Saturday, December 29, 2018

For the Love of Two Countries

Please click on the link below to read a recently published article I wrote for the Association of Canadian Women Composers Fall/Winter Journal.  

Entitled, "For the Love of Two Countries", the article focuses on the music Gena Branscombe wrote for her country of birth, Canada, and her adopted country, the United States.  

Her song settings and her oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny allow her to share her dedication to and love of both countries.  

When the journal opens in your browser, scroll down to page 5.  Enjoy!

Composer Gena Branscombe


Monday, November 26, 2018

Greenwood Cemetery - Picton, Ontario, Canada

Destruction of cemeteries is a painful process for the family members whose relatives’ grave markers have been harmed.  Is the thrill of doing something bad and maybe never getting caught what gives the perpetrators the right to cause this harm?  Does being disrespectful of other people’s property ever cross their minds? 

In June of this year, the 140 year old Glenwood Cemetery in Picton, Ontario was vandalized with headstones and monuments nearly being destroyed and 150 of them being toppled off their foundations.  The cemetery estimated it would cost $150,000 to make all the repairs.  Fund raising has begun.  

Fortunately, my friend and helpful research colleague in Picton, John D. Lyons, went to the cemetery to inquire about Branscombe family records only to find out that their headstone had been harmed.  Buried in this cemetery are Gena Branscombe’s father - Henry William Branscombe, her mother – Sara Elizabeth Allison Branscombe and their infant son - Allison Arthur Branscombe.  Their headstone was broken off from its foundation. 

Mr. Lyons informed the manager of Glenwood Cemetery that he was in contact with someone who knew descendants of the Branscombes.  The cemetery manager had no known family contacts on file and was happy to hear the Branscombe headstone was not an “orphan”. 

With the information John e-mailed me, I in-turn e-mailed Gena’s grandsons and great nieces. Family members took action by contacting the cemetery.  We were informed of the amount of money it would take to have the Branscombe grave marker remounted on the foundation.  In addition, the grave marker has metal inlays to the lettering which is rare and was expensive to have made in its day.  The metal is tarnished and needs restoration work for an additional fee.

With family members and a few others contributing, the Branscombe headstone in the Picton Greenwood Cemetery will be remounted and restored.  May those who lie beneath the headstone rest in peace knowing they are cherished.  Their memory has been preserved by the Branscombe descendants.   

*photos taken by John D. Lyons

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Red Folder and Records

Every other blog entry I make seems to be about Gena Branscombe items that have been given to me or that I purchased from E-bay or Amazon websites. 

This past week two people sent me Branscombe items.  From the daughter of Agnes Conway, a Branscombe Choral member, I received 45 rpm records of the December 1953, Spring and December 1954 performances the Choral gave at the Broadway Tabernacle Church and Town Hall.  Thank you to Mary Conway for these recordings.  Agnes Conway passed away on December 31, 2017.  I am fairly sure she was the last Branscombe Choral member.  

From the grandson of  Branscombe Choral member, Marie Zieres, I received her choral folder.  Covered in red fabric, the folder matched the robes and hats the women wore for their concerts.  Neatly tucked inside the folder were the programs from the Choral’s December 1949 and May 1950 concerts.  The small treasure inside the folder was a receipt made out to Marie Zieres dated March 6, 1950 in the amount of $5.00 paying for her dues. 

In June 2008, my husband, Dan, and I traveled to Jamestown, NY to visit with Mrs. Zieres.  Her grandson, Mark, had been researching the Branscombe Choral, his grandmother’s beloved singing group.  After contacting me, it was decided that a visit with his grandmother would be helpful in understanding the members of this women’s chorus who were dedicated to their conductor.  Taking with me the Branscombe Choral scrapbooks, Mrs. Zieres looked at them reminiscing about her days singing with the Choral and recognizing fellow members.  She had brought her letters from Miss Branscombe, concert programs, records and the red folder to show me. 

