Tuesday, December 6, 2016

One Page Diary Entry

With my recent and ongoing research about Miss Branscombe’s life, I have had the pleasure of making new friends in Canada.   Little is known about Gena’s younger years as she did not keep diaries.  There are no records of her activities in the local school. 

When I began making contacts in Picton, I found people who would then give me other names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of someone who might have information.  One surprise was being in touch with one of Gena’s relatives!  All of these people were more than willing to help me in my quest for information from over 100 years ago. 

One individual, who has been generous beyond what words can express, was willing to make trips to historical societies where their records are not online.  I have received copies of pictures, newspaper articles, family lineage charts, letters and much more.  One cannot offer enough “thank yous” to my new found Picton friends for their help.

At the same time, Gena’s grandson, Roger Phenix, has also been digging through the family archives trying to find physical items that may answer my myriad of questions.  Over the years, Roger has provided me with a treasure trove of items, many of which have appeared in my blog postings.

Two days ago, Roger sent me a copy of a page from a diary.  According to Roger, the book contains quotes from poems, speeches by royalty and hymns.  This particular page is dated Sunday, July 13, 1919. 

In January of 1919, Gena and her family suffered the death of their third daughter, Betty.  She died of the influenza outbreak of that year.  June 1919, Gena gave birth to her fourth daughter, Beatrice.  One could say that the year 1919 had extreme lows and highs for the composer.

What may be surmised as a meditative mood or reflection, Miss Branscombe wrote on the top of the diary page:

“My Artistic Creed” 

“It is – to be ever constant in my endeavor to express thru music a firm faith in the joy, beauty, and harmony underlying life, the certainty of a loving and sustaining Higher Power which helps us in all our undertakings, & the value of a high courage.  Music is to me the most beautiful & instantaneous road to God.  I feel it to be one of the most potent forces for regeneration operating on the earth.” 

An “Artistic Creed” written at a time of loss and new life.  Great creativity was in her soul at this time for Miss Branscombe began composing her largest work ever, “The Pilgrims of Destiny”, a dramatic oratorio which would win her numerous national composition awards.  Working through grief, attending to her three daughters......composing was her “…..potent force(s) for regeneration operating on the earth.” 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Among my most treasured items is a packet of letters, Christmas cards and birthday cards from my Grandma Shimeta.  The envelopes and letters are tied together with a ribbon.  They represent my communication with my Grandma from my college years until I was married.  There in her shaky penmanship she tells me about her garden, fruit trees in her yard, my cousins, aunts and uncles, her neighbors, which people stopped by her house for a visit and stayed for dinner and what she would be doing for any given holiday.  Her word usage and verb conjugations are, if nothing else, creative as English was her sixth language and she only had an eighth grade education.  Yet, as I read them I can see her sitting at her kitchen table writing, smell the food she may have cooked for lunch or dinner and imagine being in her presence or staying in her warm, inviting home.  Those pieces of paper, my Grandma’s letters, are my history with her.

Letters……hand written letters are precious keepsakes and a vision into the past like nothing else in our lives.  They tell us stories of our present and past, give us a view into the history of the day the letter was written and most important reveal the letter writer’s inner most thoughts and emotions.  When you hold that letter in your hand, you hold a part of the person who wrote it.

The world of music embraces letters whether being written, received or read.  From Mozart, Massenet, Offenbach, Verdi and Tchaikovsky are opera arias and duets about letters.  Emotions, lots of emotions are expressed in those letters as only opera is capable of conveying.  In the pop music world we have the songs, “P.S. I Love You,” “Take a Letter, Maria,”  “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”  Letters …….. the importance of letters for without them our understanding of history would have blank places. 

When a music researcher comes upon letters either written or received by a composer, a new perspective of that person comes into view.  Composers were notorious letter writers when they did not have the present day luxury of the internet, texting, Facebook or tweeting. 

Over the years of getting to know Gena Branscombe, I have learned she was a prolific letter writer.  In the music publisher Arthur P. Schmidt’s collection at the Library of Congress are letters from every composer he published.  In Gena’s file are pictures of her, her daughters and all of her letters to Mr. Schmidt.  Many expressed her thanks for the royalty checks she received and an explanation of what music she was working on.  Then, there was always a paragraph or two about her personal life whether about concerts she was performing or the details of her daughters’ shenanigans!  Some of her letters were ones that broke my heart.  She would request a loan against her future royalty checks as she needed the money to pay for her daughters’ medical bills.  The letter where she described the death of her daughter, Betty, was particularly poignant. There was her life spelled out in her own handwriting with her emotions bubbling from the page I held in my hand.  

