Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pilgrims of Destiny

Imagine the pain a mother and her family experience when they lose a three year old child to influenza.  The depth of panic and foreboding tragedy that parents feel as they strive to save their baby, all the while knowing there is no hope, is beyond comprehension.  Yet, in early 1919 this scenario was experienced by Gena Branscombe and her husband, John Ferguson Tenney. 

In late 1918 the entire family with the exception of Gena had been struck with influenza.  In January 1919, third daughter, Betty, and her older sister Vivian were particularly ill.  Today this outbreak is known as the great influenza epidemic of 1919.  In its wake, the epidemic took young Betty’s life leaving her parents, her two sisters and extended family devastated. 

Grief is an animal in and of itself leaving each of us to find our own path to dealing with the loss of someone beloved.  In the process of mourning, we learn to move forward with our lives.  Miss Branscombe was pregnant with her fourth daughter when Betty died.  My guess is her grief was nearly insurmountable yet her responsibility to herself and her unborn child had to have been foremost in her mind. 

Daughter Beatrice was born in June 1919.  With the help of her mother, who took care of the older daughters, Gena immersed herself in composing and writing the libretto for, “The Pilgrims of Destiny,” a large scale choral drama.  The story emphasized the pilgrims’ hardships on-board the Mayflower and their arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on November 9 and 10, 1620.  Her husband, John, was her editorial assistant and historical advisor for the libretto.  He even typed the manuscript for his wife.  Work became another way for Gena to move forward with her life despite her loss. 
Large scale works are not composed over a summer or even a year.  With family responsibilities, leadership roles in women’s organizations, conducting, and accompanying, Miss Branscombe worked on “Pilgrims of Destiny” for a number of years. 

 With its themes of bravery in the face of adversity, devotion to God and loss, “Pilgrims of Destiny” won the 1928 Best Composition award from the National League of American Pen Women.  Along with the $100.00 prize, the work was published by Oliver Ditson Company of Boston and given a gala performance at the Plymouth Memorial Building in Plymouth, Massachusetts with Miss Branscombe conducting.   What a perfect location for an historical work such as this!  She received rave reviews for the premiere and “Pilgrims of Destiny” went on to be performed across the country, again with Gena conducting.

In 1960, Gena Branscombe became one of the first women ever to have her music requested for the permanent collection in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  She submitted to the Music Department her “Pilgrims of Destiny” original manuscript of the orchestral score, instrumental parts and the published vocal score.   This is quite the honor!

In 1999 I saw a copy of the vocal score when I visited Gena Tenney Phenix, Gena Branscombe’s oldest daughter.  She brought out her copy of the score for me to look through.  There I saw a very romantic and dramatic piece of music which I could only surmise from the piano accompaniment probably had a very rich and dense orchestral score.   Several years later, my colleague Laurine Elkins Marlow and I were at the Library of Congress doing research work.  I requested the original orchestra score for my review and there before me was the full choral drama score.  With rich orchestration reminiscent of the late German romantic style and even some late Verdi, Gena had poured forth her complete knowledge of writing an impressive large scale work.  I was astonished. 

From many of my previous postings you know that I have purchased and collected Gena’s piano pieces, songs, song cycles and choral works.  A copy of the vocal score for “Pilgrims of Destiny” has always been high on my wish list of Gena’s compositions that I hoped would appear for sale.  This past Sunday, my wish came true.  A copy of the vocal score was listed on Amazon and surprise! surprise! I purchased it immediately.  The store that sold this work was in Plymouth, Massachusetts…..the city where the premiere performance took place.  Coincidence, I think not!

The vocal score arrived yesterday and to say the least I am thrilled.  Gena dedicated this work to her daughter, Betty.  During my one-woman show I recite this dedication after having a phone conversation where she discusses the loss of her dear Betty.  It is a poignant moment. 

One more original Gena Branscombe work to add to my collection and one that for over 15 years has been something I desired.  There is still one more piece of hers that I hope will appear…..and, maybe someday soon, hopefully not another 15 years of waiting, it will show up for sale on the internet.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Americana Art Song Recital

Preparing art song recitals has always been one of my great loves.  Choosing a theme or a story to tell through songs, then, hunting through countless volumes and stacks of music by assorted composers, finding just the right poetry and songs that fit my idea takes hours and hours of research.  My hope always is that the 15-20 art songs I choose to perform will be a musical challenge for my pianist and me, then the audience will be engaged for a musical journey of not only poignant but entertaining songs.  Yes, this is a lot of work however it is work that brings me joy.
Over the July 4th weekend of 2014, pianist Julia Bady and I performed at the Deerfield, Massachusetts’ Memorial Hall Museum. Since this was the celebration of our nation’s independence, why not celebrate America’s poets and composers?  My research took me to anthologies of American songs and song cycles ….. what set our country apart, what songs would best depict life in America, what about featuring well known poets, what about politics….the “what abouts” kept churning in my brain.  Songs were found in various collections, then, I stacked the open books about my living room floor in piles where I thought they fit a certain theme.  I checked the poetry, key signature of each song to see if the songs fit together as a story.  After weeks of work, I came up with Julia’s and my recital program,

America: Poets, Patriotism, Politics and Life.

