Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Rosewood Piano


In today’s world it is difficult to observe the number of pianos that are left on the curb for pick-up that will then be destroyed.  Yes, there is a video online of a large furniture hauler hoisting a spinet piano into the back of a garbage truck which then crushes the instrument into pieces.  There are also countless pianos listed on E-bay.  From concert and baby grands, to spinets, uprights, old and new, electronic and more, they are for sale or offered for free if you come get them.  Are pianos becoming a musical instrument of the past?

How painful it is to watch that beautiful piano be destroyed.  Maybe that piano had been in a family for a generation or two.  Maybe that piano was purchased by parents who saved for years to buy it for their children hoping they would learn to play.  Maybe they practiced every day, maybe not willingly,  but they practiced under the watchful eye of their parents.  Maybe those children would love making music, major in piano in college and on and on it goes.  Now the piano has gone into non-use, hasn’t been tuned, is taking up too much space and “let’s get rid of the piano” becomes a mission.


Before radio and television a piano was a center piece of a home.  Children took lessons and if parents knew how to play, in the evenings people would gather around the piano for family sing-alongs or for an impromptu piano concert by someone.  Imagine how a home filled with live music-making drew family, neighbors and friends together.  It is a time of the past. 


In the Branscombe household in Picton, Ontario resided two

pianos…..two pianos!  There was a large square piano and a much smaller rosewood piano.  The rosewood piano was Gena Branscombe’s piano of choice where she practiced for hours after school each day.  There was a romantic history to her favorite rosewood piano.  The instrument had been brought to Canada from India by an English family.  It had been shipped around the Cape of Good Hope.  This was verified in a letter to Gena’s grandson, Roger.   

Recently Roger told me he has the rosewood piano.  In its present state it is not a piano but a desk.  Along with the piano/desk, Roger shared with me the letter his grandmother wrote him explaining the history of her beloved rosewood piano.


In her September 1974 letter to Roger, Gena wrote:

It was a little piano (not a spinet) and was brought by an English family out from India, in a sailing ship, ‘round the Horn and bought by your great great grandfather, the Rev. Cyrus Richmond Allison for his young lady daughters to play upon.  You’ll notice that the little holders where candles were placed, are still there.  It was in my mother’s house when I was little and I regarded it as mine, tho’ mother also had a lovely old square piano (and later, a stylish, shiny upright.).

 But the little piano was dear to me.  My Aunt Jennie, (mother’s youngest sister) took the little piano with her when she left town.  And my cousin Eva – (her daughter) later had it made into a desk.  .....  She had the cretonne or whatever, put in those glass panels, it matched the draperies in her drawing room.  I tried to get it out once, (the desk finally came back to me) but failed. How the Metropolitan Museum would have loved the little piano in its original state.  There aren’t many of them.  Am so glad you have it, I love it dearly.


A treasured, loved piano nearly 200 years old is held dear to the Branscombe family descendants as a desk.  Its history known. The music played upon it over 100 years ago only heard and remembered by the rosewood.   



Monday, December 19, 2022

Frederick Swann and Riverside Church


At age 92 Gena Branscombe received what would be her final commission.  Frederick Swann, organist of the Riverside Church in New York City, requested she compose an “Introit” and “Prayer Response” for a morning church service to be held on Mother’s Day in May 1973. 

 Not to be deterred by her failing eyesight, Gena began writing her own poems then set them to music she quietly held within herself.  Daughter Gena Phenix provided the staff paper and pencils as well as offering to help, but, Gena’s intention was these final pieces would be entirely her own.

 By the end of March 1973, the “Introit” was complete followed in April by the “Prayer Response.”  She added a concluding “Amen” to finalize the Mother’s Day Service. 

 On Sunday, May 13, 1973 accompanied to Riverside Church by daughter Gena and her husband Philip, Gena Branscombe listened to the choir sing her “Introit,” ”Prayer Response” and the closing “Amen.”  Her final compositions were sung in the church where four years later her funeral would be held.