In my possession I have several of her letters thanks to members of the Branscombe Choral or their families.  After the Choral disbanded she kept in contact with the members through letter writing commenting on the women’s lives, their children, sending them copies of articles she wrote and always wishing them good health and happiness.  She wrote thank you letters to those who hosted her for lunch or those who had visited.  With a positive and encouraging word to anyone with whom she had been in contact, she wrote and wrote letters. 

Reading Miss Branscombe’s letters I have learned she was a caring, loving individual with exemplary communication skills.  Letter writing was a way to self-promote her compositions and performances of her music.  She was a driven and passionate person whose life had not been easy.  Despite all that, music was her life no matter the road blocks.  Her ardor and emotions emanate from the paper on which she wrote.

This past week, two more of her letters came into my possession.  Written to pianist and author, Anya Laurence-Thiel, Miss Branscombe expresses her thanks for Anya’s visit and her sharing the music of composer Arthur Farwell.  The second note congratulates Anya on the completion of her book and Gena’s wishes for good luck with her publishers.  The letters were written a few months before Gena’s death in July 1977. 

Included with these two letters was an October 1977 card/note from Gena Tenney Phenix, Gena Branscombe’s daughter, to Anya.  Gena, Jr. also congratulates Anya on her book, then thanks her for dedicating the book to her mother, and, requests that copies be sent to Laurine Elkins Marlow and Dr. Adrienne Fried-Block.  I took notice that Gena, Jr. signed the card, “The Two Genas.”  Her mother had been dead three months.  The daughter carries on her mother’s legacy of writing letters and showing her appreciation for the continuance of her mother’s music career.

What can we learn from these examples of letter writing?  Putting pen to paper, using our own physical being to write and express your emotions and happenings in life becomes a piece of your personal history.  For the recipient of your letter, the information fills in the blanks of your everyday life…..what you are doing, what you have eaten, how you are handling stress, what books you may be reading, what play you saw, your relationships, health and the list goes on and on. 

Yes, we can express all that in a typed e-mail or Facebook posting using all the internet abbreviations and emoticons.  Writing may be considered old fashioned right now.  Returning to letter writing, in my opinion, is a must.  We engage our physical being to sort through our thoughts and emotions, we touch pen and paper with that in mind and give the gift of ourselves unlike any other kind of communication.....the telling of your own history.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

19th Amendment

The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified 96 years ago today, August 18, 1920.  This is the amendment that guarantees the rights for all Americans to vote regardless of their sex.  YES!

Celebrate ladies and gentlemen, yet, keep in mind this Constitutional amendment did not happen overnight.  Strong men and women believed in and fought for the suffragette movement.  They never lost sight of their ultimate goal, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

During the mid 1700s women were allowed to vote in certain states.  Slowly from the 1770s through to the 1790s, states began to rescind those rights.  The United States Constitutional Convention of 1787 allowed that women’s voting rights would be left to the individual states.

In 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony convened the first convention for women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York.  Joining them and impassioned in his beliefs for women’s rights was Frederick Douglas.  As a home is built on a foundation, the suffragette movement began to build its foundation because of this convention.  The movement grew, subsided during the Civil War, gained and lost momentum.  Societal change is never easy.  Opposing sides battle out their beliefs trying to convince their supporters and deniers that they are by far superior and hold the absolute truth on the subject!

By 1872 Susan B. Anthony registered to vote and voted in Rochester, New York citing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which granted citizenship to, “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”  She believed the amendment allowed her the right to vote.  Days later she is arrested and the following year denied a trial by jury, then, loses her case.  Progress is slow.  Passion wins out.

In 1870 Utah and Wyoming grant women’s suffrage, Washington State welcomes women voters in 1883, California joins the movement in 1911, Oregon in 1912 and the list goes on.  Many states deny the suffragette movement.  Remember, it is men who are voting on this issue.

Seventy two years of slow, painful, methodical, back breaking progress and American citizens whether men or women were granted a constitutional amendment for equal voting rights.

What really is the issue here?  Is the issue only women’s voting or is there more depth to the subject?  In 1914 anti-suffragette Grace Duffield Goodwin put forth a list of commandments rejecting women’s voting rights.  It was published in the New York Times.

