Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Sitting in my closet are two plastic storage containers that hold the physical history of my Gena Branscombe project that began in 1999.  Manila folders hold my handwritten research notes from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts where I found Gena’s original manuscripts, published works and Laurine Elkins Marlow’s dissertation.  Also in folders are copies of letters from Gena Branscombe’s family, my contract with Albany Records, copyright approval to record certain songs and also to print specific poems in the CD booklet, a fairly large  number of pictures, two 3-ring binders with copies of nearly all 150 of Gena’s songs, cards and letters from people who purchased my CD or attended one of our performances, magazine articles about Gena or myself, programs and publicity from performances of my one woman show and lecture recitals I have given.  In addition I found the original mock-ups of the publicity brochure I designed for “Life! Love! Song!  A Visit with Gena Branscombe” including the lace fabric I purchased to scan for the background of the brochure. 

Recently it came to me that it was time to weed out the excess paper in those boxes.  Out they came and I began the daunting decision making task of what to throw away.  In doing so I had quite the trip down memory lane.

A project such as the one I created about composer Gena Branscombe has many levels of creativity to it.  For me, the first was researching the life and music of a woman composer who was unknown to me.  What was it about her that intrigued me?  Her compelling life struck a chord in me and then I found her life’s experience infused into her songs.  I spent hours in the library, hours and hours which is an activity I never thought would be in my personal dictionary of interests!  Yet, I returned day after day which led me to the next step. 

Recording a CD of this woman’s music long forgotten in a library was my second goal.  Beautiful romantic songs with flowery poetry seemed to fit my voice and personality as if Gena had written them for me.  Recording was a new experience fraught with a reminder of needing to be patient, re-recording measures sometimes two at a time to get the perfect balance necessary.  The detailed work of listening to my own singing take after take was sometimes painful, then the decision making about what to splice together culminated in the release of my CD by Albany Records.  Quite an accomplishment!

Level number three came in the form of creating a one-woman show.  In past blog postings, I have written about all the people who helped me on this journey and to say the very least, these friends and colleagues were the best and most supportive team a person could dream of having. 

So as I held pieces of paper reminding me of the levels of creativity I put into the life and music of Gena Branscombe, I came to know there were far deeper realizations to a project such as mine.  I allowed myself to be vulnerable to a new aspect of a musical career that I had never imagined.  Focusing on opera, chamber music, oratorio, recitals and contemporary music had been my performance goals and through those avenues came Gena’s music.  A door opened and I chose to walk through it on to an unknown path. 

All my work researching, recording and writing was a full-time act of love.  Never had I been so busy and full of drive with the rewards being much more than I could have envisioned.  Entering my life was a cadre of people never possible to dream about.  Gena’s immediate family…her daughter Gena and two grandsons, Roger and Morgan Scott, her extended Branscombe family including a 94 year old nephew, great nieces and great nephews, members of the Branscombe Choral; nieces, nephews and friends of Branscombe Choral members, the great granddaughter of Gena’s publisher, Arthur P. Schmidt, Dr. Laurine Elkins-Marlow, poet Katherine Hale’s niece, and the list goes on.  The conversations with these wonderful people and the stories they told me about Miss Branscombe fill my heart.  There is no monetary reward that could possibly equal the joy of being part of creating this project.

  The Branscombe Choral 

More so, the life lessons of looking within to challenge what you perceive to be your talents then pushing yourself beyond those perceptions to find you are capable of giving even more.  Patience to know what you are creating has a purpose in your life and the world at large.  Life is not about making yourself or your music famous, it is about allowing your soul to find a place of peaceful expression in your work.  Living in the moment, breathing happiness into your life for you are working on a project you love that has an impact on the musical world though you may not comprehend how or why right now.  Being vulnerable is so hard for us all, yet when we put down our guard so much more will come to us because of the work we have accomplished. 

