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Celebrating three hundred years of music by women

Gena Branscombe (1881-1977)

(Grateful thanks to Kathleen Shimeta for contributing this page; her web site is at www.kathleenshimeta.com)

Gena Branscombe was an award winning American composer and conductor, renowned in her lifetime. Although she was influenced by the late romantic German musical style, she helped to establish an early 20th century American musical voice with her 150 published works, including choral music, art songs, piano and chamber music. It was unusual for a woman of her time to attend the Chicago Musical College, and there she won two gold medals for composition. In 1909 she traveled to Germany to study composition with Englebert Humperdinck and piano with Rudolf Ganz. Her oratorio Pilgrims of Destiny won the annual prize of the League of American Pen Women in 1928. She joined the newly formed Society of American Women Composers in 1925, working closely with Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and Mary Howe; she served as the organization's president from 1929-1932. The next year Gena formed her own Branscombe Chorale, a women's chorus based in New York City. Between 1933-54 she conducted, composed, arranged, commissioned from others, and fund-raised for the Chorale. Textual expression is of prime importance in her vocal works, which are on a wide variety of topics, ranging from historical stories to exotic Eastern scenes.

Click on these works for more details below:
Sound Clips by Kathleen Shimeta (mezzo-soprano) & Martin Hennessy (piano) from Albany Records TROY599
Click what you want to hear: Serenade, Enchantment, How do I love thee, Ah! Love, Woodsy Nymph

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Pilgrims of Destiny, 1919
Scene 1: The Sailors. II: Richard & Ellen More. III: The Storm. IV: William Bradford & Rose Standish. V: Before the Dawn. VI: Land Sighting. 90 mins. Large orchestra.
A Choral Drama for Soprano, Bass, Chorus and Orchestra
This oratorio is a setting of Branscombe's own libretto about the first English settlers sailing to America in 1620 on board the Mayflower. It tells the story of the pilgrims' nine week journey crossing the Atlantic, and of how faith can triumph over adversity, illness and persecution. It features a chant-like melody with broad rolling chordal textures. Dramatic moments, depicted by whole tone scales and augmented chords, are atmospherically evocative of uncertainty and the ever-changing moods of nature and the sea. It won the prize listed above and a contemporary review in the New York Times declared it to be "bubbling with tunefulness."
Published by Oliver Ditson Music Company, c/o Theodore Pressler Co, 588 N Gulph Rd, King of Prussia, PA 19406, USA

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Love in a Life, Song cycle for medium voice & piano. 1907.
1. I thought once how Theocritus had sung. 2. But only three in all God's universe. 3. How do I love thee? 4.The widest land doom. 5.The face of all the world is change. 6. My own beloved. 14 mins
Settings of six poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, this song cycle displays pleasing vocal lines, sophisticated harmonic structure, moments of great passion and compositional individuality. Perhaps the best known love poem in Western literature, "How do I love thee?" (see Sound Clips, above) is set in heartfelt and declamatory fashion; it was performed at Gena Branscombe's own wedding in 1910. The cycle progresses from lute-like spread chords at the opening, via reflective recitative to passionate melodies underscored with rich harmonies, and returns to the pastoral mood of the opening.
Published by Recital Publications, 738 Robinson Road, Pembroke, New Hampshire 03275, USA.

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Lute of Jade, Song Cycle for medium voice & piano. 1911
1. A Lovely Maiden Roaming. 2. There Was a King of Liang. 3. My Fatherland. 4. Fair is the Pine Grove. 9 mins.
Piano and voice intertwine in this song cycle, which vividly sets translations of poetry by three Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty. "A Lovely Maiden Roaming" begins with a piano prelude and is richly painted with sixths and sevenths. In "There Was a King of Liang" and "My Fatherland," modal structures utilize open fifths and parallel moving chords. In "King of Liang," the poetry mourns the death of a great King and the demise of his once grand kingdom. "Fair is the Pine Grove" makes a joyful conclusion to the set.
Published by Recital Publications, 738 Robinson Rd, New Hampshire 03275, USA.

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Pacific Sketches, Three pieces for horn & piano. 1956. 11 mins
1. Kona Beach: Marcato. 2, Night in the Islands: Adagio teneremente. 3. Home Port: Allegro con giusto.
The Sketches were premiered at the WNYC17th Annual American Music Festival in1956. Weldon Wilbur and Lowell Farr performed them in a broadcast from Carl Fisher Concert Hall. The three short pieces reflect Branscombe's musical roots in the late romantic German style. Each is a brief distillation of the mood described in the title.

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American Suite, Three pieces for horn & piano. 1959. 11 mins
1. Bright Autumn: Marcato. 2. Love Song: Adagio teneremente. 3. Parade: Marziale.
Branscombe reworked the Sketches and added new material to create this Suite, These expressive miniatures include a beautifully muted horn in the tender slow movement, and heralding calls in the final march.
Copies can be requested from the New York Public Library.

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