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.