What a story we told of America featuring songs by Edward MacDowell, Gena Branscombe, Aaron Copland, Jean Berger, Martin Hennessy, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Hundley, Ernest Charles, Gladys Rich and William Bolcom.  These songs told stories through the poetry of American poets Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Arnold Weinstein, Herman Hagedorn, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alan J. Lerner.

We opened the recital honoring our country’s calm and beauty by performing Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose.”  Originally composed as a piano work, MacDowell added the words of his friend and colleague, Herman Hagedorn.  This led into Aaron Copland’s, “The Dodger,” a commentary on America’s politicians with their promises and fast talk.  War is a never ending part of our history which we acknowledged with Gena Branscombe’s World War I song, “Dear Lad O’Mine.”

America has countless talented poets whose works have been set to music.  The stories of collaboration between poet and composer can be fascinating.  Thus is the story between poet Langston Hughes and immigrant composer Jean Berger. 

Communicating by telephone and through mail, African American poet Langston Hughes and composer Jean Berger joined creative forces on their cycle “Four Songs”.  Theirs is a seamless wedding of word and music.  Each of the four songs, express not only hope and joy for life in America but also give credence to the less fortunate, innocent and hard working people of our country.  Both composer and poet were victims of prejudice, one religious and the other racial.  Berger, as a Jew living in Germany during the Nazi regime, was forced out of his assistant conductor position at the Mannheim Opera.  He immigrated to the United States and served in our army to fight against the country of his birth.  Langston Hughes suffered the prejudice of racism and searched for a homeland where he could find peace in a country that would accept him for the person and poet that he was.  Composer and poet never met in person, still they created songs that are true American works of expressive art.

Massachusetts born Emily Dickinson is one of America’s most treasured and enduring poets.  Her poetry is filled with her sharp, clear observations of the world around her.  The frequent subjects of her more than 1800 poems were death and immortality yet they hold a great deal of humor and wisdom.  My friend, collaborator and composer Martin Hennessy wrote two Emily Dickinson songs for me, “Let Down the Bars, O Death” and “My River Runs to Thee.”  Aaron Copland’s “Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?” ended the first half of the recital. 

Julia and I took a voyage through life in America starting with a lullaby composed by Gladys Rich whose 1932 song, “American Lullaby” allows the performers and audience to question the seemingly perfect life of busy parents, a child and a nanny.  Collaborating on 24 cabaret songs, poet Arnold Weinstein and composer William Bolcom created what seem to be whimsical pieces yet they are complicated harmonically and rhythmically, challenging emotionally and a delight to perform.  Their song “Amor” allows a woman to be quite impressed with her life’s story, yet is her life all that fulfilling?  New York based composer, Richard Hundley’s song, “For Your Delight” melds his understanding of beautiful melody with the wistfulness of a married couple waltzing while making promises and creating images of their life together.  Life must come to end for all of us whether we wish to accept that or not.  Ernest Charles’ poignant song, “Who Keeps The Years?” has a spouse recalling those special moments in a marriage that we hold forever in our hearts.

A July 4th celebration without looking at our patriotism would be sacrilege!  Leonard Bernstein’s, “Take Care of this House” from his Broadway show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue expresses a young black White House maid who understands that our nation’s home is far more than a physical building.  We ended our recital with Gene Scheer’s beautiful “American Anthem” then segued into Lee Holdridge and Molly Ann Leikin’s, “An American Hymn.”  Both songs tug at the heart strings of patriotism.  Of course, there was an encore, but I shall not divulge that title except to tell you, I was not the only person singing it!

What a program that celebrates America!  What a delight to create this recital, to choose songs that tell a story about various aspects of our country, then share that passion with a warm, receptive audience.

An art song recital is a shared effort between pianist and singer.  It was my great fortune to create, rehearse and then perform this program with pianist, Julia Bady.  What a caring collaborator and one whose musical talent was a joy.  She not only learned her accompaniments, she studied and understood the poetry, and, was with me at every breath and musical expression.  With Julia I felt and knew that at each rehearsal we were digging deeper into the songs to cull the depths of expression.  WHAT A JOY! When we came to the day of performance, we had the freedom of a joint musical happening.  Thank you, Julia.