Gena and Philip Phenix were active members of Riverside Church.  During their years of worshipping at the church they began the food pantry which is in existence to this day.  Gena Phenix was a community organizer through the church.  Ten buses filled with community members traveled to Washington, DC for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech because of her work. 


Recently, Frederick Swann died at age 91.
  He was a master of the organ serving as Music Director at Riverside Church, the Crystal Cathedral and First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.  He was a renowned recitalist playing organs around the world.  He thrilled his audiences with his deep understanding of music and he played his programs from memory!


Four years ago I contacted Mr. Swann through e-mail as I was curious about his working relationship with Gena Branscombe.  After exchanging several e-mails, we spoke by phone.  I explained my Gena Branscombe Project and why I wanted to speak with him. He apologized for not remembering her, the music he commissioned or playing her music at her funeral.  He proceeded to say that his career had spanned decades, many churches, playing countless organs and directing many choirs.  He could not rely on his memory.  This is understandable. 

 We chatted for a few more minutes, then, as we were about to say good bye, he thanked me for working to promote a woman composer, for bringing her music back to the mainstream and then encouraged me to continue my work.  RIP, Mr. Frederick Swann.  You touched the world with your music making.  Thank you!


Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The Harmony Club of Binghamton, New York


Binghamton musicians added to the value of events musical in this city yesterday when the Harmony Club presented a program of Gena Branscombe compositions at a musicale in the Monday Afternoon club.

With this popular composer as conductor and honor guest, with an audience that taxed the capacity of the clubroom auditorium, and with a well balanced and artistically presented musical menu, the event proved one of those pleasant, artistic hours of music such as gladden the hearts and find instant response in the minds of music lovers.

Proof that American music has made marked strides during the last few years is evidenced by the artistry of the Branscombe compositions, full of color and of charm. Vocal and instrumental numbers were interpretated in an interesting manner.  The Binghamton Press, Tuesday evening, February 28, 1928

 Among Gena Branscombe’s 1928 letters to her publisher, Mr. Austin, at Arthur P. Schmidt Publishing, is the original newspaper article from The Binghamton Press (NY) with a picture of the composer.  There is no letter explaining how Miss Branscombe came to be invited to the Harmony Club and there is no letter reporting on how the event went.      

For 97 years, The Harmony Club of Binghamton, New York, has been sponsoring concerts, sing-a-longs, puppet shows and performances by members at their meetings.  They have awarded scholarships to local high school graduates!  Clubs such as this one were the main-stay of American music in villages, towns and cities across our country.  Professional musicians, famous musicians and local talents would perform a wide variety of music for these groups introducing new and familiar works. 


In 1928, Gena Branscombe’s music was considered new music for the audience of The Harmony Club.  She accompanied singers and instrumentalists as well as conducted the club’s chorus, who were all local musicians.  They learned and performed her beautiful, lyrical new music.

In 2016, The Harmony Club of Binghamton member, Dori Schriber, volunteered to be the club historian.  She has patched together, researched and created books of newspaper articles, programs and the club’s members through the years.  Their history is important to Binghamton and the arts world! 

As I have said in several blog postings, Gena Branscombe was a self-promoter who reached out to share her talent as a composer of music that touched the hearts and souls of those who heard it.

As The Binghamton Press said:   Miss Branscombe is a musician of ability, possessing charm and fine spirit.


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

2022 Scholarship Winners - The Gena Branscombe Project


The Gena Branscombe Project has announced their 2022 scholarship winners.  We congratulate these talented musicians and wish them all the best as they move forward with their careers.


The Gena Branscombe Project
has awarded its 2022 Composer scholarship to Alexandra Bellhaven.

In addition to being a composer, Alexandra is a musical theater writer, pianist, and conductor with a passion for the art of telling stories. She is a current student at Berklee College of Music in Boston where she studies Film Scoring and Composition with minors in Musical Theater writing and conducting.

