Renowned Composer Gena Branscombe Back in the Spotlight

By Kathy Pate, National Music Chair

Pen Woman Gena Branscombe (1881-1977) was a Canadian-born composer, pianist, music educator, and choral conductor who spent her adult life and career in the United States. Her music career was well under way prior to her marriage, at a time when women were not encouraged to have a music career. Branscombe actively supported many American musical organizations and provided strong support for equal recognition for women composers.

Gena Branscombe

Gena Branscombe in an undated photo

Branscombe was clearly gifted when she began studying piano at the age of 4 or 5. She began high school at age 11 and graduated at 14. In 1896, she began majoring in piano and composition at the Chicago Musical College, where she won awards in 1900 and 1901 for her compositions. Upon graduation, she joined the faculty of the college. For the next several years, she earned financial independence through accompanying, teaching private piano lessons, and publishing her songs.

In 1907, Branscombe became head of the piano department at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Two years later, she left for a year of study in Berlin with Rudolf Ganz (piano) and Englebert Humperdinck (composition).

While in Berlin, she and fellow student Belle Forbes performed at a dinner party given for President Theodore Roosevelt. During the same year, some of her works, along with works by Amy Beach and Mary Turner Salter, were performed in a Women’s Philharmonic Society of New York concert of American women composers.

Branscombe married John Ferguson Tenney in October 1910. Tenney’s support of her work and his extensive support at home with the care of their four daughters allowed her to successfully balance work and home life.

Pen Women composers Gena Branscombe, Phyllis Fergus, Amy Beach, Harriet Ware and Ethel Glenn Hier

Gena Branscombe (right) with Pen Women composers (left to right) Phyllis Fergus, Ethel Glenn Hier, Amy Beach, and Harriet Ware in Washington, D.C., for the NLAPW Biennial Convention that took place April 23 to April 26, 1924. On April 23, the women, except for Fergus, performed in a recital. Fergus was involved with a radio broadcast with the other women on April 25. (Source: researcher M. Wertheimer, 2018)
Photo from the National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress

Branscombe became a Pen Woman in 1924. She was involved with six music organizations including the Association of Women Composers of New York, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Society of American Women Composers and the National Association for American Composers and Conductors. She had many renowned colleagues and friends, including conductor Antonia Brico; and composers Amy Marcy Beach, Harriet Ware, Mary Howe, Marion Bauer, Mary Turner Salter, and Mabel Daniels. In 1932, she received an honorary master of arts degree from Whitman College.

In 1934, Branscombe founded the 60-voice women’s Branscombe Choral [sic]. The group performed yearly at Town Hall and the Broadway Tabernacle Church. They also performed at the first United Nations and on nationwide radio broadcasts, as well as singing Christmas carols for train commuters. She served as conductor, composer, organizer, and fundraiser for the chorale for 21 years.

Branscombe was invited to conduct a 1,000-voice chorus in 1941 at the Golden Jubilee Convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which featured works by herself and many others.

NLAPW Biennial recital cover

The program cover for the 1924 Biennial recital, courtesy Library of Congress Music Division

Opera and concert singers of her era performed her music throughout the United States and in Europe. In 1960, the Music Department of the Library of Congress requested that Branscombe submit the manuscript and orchestral parts for her largest work, the oratorio “Pilgrims of Destiny,” which had received NLAPW’s best composition award in 1928. Some of her other scores were exhibited at the New York City Public Library on 42nd Street in 1963, in an exhibition of works of noted American women composers.

Branscombe was influenced by the later German romantic style, and developed a 20th century American/Victorian musical voice. Her body of work includes 150 art songs, piano and chamber music, and many choral works. During her lifetime, nearly two dozen music companies published more than 70 of her choral compositions, 150 art songs, 13 piano pieces and eight instrumental works.

She was renowned in her time, yet like many composers, was falling into obscurity until a contemporary mezzo-soprano named Kathleen Shimeta decided to champion her music and bring it back into public awareness — much as Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn brought about a revival of Bach’s music in the 19th century.

Sources: Library of Congress, Instant Encore, Kathleen Shimeta

21st Century Premiere of Branscombe’s Lost Masterpiece

Pilgrims of Destiny original cover

Singer and Branscombe expert Kathleen Shimeta tracked down and purchased this original cover of “Pilgrims of Destiny.”

The Clark University choirs will perform the 21st century premiere of Gena Branscombe’s lost masterwork, “Pilgrims of Destiny,” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 27, at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. The choral drama is based on the Mayflower pilgrims’ arrival in North America in 1620. It won the 1928 NLAPW Outstanding Composition award, and premiered in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at the annual convention of the National Federation of Music Clubs.

The oratorio’s emotional composition and text deals with the trials, fears, and loves of people on board the ship as they search for a new, free, safe land. Daniel P. Ryan, director of choral activities at Clark, says the work was “extraordinary in its time.”

“The work was lost, like nearly all music composed by women throughout history,” Ryan said. “Music stays alive through our experience of it, so it’s both invigorating and crucial we revive this historic piece in order to fight the unfortunate tradition of gender inequality in classical music.”

Kathleen Shimeta and Daniel P. Ryan with photos of Branscombe.

Kathleen Shimeta and Daniel P. Ryan with photos of Branscombe

In August 2017, Kathleen Shimeta, a New York-based singer and expert on Branscombe, traveled to the Library of Congress and spent days accessing the original orchestral score and parts. Ryan stumbled upon her CD and was so moved by her passion for Branscombe, he sought her out and proposed the two collaborate on a piece that his students would perform before a present-day audience.

Shimeta and Ryan have spent the last 18 months creating a performing edition from the handwritten scores housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Library of Congress.

Shimeta said that Branscombe’s family is “thrilled” about the upcoming performance and plans to attend.