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.

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