Alexandra’s niche is telling the hidden stories that affect a large population of people; the stories of the silent majority. Whether that is the stories of addiction, or the transformation of love in all forms, Ally seeks out art that generates the feeling of community in a unique way. When not storytelling, you can find Ally training for the Chicago 2022 marathon,


Congratulations to Jacquelyn Johnson, winner of The Gena Branscombe Project 2022 scholarship in Arts Administration.

Jackie’s love of music began when she her father encouraged her to auditioned for the Uniting Voices Chicago (formerly Chicago Children’s Choir).  She performed with the choir throughout the city, Orchestra Hall and at Nelson Mandela’s home in South Africa.  She is an alum of the group, later joining the organization as Program Assistant, Program Associate, Program Manager and became Director of Citywide Programs. 

Presently Jackie is working on her Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies; Multi Cultural Arts Administration at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, University Without Walls.  One of her goals in pursuing this specific degree is her ability to bring academic expertise and experience to her work at Chicago Children’s Choir. 


The Gena Branscombe Project is proud to award its 2022 Conductor’s scholarship to Valery Saul.

Valery has served as assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra, held positions as cover conductor for the Oregon and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  She received her Master of Music degree under the mentorship of Marin Alsop at the Peabody Conservatory. 

Her upcoming 2022-2023 engagements  include cover conducting for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. 

Valery won 2nd place at the Denver Philharmonic International Conducting Competition and was selected to participate in the Domaine-Forget Conducting Academy with Yannick Nézet- Séguin and Branwell Toveye. 

Known for her inclusivity in programming she formed concerts that celebrated the Hispanic culture of her community and advocated the new music of living composers that must be heard in our concert halls. 

The Gena Branscombe Project will begin accepting applications for the 2023 scholarships on March 8, 2023!  


Thursday, November 17, 2022

At the Postern Gate


What could singer Oliver Steward, Metropolitan Opera star tenor, Frederick Jagel, and sports announcer Graham McNamee possibly have in common?  First, they are all American born, second, the obvious answer would be a connection to Gena Branscombe.  And, yes, all three of them sang her song, “At the Postern Gate” from her song cycle, “Songs of the Unafraid.”


In Gena’s November 14, 1928 letter to Mr. Austin at Arthur P. Schmidt publishing, she mentions that Oliver Steward had sung the song at a private musicale and at the Plaza Hotel.  She happened to meet Mr. Frederick Jagel of the Metropolitan Opera who told her he had also sung the song at a private musicale and would be singing it over the radio in January.  In what seems to be a whimsical after thought in her letter, she asks if Graham McNamee singing that song on the radio had “stirred up a little life!”


There is no information about Oliver Steward on the internet.  I will surmise he was a New York City based singer who performed recitals and oratorio.


Mr. Frederick Jagel (1897–1982) has an interesting life.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1897.  He began his vocal studies in New York City then continued his studies and began his performing career in Italy.  Using the name Federico Jaghelli, he made his opera debut in 1924 as Rodolfo in La Boheme in Livorno.  He returned to the United States to make his 1928 debut at the Metropolitan Opera singing the role of Radames in Aida. He sang 217 performances of 34 roles over his 23 years at that famous house!  He must have given time in his operatic career to perform recitals or sing art songs for special occasion at private parties and on the radio.  Thus, this was his connection to Gena.  When he retired in 1950, he began teaching.  He became Chairman of the Voice Department at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

 The mention of Graham McNamee, the sports announcer, is an interesting one.  McNamee was the sports announcer who created “play-by-play” announcing of baseball games which he did for the 1924 World Series.  He had little knowledge of baseball yet had a knack for describing what he was seeing which captivated his radio listening audience.


McNamee had an early interest in becoming an opera singer which was why he moved to New York City.  On his way to jury duty, he stopped into WEAF radio station to see if he could get an audition as a singer.  There was no work for singers, but, he was asked to speak into the microphone as an audition.  He was immediately hired as a staff announcer.  His announcing career blossomed through sports, reporting on presidents, political conventions and he appeared in movies. 