What does all of this mean?  Well, more than a CD of Branscombe songs or the one-woman show, this project has created new avenues for me.  I have become an advocate for women composers of Miss Branscombe’s era.  There are hundreds and hundreds of these composers whose music is seldom heard, maybe it is even forgotten, languishing in a library soon to be discovered.  Despite the adversity these women composers faced in their day, they set an example of strong will and determination for the sake of music.  Now it is my time to be their champion.

Being a part of women in music or women in the arts festivals where I present lectures or lecture recitals is another path where I have found colleagues putting forth other women composers.  We share our stories, the historical era, the intrinsic value of the music of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Much to my surprise I have been a mentor to other women who have discovered women composers and who wish to create their own project.  Mentoring….now there is another avenue never thought to be in my life’s story.  So much to be learned and so much to be shared.  
Would I change one moment of the work I have done to promote the music and life of Gena Branscombe?  Not one second!

The plastic containers are now lighter and less crammed with papers.  I threw out the multiples of programs and publicity as well as a few other non-essential copies of articles.  My own personal trip down memory lane is treasured, close to my heart and not possible to throw any of it away!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dear Lad O'Mine

Just four days after the events of September 11, 2001, Martin and I had a recording session.  It was an arduous two hours as we were changing microphones, repositioning microphones as well as changing where I would stand.  Then we dealt with various other technical glitches that had to be fixed.  As the session drew to a close we had not recorded what had been planned for the day.  David Smith, our recording engineer, called up from the booth to suggest we record one more song before calling it a day.

Looking through our prepared songs, I chose the shortest one, “Dear Lad O’Mine.”  Martin found his copy, I positioned my sheet music on the music stand preparing to begin recording, when we heard David say from the booth, “oh, my.”  David had read the first line of the poetry, “War gods have descended, the world burns up in fine.”  Oh, my, indeed. 

Strong words, strong musical setting and an emotional connection to what had forever changed our city and world four days earlier gave us the strength to record the song in one take. 

To clarify the use of the word, “fine,” Webster’s Dictionary’s seventh usage of the word is “awful” used in the most intensive way possible. 

Canadian Poet Katherine Hale collaborated with Gena Branscombe on this song.  The two women donated the proceeds from the publication of this work to the Canadian Red Cross World War I effort.  In a letter to her publisher, Arthur Schmidt, Miss Branscombe stated she was not happy about working with Miss Hale. 

How true the words of the poem ring out in our world today.  War is war that starts with an evil act against innocent people.  Our dear soldiers are remembered every second they are parted from their loved ones, prayers are raised for their protection and we wish them a speedy, safe return home.   These soldiers are our cherished fathers, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, husbands, wives and friends who have given of themselves and their lives to protect us. 

Recently a copy of the original 1915 edition of the song came up for sale on Amazon.  It now has a home in my collection of Gena Branscombe's sheet music.

The poem:

War gods have descended
The world burns up in fine.
Warm your hands at the trenches fire, dear lad o’mine.
Sometime bullets cease at night,
Only songs are heard.
When you feel a phantom step
‘Twas my heart that stirred.
If you see a dreamy light,
‘Tis the Christ-Child’s eyes;
I believe he watches us,
Wonderful and wise.
Let me come to say goodnight,
Through the camplights shine;
Warm your hands at the trenches fire,
They still hold mine.
Dear lad, dear lad o’mine. 

(Reprinted with permission from Katherine Hale’s niece.)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Agnes Conway

In March 2008, Martin and I presented “Life! Love! Song!  A Visit with Gena Branscombe” at Hofstra University.  Little did we know that in the audience that day was a former member of the Branscombe Choral, Agnes Conway.  At the talk-back after our concert, a woman raised her hand and said she had her personal pictures and programs of the Branscombe Choral and letters from Gena Branscombe that she would like to give me.  To say the least, the audience was as surprised as we were!  A Branscombe Choral member was in our midst! 