Her descriptive stories about Miss Branscombe always being the leader who dressed beautifully for rehearsals and performances, spoke eloquently, was a true professional teacher, musician and conductor with patience and encouragement asking that her ladies sing to the best of their ability were a delight.  Notice the folders held by the Choral members in the photo below!

To Mary Conway and Mark Curtis who gave me these treasured possessions of their family’s Branscombe Choral members, I thank you.  The red folder, programs, receipt and records add to the story of conductor, Gena Branscombe, and the impact her music making had on the world at large.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pilgrims of Destiny - Performance at Clark University

In May 2015, I wrote a blog entry about Gena Branscombe’s dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny.  There was a detailed description of what was happening in Miss Branscombe’s and her family’s life at the time.  Also, I had found an original 1929 piano/vocal score online and purchased it.  Please go back and read the posting.

This blog is about Pilgrims of Destiny and wonderful news to share with you. 

Pilgrims of Destiny will be performed Saturday, April 27, 2019 at Clark University in Worcester, MA.  Dan Ryan, Director of Choral Activities at Clark University, will conduct this work which has not been performed since 1940.  

When I began work on my Gena Branscombe Project, it was always my dream to see that Pilgrims of Destiny be performed once again.

Last year I received an e-mail from conductor Dan Ryan telling me had found the score and was interested in performing the work.  Several weeks later we spoke by phone.  He was quite excited by the historical story of the Mayflower's arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  In addition, he loved the music.  He wanted to know about Gena Branscombe, her life, music and much more.

In August 2017, along with my friend, Heather Seaton, the two of us spent two and a half days at the Library of Congress taking photos of the original orchestral score and parts.  That is the only complete conductor's score there is.....preserved in that wonderful library.

Over the past year, Dan Ryan and I e-mailed back and forth about Pilgrims.  He is an energetic, positive energy and determined musician.  Approaching the powers that be at Clark University, he proposed the school perform Pilgrims of Destiny.  They agreed!  We were off and running to see that a performance would happen. 

Over the past two days, Dan and I began creating a new score in the music program Finale.  Tedious, note-for-note entry with the end product being a complete conductor's score and a piano/vocal score.  We spent time at the Lincoln Center New York Public Library for the Performing Arts looking through Gena's collection held in the Special Collections department. 

In particular, we studied Gena's own pencil written conductor's score, the one she then handed off to a professional copyist to create the score that is in the Library of Congress.  To see her markings, where she placed a voice part due to a lack of space on the staff paper, how she changed from Clarinets in A to Clarinets in B flat and more was a delight.

Dan asked questions about Gena, we discussed details of the concert, a possible display of Gena items I have in my collection and much more.  Dan and I became Gena buddies!

To say the least, Gena's family is thrilled and will be in attendance.  The Library of Congress and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts are happy that this work long held in their collections will be performed.

Within the next week or so, Pilgrims of Destiny will have its own blog.  Dan and I will make entries explaining our work.  A beautiful and historic piece of music finds its way from its premiere in 1929 to a performance in 2019.  A woman composer of renown in her day, to near obscurity and now her Pilgrims of Destiny will return to the concert hall.

By the way, if you hear loud screams and expletives, it is me entering the voice parts into Finale.  I am learning and I am slow and I will conquer this computer program.....somehow.
To Dan Ryan, thank you for your passion and understanding of Gena's music.  You were chosen!


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Mary Sharratt - Ecstasy - Book Review

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Mary Sharratt's new book, Ecstasy.  A fiction based on fact  book about composer, Alma Mahler, who was the wife of composer Gustav Mahler.  Many thanks to her publisher for sending me the book.   

Below is my review of Ecstasy with hopes that you the readers of my blog will read the book.  

The late 19th century was witness to three women composers of renown – Clara Wieck Schumann, Fanny Mendelsohn Hensel and Alma Schindler Mahler.  All three had their compositional talents repressed by the men in their lives - Clara’s husband, Robert, and Fanny by both her brother Felix and father.  Alma Mahler’s pianistic skills, as well as her intuitive and subtle understanding of music, portray a woman of musical talent beyond the norm.  Her career was stifled by not only her mother but her composition teachers and future husband.  Clara and Alma’s husbands were over-achieving and depressed individuals. 

