The Gena Branscombe Project
“The life of Gena Branscombe is an inspiring record of a woman of great ability who carved...a viable musical career…when American composers were just coming into their own in this country." (Laurine Elkins-Marlow, Gena Branscombe: American Composer and Conductor, A Study of Her Life and Works; Doctoral Dissertation - 1980). In today's language, Branscombe was a woman who did and had it all, establishing a career in music before marriage and afterwards successfully balancing work with an active family life.
For over twenty years I have worked on the life and music of Gena Branscombe. What began as a recording of her songs and piano works progressed to co-authoring and performing a one-woman show, Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe. We told her story with first-person dialogue and 15 of her melodic songs. Captivated audiences continually asked why they had never heard of this woman composer and why had her music disappeared. Their questions propelled me to work on bringing Miss Branscombe to the attention of present day musicians and audiences.
Through my blog Music Meets Drama I wrote about Miss Branscombe, her life and music. What intrigued me most was her humanity - her passion for life, her kindness to colleagues, her honest and forthright emotions expressed in her compositions, her drive to promote American women composers and her love of family.
Her work ethic inspired me to seek out performance opportunities for her music. By reconstructing her dramatic oratorio’s orchestral score and for the first time in over 70 years, Pilgrims of Destiny was performed at Clark University in 2019. With colleagues, we created The Gena Branscombe Project not-for-profit. We will be sponsoring concerts of Miss Branscombe’s music as well as some of her colleagues. We award yearly scholarships to a student composer, conductor and arts administrator.
The woman composer who motivates our project was born in Picton, Ontario in 1881. Miss Branscombe attended the Chicago Musical College for her advanced music training as a piano major with an emphasis in composition. She furthered her musical experiences when in 1909 Gena departed for Berlin, Germany for a year of intensive piano study with Rudolf Ganz and composition with Englebert Humperdinck.
Upon her return from Berlin, she married John Ferguson Tenney on October 5, 1910 in Ontario. They immediately moved to New York City to pursue their individual careers. Gena's professional life quickly flourished. Throughout her life she credited her husband for his support of her work and his constant help with home and their four daughters: Gena born in 1911, Vivian Allison in 1913, Betty in 1916 and Beatrice in 1919.
Gena founded her women's chorus, Branscombe Choral in 1934. For 20 years she served as its conductor/composer/organizer and fund-raiser. The Choral performed extensively in New York City with their radio broadcasts reaching audiences far beyond the concert hall.
Ahead of her time, Gena Branscombe's life was filled with family and music. Influenced early by the late German romantic style, she helped develop a 20th century American/Victorian musical voice with a body of work encompassing 150 art songs, piano and chamber music, as well as choral works, all of which were readily available during her life. She was a renowned composer and conductor. Upon her death in July 1977 her richly melodic music seemed lost to history, despite its outstanding beauty.
Miss Branscombe was an important "bridge" for American women composers. Her professional training and perseverance, continuous support of American musical organizations and her many contemporary associations helped lay an enduring foundation for modern women in music. I introduce her now to the 21st century.