had her final composition lessons with Humperdinck. She was the “guest of honor” at a “garden evening” given at the Humperdinck home in the early summer. She was one of only three or four women guests, one of whom was also a composition student. Fifteen male students attended the event, at which an early Quintet of Humperdinck’s was performed and a Schumann quartet was played. Humperdinck and Gena’s fellow students urged her to perform, but she declined. This party in her honor does indicate the esteem in which she must have been held.

Four teachers, champions, disciplinarians, and cheerleaders for a woman composer over 100 years ago. All four teachers were of European background and particularly German background. Their influence of style and harmony are deeply rooted in her music. From their suggestion she spent a year’s time in Berlin studying where she could make acquaintances with famous musicians and have her music heard in concerts.

As I continue to learn about Miss Branscombe I realize that when I perform her songs, I have only one or two, not the usual six, degrees of separation from her great German based teachers.