In a binder lovingly cross-stitched with Gena Branscombe’s name and a fancy border, we found two Christmas greetings from Gena, copies of two articles written by the composer/conductor for the “Showcase, Music Clubs Magazine,” an invitation to a tea in honor of Gena’s 90th birthday, concert programs, and letters from the composer to Agnes.  In addition a small photo album again with cross-stitch, “The Branscombe Choral 1954” on the cover, filled with black and white photos of the chorus members.  Agnes had identified as many of the women as possible.  What treasured gifts.  

How did Agnes come to attend the concert at Hofstra?  Visiting a friend, she was looking through the local paper when she came upon the ad for “Life! Love! Song!  A Visit with Gena Branscombe.”  Surprised, she was!  Upon returning home, she immediately purchased tickets to the performance for herself and her daughter.  Then, those Branscombe Choral items she was thinking of throwing away……well, she went to work creating the cross-stitch covers and placed her memorabilia in the binders. 

After the talk back, Agnes and her daughter came up on the stage and looked at all of our props, pictures, tea tray, and more.  She even knew that during the show when Gena answers the telephone, then says, “Hello, Emma,” that Emma was Emma Davidson, President of the Branscombe Choral and dear friend of Gena’s.  She caught the detail!  

Agnes Conway sang in the final three concerts of The Branscombe Choral, December 1953, Spring 1954 and December 1954.  Her memories of her conductor, Gena Branscombe, were sweet ones of a leader who encouraged high musical standards and one who made music performance a joy!

Today, Agnes and I are friends on Facebook.  She comments on my postings about women composers or my general postings about life!  What a dear person and a connection some 60 years later to Gena Branscombe, her leader, teacher and conductor!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Women's History Month - Women Composers

Women’s History Month officially came to a close yesterday.  As many of you may have seen, I posted on my Facebook page, Life! Love! Song!  A Visit with Gena Branscombe, a short biography and photo of thirty different women composers of Gena’s era (1881-1977).  On International Women’s Day I posted a photo and biographical information on Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana who in 1916 voted for equal voting rights for women in all states.  To honor all thirty-one women during March was a learning experience and an eye-opener for their accomplishments.

What struck me as I did my research was that 23 of these women attended college including Juilliard, New England Conservatory, Leipzig Conservatory, Paris Conservatory, Royal Academy of Music, Royal Conservatory of Music, Peabody, Columbia, New York University and other schools.  These same women studied with the great composition teachers of the time whether here in the United States or in Europe: George Chadwick, Nadia Boulanger, Dallapiccola, Leo Sowerby, Irving Fine, Carl Renecki and Theodor Leschetizky. 

Undine Smith, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Louise Talma, Marion Bauer, Miriam Gideon, Mary Carr Moore, Mabel Daniels, Julia Amanda Perry, Helen Hopekirk, Eva Jessye, and Clara Kathleen Rogers taught at some of our most prestigious music schools mentioned above.  

Major symphony orchestras played the works of Margaret Ruthven Lang, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Gena Branscombe and Amy Beach.

Mary Howe and Liza Lehmann openly admitted that women composers were not given their just recognition or performance opportunities.  Miriam Gideon said she liked the English word "composer" as it had no gender identification.  Eight of the women featured in March were published by the premiere music publisher of the day, Arthur P. Schmidt of Boston.  Carrie Jacobs Bond was not only a composer but also a business woman who created her own publishing firm!

Despite the naysayers of women composers and their compositions, the featured composers for Women's History Month all forged a path for themselves, their colleagues and today's women composers.  They were highly educated, industrious women.  Creativity, rich harmonic music, melody and beautiful poetry combined to pour forth in their choral works, piano concerti, art songs, solo piano pieces, chamber music, operas, oratorios and symphonies.

Ladies, you are my inspiration for you set your goals, struggled, worked hard, lived your life through pain, rejection, highs and lows, and most of all you gifted the world your music for ages to come.  Thank you.