Monday, June 19, 2023

It Only Took Three Years

 It only took me three years to complete this particular Gena project.  Three years, yet, I kept at it even though I did take extended breaks at times to work on other Gena projects that needed attention.  Three years……

 Yes, for three years I transcribed Gena Branscombe’s letters to her publisher, The Arthur P. Schmidt Co. of Boston.  Held at the Library of Congress, the Schmidt business books, letters to/from all composers they published, photos and more are in the stacks available for research.  Five years ago I photographed every letter Gena Branscombe wrote to Mr. Schmidt, Miss Emery, Miss Allen, Mr. Austin and others at the company.  

From December 1910 to December 1951 Gena wrote hundreds of letters to these people.  Forty-one years of handwritten letters almost impossible to decipher at times because of her terrible penmanship and she always wrote in haste….even she admitted that. 


In two different letters she expressed the thrill of receiving Mr. Schmidt’s gift of a Richard Wagner letter and later a Clara Schumann letter.  Her excitement jumps off the pages.  She wrote of her deep admiration for Richard Wagner and his place in music history.  

Her narrative of being invited to join, as one of the first women composers, the National League of American Pen Women….an honor that she describes as being “thrilled as a child at Christmas.” 

 Her frustrations of not having time to write a piano sonata or a piano concerto or a major symphony nearly broke my heart.  Her children’sillnesses, the deaths of family members, her daughters’ school triumphs and their careers appear with an emotional honesty that is at times shocking considering the era. 

 Gena moved headlong into balancing her career, marriage and family life.  I read as she described days of nervous illness, needing rest, financial woes, worry that her husband would enlist during WWI leaving her with two daughters to care for on her own. 

 Countless letters requested copies of her music be sent to singers, coaches and conductors many of whom were famous in their day.  Gena wrote of her meetings with these musicians – networking in hopes that performances of her music would happen!

 In a 1941 letter Gena requested a copy of one of her songs be sent to her two small friends, Pierre and Peggy Biscaye.  I had the pleasure of meeting Pierre and Peggy a few years ago when they gifted me that autographed song and one of Miss Branscombe’s batons.  

 Self-promotion was one of her great strengths.  This was her day-to-day life – her entire life.  An admirable women -  a woman composer in an age where women were thought to be second class music citizens!

What did I learn most of all about Miss Branscombe ? – perseverance, determination, generosity, self-promotion, graciousness, strength of character for no matter the ups and downs and frustration.  All these attributes she maintained as a professional  inspiring optimistic influence on herself then sharing these with her family, friends, colleagues and anyone who walked into her path of life. 

 In the final paragraph of Gena’s March 9, 1918 letter to Mr. Arthur Schmidt, she expresses  her thoughts and admiration for his dedication to American composers …..

 “There has been something on my mind for some time – and I hope you won’t think me a very – meddlesome – sort of person – to be thinking about it even.  But it’s this – you published American compositions long before other people.  You’ve published more big things – with no hope of financial return – you’ve published more American women’s things than anyone else - and all this in the days when it wasn’t fashionable and patriotic – and all that to boost American music!  I feel that that thing should be recognized and known and advertised in a strong way.  You’ll probably just think I’m – very fresh – but I know I’m right.  I think it would be most interesting to know – to have a complete record – of all the American compositions of your catalogue published long before the tide began to turn in favor of giving the American composer a chance.  Forgive me if I rush in.”


Ever thankful for having a publisher who understood the importance of our country’s musical talent, Gena wrote hundreds of letters to Mr. Schmidt and his employees grateful for their support, appreciative of their hard work promoting her music and always sending those all-important royalty checques!


Monday, June 12, 2023

Library Cards


Imagine you are in a 19th century public library where you are about to check out a book you are most anxious to read. You approach the checkout desk, but first, the librarian retrieves a large ledger book, opens it to the page where your name appears.  The librarian then begins to enter the title of the book and author, date checked out, date due back and eventually the date you returned the book.  Now you may leave the library with the book you are excited to read.  The process takes about 10 minutes.  Compare that to today's world where the book checkout takes less than one  minute. 

Originally libraries were non-circulating meaning you went to the library to read and could not check out books.  Private libraries at the YMCA, membership libraries or Sunday schools began to issue library cards allowing their members the honor of taking books out of the building. The 19th century public library movement enabled the everyday person the ability to register and then borrow books.  The scenario above was the check-out process.

Eventually, the ledger book became a thing of the past with the early 20th century development of personal library cards which over the years created today’s electronic checkout systems.  We continue to use library cards identifying us as the borrower!

There are collectors in our world whose hobby is collecting old library cards and particularly old library cards of famous people.  Recently, Gena Branscombe’s 1944 library card came up for sale on E-bay.  Her name at the top is – BRANSCOMBE, GENA, then below that typed in red is – TENNEY, GENA BRANSCOMBE (MRS. JOHN FERGUSON).  Married women had to be identified by their husband’s names.  That was 1944.  Her address and phone number are listed, her occupation – Conductor & Composer, Employer – Freelance. 

The question then is – what library did Gena frequent while living at 611 West 114th Street?  A little research into New York City public libraries in that area and I found the 115th Street branch which in 2017 was renamed the Harry Belafonte Library.  Built in 1907 – 1908 with funds provided by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, it is a three story building made of limestone and in the Neo Italian Renaissance style. 


Walking three or four blocks from her home at 611 West 114th Street to the 115th Street Public Library branch was her journey to reading material, borrowing music, and enhancing her view of the world. 

Everyone should have a library card, visit libraries, check out books, do research and find items not on the internet.  Introduce yourself to a librarian who will guide you to materials you didn’t know existed.  We all need our public libraries.  Get a library card and explore!



Thursday, June 1, 2023

Bringing Back Branscombe to the Upper West Side - Part 2

We ended the weekend of The Gena Branscombe Project’s concert attending a performance of Alexandra Bellhaven’s song cycle, “Diary of a Payphone,” at 54 Below in New York City.  Ally is The Gena Branscombe Project’s 2022 Composer Scholarship winner.  Honored to have been at this performance with Gena’s great niece, Allison, and Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow. 

And, a picture of Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow and Kathleen with the concert poster outside of The New York Society for Ethical Culture.  Gena, we brought you back to your beloved Upper West Side!.  


Bringing Back Branscombe to the Upper West Side Concert - May 6, 2023

  The Gena Branscombe Project's May 6th concert 

at the New York Society for Ethical Culture

Bringing Back Branscombe to the Upper West Side

The Program:



French Horn and Piano:

Violin Sonata:


Art Songs:

Choral Works & Final Bow


With thanks to Gary Schoichet, photograher, for the concert pictures and to Roger Branscombe Phenix for recording the concert.