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.
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.
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.
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!