In Mary Sharratt’s new book, Ecstasy, we are given an in-depth look at the music and life of Alma Mahler.  Sharratt takes us on an emotional and musical journey with its highs bordering manic behavior to lows of despair. And, through it all the author guides the reader to see Alma as a woman who not only survives what comes her way, but finds her own life’s path choosing whatever manner she deems correct for herself.  Ecstasy, an historical and coming of age book, is one to read slowly while you absorb an era long gone.

History tells us that Alma was not a soft, demure person.  She was anti-Semitic yet married twice someone of the Jewish faith.  She had her edges and demands based on her family’s connection to the rich and famous of Vienna. 

Alma’s allure caused artist Gustav Klimt to give her her first kiss.  He wanted to paint her and seduce her.  Alexander von Zemlinsky taught her piano and yearned for her.  He saw her passionate understanding of the poetry she set to music.  Penniless and knowing he could not afford to support her in the manner she was brought to expect, he desperately wanted to marry her.  Alma, who caught the eye of nearly every man of importance in Vienna, was a beauty with a personality that absorbed adulation.

Vienna’s high society parties, the opera house, walks in the park and the beautiful clothing worn by the rich are described by the author with vivid attention to detail.  The reader felt immersed in the moment of Vienna’s magical glory.

The depth of research about Alma Mahler is apparent from the opening sentence of the book.  We are introduced to her accompanying her mother, a soprano, singing art songs.  Alma is easily drawn to the audience member, Gustav Klimt, who has given her a great deal of attention.  Thus begins the path of each man who enters her life.  A slight flirtation by this beautiful woman and men become her love interest.  With great concern over proper behavior and correct manners, she insists her music comes first.  Her songs with their painstaking choice of texts to express her longings, despair and ongoing fear of love express what is suppressed in her.

Ms. Sharratt’s colorful and descriptive language paints for the reader a woman of some naiveté whose underlying goal is to marry a man of fame and be kept as properly as she wants.  We see a soft, feminine side with disappointment and despair that make us sympathetic to her. 

At the opera, Alma is introduced to Gustav Mahler. 
Her infatuation with the famous composer and conductor, a man considerably older than she, becomes intense and his interest in her is ignited.  Her mother and stepfather voice their concern over her involvement with someone of the Jewish faith.  They express to Alma the crime of her future children having a Jewish father.  No one will stop Alma from marrying a man of high esteem in the music world who would not disregard her songs and who she loves passionately.

The couple’s engagement and marriage were the highlight of Vienna’s season with the press following their every move.  Sharratt captures the monetary woes, destination travel exhaustion and two creative personalities bound together in love and a husband’s career.  With clarity she describes the roller coaster marriage of Gustav and Alma.  She leads the reader to believe you are one of the characters involved in their everyday happenings. Gustav’s total commitment to his conducting career and in his off-season vacation, composing, leave Alma alone, void of a partner to participate in her emotions and desires.  She has become, in some ways, a trophy wife who is deeply loved yet must understand her place as wife, mother and organizer of her composer husband’s hectic career.  With the loss of their oldest daughter, a chasm of grief and non-communication grows.  Sharratt’s writing connects us with Alma’s grief and the reader hopes she will come through this time.  We feel her doubts and anger.  We crave for her to express herself in a more forthright fashion.

Alma’s passions and desires culminate in an affair with architect Walter Gropius, who would become her second husband.  She has made a decision of the heart to attend to what she defines is her need for love and understanding.  She openly admits to ardently loving both men.  When Mahler challenges her about the affair, Alma returns to him.  Mahler falls ill and she becomes his caretaker until his death.  Only after his death, does she realize how much Gustav wanted her to be his soul mate, the love of his life and the person who kept him grounded amidst the demands of his music career. 

