Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Gena Branscombe - July 26, 1977

Today marks 45 years since Gena Branscombe left this world.  Surviving her were daughters Gena Tenney Phenix and her husband, Philip, Dr. Vivian Tenney, two grandsons and her extended family known as the Branscombe Choral. 


Gena founded the Branscombe Choral in 1934 and remained its conductor, composer and arts administrator until 1954.  Looking over the twenty years of Branscombe Choral programs one can easily see numerous women who sang every concert while others sang only a few concerts. 


After the disbanding of the chorus, Gena wrote letters and notes to members sending them articles about her and her music career.  There were always good wishes sent to the members, comments and questions about their families and more. 


Recently my friend Peggie Biscaye Oury, whose mother and two aunts were long time members of the Branscombe Choral, mailed me a note she found in her mother’s files which also included Gena’s New York Times obituary.  The note was written by Gena Tenney Phenix.  Like mother, like daughter, Gena Tenney Phenix took up the mantle of letter writing and keeping in touch with former Branscombe Choral members. 


Many times I have written about the Choral members cherishing their musical experience with Gena Branscombe.  They kept their programs, choral folders, recordings, articles, newspaper clippings and letters.  Thank goodness they did this as many items have been given to me. I’ve made friends with three members who are now deceased, their children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews.   


On this the anniversary of Gena Branscombe’s death, I thank her for choosing me to carry on her legacy.  What a journey and honor it has been. 


Monday, July 18, 2022

Florence Foster Jenkins


Six year ago the movie Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant hit the big screen and was a hit.  Based on the play Souvenir which played Off-Broadway and Broadway starring Judy Kaye, both the play and movie highlight the life and singing career of New York City’s socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. 


For decades singers and the public have been introduced to and listened to the recorded singing of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) which leads to uproarious laughter and head shaking disbelief that someone could possibly sound like that and be proud of it.  Her sense of pitch is precarious, correct rhythm was not in her personal music lexicon and phrasing did not seem to interest her.  Her recitals presented in her apartment or private clubs were by invitation only.  With over-the-top costumes designed by her and befitting the arias she was performing she added flowers, props and even some dancing.


Because her recitals had become notorious, Florence Foster Jenkins booked Carnegie Hall for her October 25, 1944 recital.  Tickets were at a premium and sold out weeks before the concert took place.  The audience laughed, applauded and scoffed her.  Scathing reviews from New York City’s papers appeared the following day.

Unanswered are the questions: “Did Florence Foster Jenkins know how bad her singing was?”  “Emotionally how did she handle the rejection?”  “Was she self-delusional?” 


Aside from her singing, Florence Forster Jenkins formed the Verdi Club in 1917.  Attempting to impress her New York City high-society friends, she wished for them to appreciate her dedication to classical music’s traditions.  Membership grew to 400 people including honorary members Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar. 


What does all of this information about Florence Foster Jenkins have to do with Gena Branscombe?  There is an answer to this. 


In a December 2, 1924 letter to Mr. Austin at Arthur P. Schmidt Company, Gena requests Mr. Austin to send Florence Foster Jenkins copies of her SSA arrangements of her songs, “Hail Ye Tyme of Holiedayes,” “A Wind from the Sea,” and “Spirit of Motherhood.”  She then informs Mr. Austin that Miss Jenkins is the director of the Verdi Club.  Mr. Austin was meticulous about sending out the requested pieces of music.  Whether Miss Jenkins went on to have a women’s chorus of the Verdi Club perform these works is not known.  Yet, Gena, ever the self-promoter, knew of Florence Foster Jenkins and her Verdi Club.  Maybe her music would be recognized and performed. 


Florence Foster Jenkins' first accompanist was Edwin McArthur. A detailed blog posting for the future!  Stay tuned!


Friday, July 1, 2022

George Boziwick, Librarian, Composer, Author

Where would we be without librarians?  In this day of researching on the internet it may seem as though a librarian’s job is something of the past, soon to be expendable.  Au contraire – think again.  A librarian’s job is ever evolving in our world of technological advances.  Their creative drive helps guide new avenues of dynamic research.  Keeping track of online creativity that must be held for future generations is their ever expanding role.  And, there are precious historic items not yet digitized and available online that only they have access to.   Most of all, a real, live librarian, through their experience and knowledge, will act as your guide and mentor opening new pathways of research you have yet to discover. 


So it was when I was introduced to George Boziwick nearly 22 years ago.   At the time George was Curator of American Music at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  At our first meeting, I was new to my Gena project with dreams, thoughts of where I wanted to go, recording a CD, but most of all; I had much work to be done in the library.  George sat quietly listening, offered advice, research tools and encouragement for which I am thankful to this day. 


Over the years, I would see George during my many research visits to the library.  He always offered support as I continued my work on The Gena Branscombe Project.  We were honored when he and his wife attended the performance of Pilgrims of Destiny at Clark University in April 2019.  When he retired five years ago he was Chief of the Music Division. 

 Not only was George a great librarian, he is a man of many talents and interests.  He is a former oboist and is a blues harmonica player.  He is a composer whose works have been performed and recorded.  His Magnificat was published by C.F. Peters.  His numerous articles have been published in scholarly journals.  George’s article Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ The Story of Katie Casey and Our National Pastime was published online and in Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game. He curated an exhibition at the Performing Arts Library entitled Take Me Out to the Ball Game which featured 100 Years of Music, Musicians and the National Pastime materials. 

 As an Emily Dickinson scholar his blog and articles have been published as well.  He has set Dickinson’s poetry for solo voice, instruments and voices and for organ and choir. 

 His most recent accomplishment is his book, Emily Dickinson’s Music Book and the Musical Life of an American Poet which was published by the University of Massachusetts Press on June 24th and is now for sale!  Congratulations, George. 


With many thanks and much appreciation to George for his guidance and mentoring.  May you continue to enjoy a retirement filled with composing music and being an inspiring author.