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.