Author Mary Sharratt completes Ecstasy with Alma’s return to her lover, Walter.  A confrontation between the two questioning each other’s fidelity and love is a scene where Sharratt leaves the reader with a view of the woman Alma was in real life.  Alma was a determined, self-absorbed, articulate woman in control of her life no matter what may come her way. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Memory

Recently a CD of turn of the century symphonic works was released on the Naxos label.  Entitled American Romantics III,  the CD includes works by Carl Busch, Edward MacDowell, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Cecil Burleigh, Ludwig Bonvin, David Stanley Smith and Gena Branscombe.  The music is performed by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Reuben Blundell

All the music on the CD was provided by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Edwin Fleisher (1877-1959) did not intend to have an orchestral library but rather a Symphony Club that trained students interested in playing orchestral music.  One of the first employees of the Symphony Club was William Happich (1884-1959), a teacher and conductor.  For his students, Happich would arrange works from the collection.  Miss Branscombe’s violin and piano work, “A Memory” was arranged for harp and strings.  The work is beautifully played on the CD.

Two months after the CD was released in late April, Miss Branscombe’s original 1911 violin/piano sheet music for “A Memory” came up for sale on E-bay. 
Several days later her “An Old Love Tale” also composed for violin and piano came up for sale.  Both works were published by Arthur P. Schmidt of Boston and are inscribed to Ilse Niemack with good wishes to her from Gena Branscombe.  Ilse was an American violinist and composer who concertized across the United States.  She was known for having a warm tone and a sincerity of expression.

Gena Branscombe dedicated “An Old Love Tale” to Kathleen Parlow, a Canadian born violinist nicknamed “The lady of the golden bow”. 

Congratulations to the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra for releasing these lesser known American works.  What a gift to the music world at large.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Ellen Repp

Arriving in New York City in late February 1980, finding a voice teacher was a top priority for me.  Through recommendations of friends and colleagues, I called Miss Ellen Repp who lived near Lincoln Center.  Her resonant and warm voice answered the phone, “Hello, Repp here!”  That was a bit of a surprise way to answer the phone.  I quickly learned she always answered her phone calls with, “Repp here” or if she called me she would say, “Kathy? Repp here”.  Amusing and quite telling of her humorous warm personality.

Our conversation proceeded when I introduced myself, explained who recommended her as a teacher and then asked if I may please audition for her voice studio.  A time was agreed upon for a week later and I was assured she would have a pianist on hand to play for me. 

I arrived at Miss Repp’s apartment, knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman in her 70s with red hair beautifully arranged on the top of her head, dressed elegantly with a shawl over her shoulders.  Miss Repp invited me into her living room where her grand piano took up only a small portion of the room.  She seated herself in her favorite chair, the pianist and I conferred on my repertoire and the audition began.  It went well and she agreed to take me as her student. 

Miss Repp’s warm and inviting apartment became my voice lesson home for the next six years.  Together we would work on vocal exercises.  I would sing repertoire during which she would give insightful vocal corrections and style suggestions.  I left each lesson with something new to work on. 

Over the years of studying with her, I learned that prior to her becoming a professional singer and voice teacher, Miss Repp had been a social studies teacher in the state of Washington, her home state.  Her prize student was Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington state.  The two stayed in touch and he credited her with his love and understanding of government.

Ellen Repp studied voice, moved to New York City in the 1930s where her career took off as an oratorio soloist, church soloist and with forays into opera.  In 1947 she appeared on Broadway in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene performing the role of Olga Olsen.  She returned to Broadway in 1948 in the musical Sleepy Hollow in the role of Wilhelmina.  She traveled to Europe where she sang in Wagner operas. 

Miss Repp had a wicked sense of humor and could catch you off-guard with some of her slightly off-color jokes.  Always with a great heart-felt laugh, she let you know she was not being offensive.  She enjoyed her daily "after work" cocktail with her neighbor down the hall. 

