Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Madame Margaret Matzenauer


Carnegie Hall sits on the corner of 57th Street and 7th Avenue in New York City.  Built in 1891 the hall continues to be a center piece of the city’s musical life to this day.  There are a myriad of great classical musicians’ spirits hovering around that venerable stage where they once performed.  

 Only classical musicians?  NO!  Carnegie Hall has hosted fund raisers for orphans, peace concerts, Broadway shows done in concert format, jazz concerts, international peace and political action lectures. 


On April 5, 1918 the outer lobby of this revered space was decked out with banners and a poster of Uncle Sam.  Over the stage hung posters for the national war savings campaign and a picture of large guns and fighting men which stated, “These boys are giving their lives will you lend your quarters?” Another poster encouraged women of America to save their country.  What was the occasion?  The world famous contralto,Margaret Matzenauer, was giving a recital.  Why all the war advertising during her recital?  World War I had been raging for nearly four years and the call for citizen’s patriotism was at its height.  


Madame Matzenauer presented songs in English, French, Italian, Russian and Norwegian.  Not to leave out American composers, she sang songs by Marion Bauer, John Carpenter, Gena Branscombe and her pianist/composer Frank La Forge.  Half way through her recital, Matzenauer paused her program to sing the war song “Dear Lad o’Mine” followed by our Star Spangled Banner.  I am sure her audience was moved by her commitment to the American war effort.

“Had such a nice surprise Friday when Madame Matzenauer sang “Dear Lad” for an encore at the Carnegie Hall recital.  It’s a joy to hear a voice like that, do one’s things”  (Gena Branscombe’s letter to Arthur P. Schmidt, April 7, 1918 held at the Library of Congress).  Whether Gena Branscombe was at that Carnegie Hall recital is not known, yet, she knew Margaret Matzenauer performed her World War I song with poetry by Katherine Hale. 


Madame Matzenauer went on to perform “Dear Lad o’Mine” on a concert tour which included performances in Brooklyn and Denver. 


Collaborating with Canadian poet Katherine Hale, the two artists tell the dramatic story of a mother fearing for her young son at war.  All profits from the sale of this song were donated to the Canadian Red Cross World War I effort. 


Katherine Hale’s poem:

War gods have descended:

The world burns up, in fine.

Warm your hands by the trenches fire,

Dear lad o’mine.

Sometimes bullets cease at night,

Only songs are heard.

When you feel a phantom step,

Was my heart that stirred.

 If you see a dreamy light,

 ‘Tis the Christ Child’s eyes;

I believe he watches us,

Wonderful and wise.

Let me come to say good night;

Through the campfires shine;

Warm your hands at the trenches fire,

They still hold mine.

Dear lad,

Dear lad o’mine. 


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Festival March/Festival Prelude


Festival March/Festival Prelude

 Should the title be “Festival Prelude” or “Festival March” or “March Prelude” or simply “March,” should it be called “Festival Overture” or maybe just “Prelude?”  Is the work to be scored for full orchestra, smaller orchestra or arranged for organ, piano and violin?  These are the unnerving tasks of assigning a title and deciding what instrumentation works best for the music you are hearing in your mind.   

Eventually Gena Branscombe used the titles “Festival Prelude” and “Festival March” interchangeably.  Writing to her publisher, Arthur Schmidt, on August 11, 1913, she reveals that she is busy orchestrating her “Festival March” and wonders, “How can one ever write well for orchestra - if one never can hear what one has written?”  Nearly a month later she tells Mr. Schmidt that her “Festival March” for orchestra was completed. 

As a self-promoter, Miss Branscombe dined with a Mr. Reinald Werrenrath who was connected with the MacDowell Colony. Dinner conversation included asking if a performance of her “Festival March” at the MacDowell Festival in Peterborough, New Hampshire would be a possibility.  And, indeed, in 1914 she arranged the orchestral score to fit the smaller group of instruments the Festival employed.  The work was performed in Peterborough with conductor Arthur Bergh leading the musicians. 

In her October 27, 1914 letter to Mr. Schmidt, Gena expressed her joy of hearing her “March” in live rehearsal and performance.

“I should like to tell you about Peterborough.  I feel that it was one of the biggest events of my life insomuch as it opened an entirely new world to me – The listening to the men rehearse at close range was most instructive.  I went over the score most minutely with Mr. Bergh, who was kindness itself.”

“I had never heard the “March” of course – and if you can imagine my nervousness before the first rehearsal!  Was afraid there would be so many mistakes in the score - and that I wouldn’t be able to tell what instrument was playing wrong notes - and that I might tangle up in some way and I wouldn’t know how to straighten things.”

“Well – it went like clockwork – and I was certainly happy.”

 “The day of the performance it simply poured rain.  The tympani had to be covered – and little snare drum used – and of course some important effects were lost.  On the whole however it went very well – and I think the people liked it.  It was unpretentious but I didn’t feel at all ashamed of it.”

“It went exceedingly well when Arthur Bergh did it in Central Park in September much better than at Peterborough.”

For several years Gena went on to correct, change and arrange her “Festival Prelude.”  She met with Russian conductor Modest Altschuler who promised to perform the piece in Pittsburgh.  She had the score sent to Mr. Polacco, a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and Chicago Civic Opera.  She indicates people in California were to perform it as well. 

And, Miss Branscombe made an arrangement of the “Festival Prelude” for piano, organ and violin.  With only a ten minute rehearsal and trusting they would end together, the work was performed on February 13, 1917. 

Why all this information about the “Festival March”/”Festival Prelude”?  The Gena Branscombe Project was contacted by Dominick Ferrara, Professor of Music at Berklee College of Music and his conducting student Damali Willingham.  They were interested in transcribing the “Festival Prelude” for wind ensemble.  With a quick trip to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts where the only known original manuscript is held, a scan of the score, unfortunately with missing pages, and, the organ, piano and violin arrangement were sent to Damali.  The new arrangement is being created as I type. 

Miss Branscombe transcribed and arranged her music for whatever voices, instruments and ensembles that would perform her music. She would be overjoyed to hear her “Festival Prelude”/"Festival March” performed by wind ensemble.

This Spring a 21st century performance of “Festival Prelude” will take place at the Berklee College of Music.  The Branscombe family and we at The Gena Branscombe Project are thrilled. 

Gena and her colleagues at the MacDowell Festival in Peterborough, NH - 1914

Damali Willingham photo by Kelly Davidson