In the 1920s Graham gave a recital at Aeolian Hall in New York City.  The reviews were very good yet he would find little work singing in churches and giving concerts.  Now….did he happen to sing a few of Gena’s songs on that concert?  Possibly and there are no Aeolian Hall  archives to research.  Gena does mention that he sang “At the Postern Gate” on the radio.  Was the singing of the song during one of his regular broadcasts to entertain his followers or as a solo for a radio station concert?  It’s a swash-buckling tune with lyrics by poet Kendall Banning.  In the era, it would have been considered a “man’s song.”  With his fame and renown, singing “At the Postern Gate” on the radio would have created interest in purchasing the song, sales would have increased and Gena would receive increased royalties.  

That's a good deal!

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

And, it's a wrap


With thanks to Matt Spangler for inviting me to be interviewed for his podcast “The Ladies Speak.”  Speaking about Gena Branscombe for over 3 hours was a new one for me.  Guided by Matt, it was easy.  Damali Willingham, The Gena Branscombe Project 2020 Composer scholarship winner, joined the session to speak about the experience of arranging and conducting Gena’s “Festival Prelude.”  What a pro Damali is!

Thanks to Dave at Pod617 studio who made me feel comfortable and at ease. Forgive my poor photographs of Dave’s wrist band advertising, but, it is very creative and I had to share it.

The podcast will be posted on “The Ladies Speak” website in early 2023.  Of course, we will post it as soon as it is available.

In the meantime, the recording session is “A WRAP!”

Friday, November 11, 2022

The National League of American Pen Women - Santa Clara, California Chapter


NATIONAL LEAGUE OF AMERICAN PEN WOMEN, INC. - Linking creative women since 1897

The Santa Clara, California Chapter of the National League of American Pen Women invited me to give a presentation about Gena Branscombe’s involvement with the Pen Women.  On Saturday, November 5th, I presented my speech.  I offer my thanks to Luanna Leisure, President of the Chapter, for the invitation and organizing the meeting and to the members and guests who were an engaged audience.

Below is the link to the video:




Friday, September 9, 2022

Edwin McArthur, Accompanist, Conductor, Coach and My Friend


It was Christmas Day dinner 1983 in my apartment in Elmhurst, Queens.  Among those at the table were my friends Jon, Greg, Edwin McArthur and his wife, Peggy.  The dinner conversation flowed between multiple subjects including church music of the season, politics and the weather.  Once those subjects faded into eating the main course and dessert, Edwin began to hold court with his reminiscences of his colorful, storied and many years in the classical music world.  We peppered Edwin with questions about famous opera singers of his long career.  He knew all of them, had worked with them and had very strong opinions about each and everyone of them.  


It was either 1981 or 1982 when my friend Jon introduced me to Edwin.  He insisted that we would hit it off and I would enjoy hearing Edwin’s stories.  Jon was right. 

 Edwin arrived in New York City in the late 1920s.  He was the son of a Colorado minister.  His pianistic talents were many as he played for famous singers of the era including Ezio Pinza, John Charles Thomas and many others.  Over his  years living in New York City he was not only an accompanist but also a  coach, conductor and church organist. 

 He was called to audition as accompanist for Florence Foster Jenkins.  She hired him but he was fired when she caught him making faces  at the audience while she was singing.  Edwin did not have an opinion, whether complimentary or not, that was not expressed!

 He also auditioned for the great Swedish soprano Kirsten Flagstad.  As he told the story, he was called to her apartment where she sang and he played.  Several arias and songs later, Edwin left not knowing what the great soprano thought of him.  A few days went by and not having heard from her,  Edwin called her to inquire as to her decision.  Her response was, “Oh, yes, you are my accompanist.  I thought I made that clear when you were here.”  And, so for many years thereafter, Edwin accompanied the great Kirsten Flagstad across our country and around the world for her recital tours.  Edwin played all of Miss Flagstad’s concerts by memory.  He also conducted Miss Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in performances of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Metropolitan Opera.  He was the first American born conductor to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.  