At the time I studied with her, she taught nine months of the year in New York City and two months of the year in Germany where her students performing in opera houses there had lessons with her.  When she retired in 1993 at the age of 91, she informed her students she was going to take up dancing.    She died in 1999 at age 97.  She was a force of nature.

Of course, in my blog postings there is a connection to Gena Branscombe.  Quite to my complete and utter surprise I recently found out that Miss Repp knew Gena Branscombe and performed an aria from her dramatic oratorio Pilgrims of Destiny on a 1940s WNYC radio broadcast.   

Several months ago I obtained audio files of the acetate records of the broadcast.  I was excited to hear how Miss Branscombe had conducted her score.  With my own piano/vocal score of Pilgrims of Destiny open in front of me, I began to listen to the broadcast with all its scratches and blips of old recordings.  The announcer explains the plot of the upcoming scene, the names of the characters and the soloist’s names.  “Singing the role of Dorothy Bradford is Ellen Repp”. 

I thought to myself, “Yes, I know that person” but didn’t give it any further thought as I concentrated on listening to the music.  My husband, Dan, said, “Kathy, that’s your former voice teacher, Ellen Repp!”  I stopped playing the recording and went back to make sure we were right.  Miss Repp’s rich voice filled the haunting lullaby with the emotion of the pilgrims’ long journey and their children’s unknown future. 

Yes, Ellen Repp knew and worked with Gena Branscombe in 1940.  I was stunned as I put our story together.  I had no idea in the early 1980s, while I studied with Miss Repp, that during the late 1990s I would discover the music and life of a woman composer named Gena Branscombe.  Surprises like this one ….. there are no words to describe them.  

Gena, “Repp” and I are all connected now.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Agnes Conway

Earlier today the funeral of former Branscombe Choral member, Agnes Conway, was held in East Rockaway, New York.  She died at the age of 95 on December 31st.  I send her daughter, Mary, and extended family my sincerest sympathy for their loss.

When Martin Hennessy and I performed, Life! Love! Song!  A Visit with Gena Branscombe, at Hofstra University in 2008, Agnes attended the performance. 

An ad for our concert appeared in her local newspaper.  She ordered tickets for herself and her daughter.  Days before seeing the ad, she had been sorting through her possessions trying to decide what to keep and what to throw out.  When she came across her Branscombe Choral memorabilia, she chose not to throw any of it away.  After making the arrangements to attend our concert and much to our surprise, she gathered her Branscombe Choral pictures, programs, letters and more, cross-stitched book covers, put the items in binders and gave me her treasured possessions. 

As I have said frequently in my blog postings about Branscombe Choral items and Gena Branscombe personal letters that come my way, I am astounded by how long the women of the Choral held on to these items.  Gena Branscombe was not only charismatic, a fine conductor, a well-rounded teacher of music but also a kind, caring human being who cherished the people with whom she came in contact.  In return for Gena’s dedication to the Branscombe Choral, the women singers were loyal members who performed to the highest ability they could muster for their conductor.

In the Fall of 1953 Agnes joined the Branscombe Choral on the suggestion of a friend.  She performed the Christmas concert of 1953 at the Broadway Tabernacle Church, the spring 1954 Town Hall concert and the final Branscombe Choral concert of Christmas 1954 again at the church.  For fifty four years Agnes preserved her programs, personal letters, pictures and articles about Miss Branscombe. 

Since 2008, Agnes and I were friends on Facebook.  We occasionally communicated by e-mail.   As part of an ongoing project about Miss Branscombe, I asked Agnes to please answer a list of questions about Miss Branscombe, her rehearsal and conducting style, and her own personal experiences singing with the Choral.  She graciously and with great detail took the time to type answers to each and every question. 

Agnes may be the last Branscombe Choral member to have died.  If there are other members alive, they have not found me nor I them.  A passing of an era as 63 years has gone by since the Choral’s final concert.

The universal language of music is a mystery, something that words fail to define yet our mind frees our souls to absorb its impact on us.  In Agnes’s case, music’s subtle language touched her as a member of a women’s Choral performing with a revered conductor.  How lucky she was.