Reading over her list I was amused by some of her reasons and why shouldn’t I be?  It is 102 years later and we have changed our views.  What struck me most was the perception of a sense of loss of control and then fear of what will happen to our society if we change.  We ponder and obsess about the future without staying in the moment and seeing what the reality is of the here and now.  Yes, every one of our actions has an impact on our future. 

Citing women’s traditional roles in society and the stability of civilization as it was, the country would lose special privileges accorded by law.  Women’s power in 1914 was considered unique and instrumental to the operation of our country.  To mess with that balance would take away the rights of women in different spheres.  What spheres would those be?

Mrs. Goodwin then states that giving women equal voting rights to those of men, meaning their husbands, brothers, uncles, sons and fathers, would even the playing field in areas where women held the upper hand.  My response 102 years later is, “Really?”  She did not want to upset and I quote, “the hen house”. 

Let us learn from the past the lessons and examples Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony set forth; the rights of all citizens to vote no matter their sex.  They stood up to fear and those who thought we would lose control of our country.  These two women must have had their own fears, yet they recognized women would not denigrate voting in our country rather women were citizens who would be making well thought and intelligent decisions for the betterment of themselves, their families and our country. 

Now, it is our responsibility to continue to strike down fear and put aside our desire to control everything thereby giving ourselves a freedom…………..that freedom is VOTING!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Women in Music - August 2016

This summer has brought us an abundance of political news I am sure most of us would rather ignore.  Our wish may have been that we could escape all of it for the joys and freedom of vacation time. 

During the hot, humid days of July and now early August, announcements and news about women in the arts have lit up my computer screen.  Creativity, digging in with determination and bold, daring decisions initiated new opportunities for performances of women’s music! 

From Vancouver, British Columbia came the announcement that the Allegra Chamber Orchestra, an all female group, will be showcasing women composers. Five women conductors will be leading the Sao Paulo Symphonic Orchestra in Brazil.  In England, the London Festival of American Music featured all women composers. 

There is an all female electronic music festival in San Francisco.  

Dr. Julia Mortyakova, pianist, of the Mississippi University for Women, has released a CD of works by women composers.  Celebrating 70 years of existence, the Ojai Music Festival in Ojai, California declared their season, The Year of the Woman.  

Spring in the northeast brought the inaugural concert of the BostonWomen’s Music Project.  The Festival was founded by New England Conservatory of Music student, Katherine Miller.  

Take a look at the website, MANY MANY WOMEN, an index of woman composers and performers of all genres.

Bona fide creativity deserves an award!  In the site of a former Harvard swimming pool, four singers and a pianist, playing an electric piano, presented four operatic scenes by historic women composers.  What an inspired project though I am sure the group would prefer a real theatre and a grand piano for their next performance.  

Through the ages of classical music women composers have been marginal citizens.  As I have written in past blog entries, these women produced their own concerts, became marketing experts and were performers.  Era upon era of women composers laid down a pathway, brick upon musical brick, for those who would come after them. 

Our present generation of women composers, performers of their music and the audiences are reaping the benefits of those wonderful women of the past.  Make it your musical journey to experience and be a patron of women’s music in your communities.   

Thursday, July 7, 2016


The setting….1944 ….Leonia, New Jersey….the Biscaye home.  The dinner guests that evening were Gena Branscombe and her husband, John Ferguson Tenney.  Ruth Biscaye, for many years a loyal member of the Branscombe Choral, was preparing dinner for her friend and respected conductor. 

Ruth’s children, Pierre and Peggie, had attended the many Choral concerts at Town Hall and the Broadway Tabernacle Church.  Among the family’s prized musical possessions was sheet music autographed by Miss Branscombe with one dedicated to Pierre and Peggie.  Most prized, an autographed original manuscript for a choral arrangement of “There was a King of Liang.”

That night at dinner Miss Branscombe gave one of her conducting batons to Pierre and another to Peggie.  These batons had led the Choral in one of their concerts that their mother sang! 

Fast forward 70 years, all the above items still exist and thanks to Pierre and Peggie, they are in my possession.  In my May 31, 2012 blog entry, I told the story of Pierre contacting me and Peggie sending me music and pictures.

In early June, Peggie Biscaye Oury visited her daughter and family in New York City.  We managed to schedule a visit and had lunch together.  As Peggie looked over the items in my Gena collection, she would recall how Miss Branscombe’s walk made her look as though she were floating from place to place.  Elegant and kind were words used to describe the conductor who touched their family’s lives.

