Pilgrims of Destiny
Gena Branscombe's Dramatic Oratorio
On Saturday evening, April 27, 2019, Dan Ryan, Director of Choral Activities at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, took the stage to lead his chorus, children’s chorus, soloists and orchestra in a performance of Gena Branscombe’s dramatic oratorio, Pilgrims of Destiny. It was the first performance of the work in 79 years.
As the concert came to a close with the Pilgrims catching first sight of their new country, the choruses and soloists exclaimed “AMERICA! AMERICA!” The audience rose to their feet cheering the inspiring performance of a newly rediscovered work composed 100 years ago by an immigrant woman.
In attendance at the Clark University performance were Gena Branscombe’s grandsons, Roger and Morgan Phenix, her great niece, Allison Branscombe and Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow who met, interviewed and wrote her doctoral dissertation on the composer.
That evening’s performance was a three year journey of research, recreating a long forgotten score and making new friends. In hopes of performing Pilgrims of Destiny, Heather Seaton and I spent three days at the Library of Congress where the original conductor’s score and orchestra parts are held. We photographed each page of the music. Our intention was to enter every note into Finale creating a 21st century score. At the same time, Dan Ryan had found the 1929 piano/vocal score at a yard sale. Researching Miss Branscombe, he found my website then e-mailed me expressing his wish to perform this 100 year old piece of music. With the help of numerous people working countless hours, a new conductor’s score was created and that night’s performance was the first since 1940. There will be many more!
Dan Ryan, conductor
HISTORY OF PILGRIMS OF DESTINY
The pandemic of 1918-1919 was crisscrossing New York City causing thousands of deaths. The Branscombe-Tenney family was among those touched by loss from the virus. Gena nursed her ailing husband and their two eldest daughters, Gena and Vivian, back to health. Their third daughter, Betty, age 3, began to decline and died on January 23, 1919.
In the depths of grief and mourning, her husband encouraged Gena to return to composing. In the summer of 1919 she began work on her largest piece, a dramatic oratorio based on the pilgrims’ final two days of their voyage to America. Pilgrims of Destiny was a family affair with Gena writing her own libretto and the music. Her husband John served as her editorial assistant, typist and historical advisor.
In 1928, Pilgrims of Destiny won the Best Composition award given by the National League of American Pen Women. The premiere performance was given in 1929 in Plymouth, Massachusetts under the auspices of the National Federation of Music Clubs. Reviews for the performance said Miss Branscombe had written a work “with vision, imagination and sincerity” and “full of inspiration”. The piece was recognized by the Daughters of the American Revolution for its patriotic subject matter.
Miss Branscombe’s dramatic and melodic Pilgrims of Destiny now lives in the 21st century. When live concerts return, we look forward to future performances across our country.