Thursday, January 12, 2012

1000 Women Raising Their Voices to American Music

One thousand women raising their voices to American music…..1000 women!

Imagine a stage filled with 1000 women dressed in formal gowns. How large was the stage? What music would a chorus that size be able to perform? How many rehearsals did they have to prepare for the concert? Who sponsored the concert? Who organized the concert? Who was their conductor?

Obviously, the answer to that last question is Gena Branscombe!

One of the centerpiece stories of my one-woman show is Gena Branscombe’s membership in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Her participation on the Executive Board for the Golden Jubilee Convention in 1941 that took place in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is told with excitement. There she was conducting a chorus of 1000 women singing her music. One can only imagine the thrill of hearing those women sing together.

This past November, Gena Branscombe’s grandson, Roger Phenix, said he had something he wished to give me. What family treasure could it be this time? Much to my surprise in that large box he handed me was the picture of the 1000 women chorus! From the original picture in his family’s archive, he had made me a copy. Surprised was I!

For over 20 years Miss Branscombe was an active member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. From 1930-1935 she was Chairman of American Music and Folksong Committee and a member of the Executive Board until 1945.

Women’s clubs were an important part of the fabric of women musicians in the early to mid 20th century. Where women composers could not find venues for their music in major concert halls, they found solace in women’s clubs that encouraged the performance of music at every meeting. Members performed for fellow members whether solo singing, playing the piano, chamber music or singing with the chapter’s chorus. In addition community, social activities and volunteer service were a part of the meetings. Club women were asked to promote the performance of American music by their local choruses, orchestras, opera companies and chamber music societies.

Through her membership, Gena was able to further the cause of American Music by asking the General Federation of Women’s Clubs’ members to declare 1934 “American Music Year.” She created seven music programs by American women composers and seven programs of “American classics” which appeared in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs’ 1930-32 brochure.

These programs included works for orchestra, piano, violin, solo voice, women’s voices and various ensembles all written by well known American women composers. Copies of the programs were circulated nationwide and encouraged the performance of music by our country’s own talent. Among the composers represented in these programs were her friends and colleagues Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, Mabel Daniels, Mary Howe, Kathleen Lockhart Manning, Mary Turner Salter and others.

Celebrating 50 years of service, the GFWC held their Golden Jubilee Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. Working one-year in advance, Gena created a program of music by Edgar Stillman Kelley, Haydn, Mozart, Mrs. Beach, Mabel Daniels and Harriet Ware. Music was sent out to the local GFWC choruses with instructions to their conductors as to preparation of the music for the concert. Gena also traveled throughout the country that year conducting some of the rehearsals.

With only one combined rehearsal in the Convention Hall Ball Room, the chorus of 1000 women, conductor Gena Branscombe, soloists John Gurney, Emily Roosevelt and Mary Frances Lehnerts performed a stirring and memorable concert.

Gena Branscombe is a treasured, historic member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Her leadership promoting American music is exemplary and she made a difference in the musical lives of women across our country. One does one wonder if in today’s world another chorus of 1000 women would be possible.

To this day, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs works to promote causes for the betterment of America. Their national office is in Washington, DC.

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