Edwin wrote the book, ''Flagstad: A Personal Memoir,'' which tells the story of his long friendship with the soprano.  He gifted me an autographed copy.  Touched was I. 


Edwin married the love of his life, Peggy, whose real name was Blanche, in 1930.  She was a sweet woman who easily moved through all of Edwin’s artists of great stature.  Yet, Peggy knew when to stand her ground and tell Edwin to stop telling his stories. 

 I had the pleasure of working with Edwin two or three times.  On one occasion we met before a church service to rehearse.  Edwin asked me what I was planning to sing.  The man could sight read anything without a mistake.  I responded, “The Malotte’s “Our Father.”  Here’s the music.”  His response, “I don’t’ need the music.  What key are you singing this in? I played the first performance of this piece with John Charles Thomas.  I know it.” Edwin proceeded to play the “Our Father” without music and in the key I was singing it in.  We got along famously.


On another occasion after a “gig” where Edwin was conducting, he offered me a ride home and of course, I accepted.  Our conversation flowed about the “gig” we had just done, what was playing at the Met Opera and then all of a sudden Edwin said, “Fifty years ago tonight I was at a party on the Upper East Side with Lauritz Melchior.  Lauritz could hold his liquor.”  On he went about the details of the apartment where the party was, what time they arrived and left and more.  Edwin’s memory was beyond remarkable.  I was in awe. 

 So why all these remembrances of my friendship with Edwin and Peggy McArthur? 

The answer to that question must obviously be “Gena Branscombe.” 


Recently I was researching the Branscombe Choral scrapbooks held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  As I opened the first scrapbook to find the Branscombe Choral’s first concert program dated December 23, 1934, there was Edwin McArthur’s name as organist and pianist for the concert.  Edwin held the organist position at the Broadway Tabernacle Church where the concert was held.  (Remember as a freelance musician one takes on many jobs to pay the bills.)  I was stunned.


Edwin knew and had worked with Gena Branscombe.  I met Edwin many  years before I began my Gena Branscombe Project .  I never had the opportunity to talk to  him about her and listen to what I am sure would be a colorful story about their professional relationship.  Also, among those scrapbook pages was a telegram from Edwin and Peggy apologizing for not attending a recent concert. 

In  Gena’s letters to her publisher Arthur Schmidt, she mentions wanting to call Edwin.  Ever the self-promoter and the way to get to Kirsten Flagstad to perform her songs on her recitals was through Edwin!  And, indeed Kirsten performed one of Gena’s arrangements of a Swedish folk song on the radio!

 Several weeks before Edwin died we had a phone conversation.  I invited he and Peggy to dinner and to meet my husband, Dan.  We agreed we would talk in a few weeks to set a date.  Sadly, Edwin died February 24, 1987.  He died seconds after having played the art song “Si mes vers avaient des ailes”..”If my verses had wings.”  The singer with whom he had been working turned to get his calendar to schedule his next coaching session and when he looked back to talk to Edwin, he was peacefully sitting in the chair at the piano having played his final performance.  A life filled with joyous music making to the very last second. 

 Edwin was a force of nature with humor, serious musical opinions, an incredible memory, talent emanating from his very being and a caring, loving person.

 One thing that stymied me over the years I knew Edwin was that he could recount days, years, meetings, events, where he had been, what he had eaten, who was with him and much more…..well, Edwin NEVER in all the years I knew him pronounced my last name correctly.

 Edwin, it was an honor to know you and I hope you and Gena are having a great conversation while I type this blog entry. 


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Gena at our Spring Luncheon


A new photo of Gena Branscombe appeared in my e-mail thanks to her grandson, Roger.  What a lovely picture it is.  

By the style of the dress, hat and handbag, I would guess the photo was taken in the 1940s.  Looking closely at her hands, she is holding a baton.

 On the back of the picture it says, “Gena at our Spring luncheon.”  I presume the luncheon would have been the Branscombe Choral Spring luncheon. 

No date or identifying information is given.