What had come as a surprise a few weeks before Peggie’s visit was that in his attic Pierre had found the baton Miss Branscombe had given him in 1944.  He wanted to know if I still wanted it……my immediate answer was, of course, “Yes!”  The baton arrived nearly two weeks ago along with a hand written note explaining the provenance of this gift given to him in 1944……72 years ago. 

The baton with a slender cork bulb, once held in her hand, has scratches on it.  The shaft of the baton is wood with a small chip missing on the tip.  A baton that is old….now an antique.  Held in her hand, part of her being and emotions, with this baton Gena inspired her Branscombe Choral to higher realms of music making!

What continues to touch my heart is the people who knew or worked with Miss Branscombe have kept their music, pictures, programs, letters and a baton.  How she touched and inspired their lives is why these possessions were cherished for many years; a part of her continued to be with them. 

This is a quote attributed to Leonard Bernstein, “If one (the conductor) uses a baton, the baton itself must be a living thing, charged with a kind of electricity, which makes it an instrument of meaning in its tiniest movement.”  

Monday, June 27, 2016


Research.....that daunting word when you are a student knowing you have a paper due or a presentation to give.  Hours spent in the library going through materials and old books.  Or, research could be a scientist spending countless hours, days and years creating experiments that hopefully will lead to a breakthrough in medicine.  As researchers we gather all we have read and learned in the hours of reading and experimenting to create a paper, presentation and an announcement that will change the world.

Life experience is research, also.   With knowledge and facts you have accumulated over your time on this earth, you can put yourself in a setting, observe your surroundings, imagine a by-gone era then try to connect the dots of facts, scrutinize details and come up with an actual retelling of a happening.  That may sound weird, yet, it works.

Recently my colleague and friend, Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow, along with her husband, Bill, and I made a trip to Methuen, Massachusetts where Gena Branscombe is buried.  In her husband’s family plot in the Walnut Grove Cemetery, Gena is buried next to her husband, John Ferguson Tenney, along with three of their daughters; Betty, Beatrice and Vivian nearby.

Laurine had not been to the cemetery after Miss Branscombe's funeral in New York City in 1977.  Nearly 40 years after beginning her interviews with Miss Branscombe which led to writing her dissertation on her, this was a bit of closure for Laurine. 

The Tenney family burial area in the cemetery is extensive with three large monuments heading up individual Tenney families and the various family members’ graves.

The Tenney area is set on the side of a hill with a mausoleum at the top of the hill.  Beautiful old trees shade the mausoleum.

At the bottom of the hill and next to the entrance to the cemetery is a small chapel built by the Tenney family.  There services were held for family members before burial.  The day we were at the cemetery, the chapel was locked tight.

What came next for Laurine and me was envisioning a reality in Miss Branscombe’s life.  When looking across the street from the cemetery, we noticed the old railroad station.  It had been abandoned in 2002 after many years of passenger and freight train usage.  Laborer’s Union Local #175 purchased the station, restored and preserved it, now using it as their headquarters.  We sauntered over to take a tour of the inside of the station and looked at the tracks.

The 1919 influenza epidemic took the life of Gena Branscombe and John Tenney’s third daughter, Betty.  She was a delightful, happy and loved child.  With Gena being the only family member who did not suffer the consequences of the epidemic, via train she travelled to Methuen with the casket that now embraced her darling daughter.  Betty would be buried in the Tenney family plot. 

Laurine and I stood next to the train tracks looking south knowing that was the direction from which Gena came. 

Upon her arrival Gena and members of her husband’s extended family took Betty’s small casket across the street to the Tenney family chapel where a service was held.  From there they proceeded up the hill and buried her.  

Laurine’s one-on-one interviews with Miss Branscombe in 1976 and 1977 were written into her dissertation.  Retold was the story of the death and burial of Betty.  What became a reality of Laurine’s research was the life experience we had exploring the cemetery, being outside the chapel and standing at the train station looking at the cemetery then connecting in that moment the story Laurine had been told. 

For quite some time we stood quietly seeing in our combined minds’ eyes January 1919 with cold winds and snow, a grieving mother bundled under her winter coat, a small casket being carried to the chapel, family members surrounding Gena who was putting to rest her “own little pilgrim, Betty.”  Envisioning this happening is possible.  The impossible and all the research in the world cannot solve…..imagining the grief of a mother burying her child.