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Biography Gena Branscombe (1881-1977)

Gena Branscombe, 1909.
Gena Branscombe, 1909. From Stella Reid Crothers, "Women Composers of America - 28: A Versatile and Productive Muse is Gena Branscombe's, Whose Songs Celebrities Sing." Musical America 11(11 December 1909): 23. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: ML1 .M384

Gena Branscombe was born in Picton, Ontario, Canada in 1881. She entered the Chicago Musical College in 1897 to study piano with Rudolph Ganz and composition with Felix Borowski. At the school she won gold medals for her compositions in 1901 and 1902. Between 1903 and 1907, she taught piano in Chicago, leaving to join the faculty as head of the piano department at Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington. Her compositional interests led her to leave Whitman in 1909 to study with Engelbert Humperdinck in Berlin. She returned to Ontario in 1910, where she married John Ferguson Tenney. The couple moved to New York City, where she pursued her career while also starting a family. She had four daughters between 1911 and 1919.

Branscombe studied choral conducting during the 1920s in New York with Chalmers Clifton and Albert Stoessel, conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York. She was very active in working for the equality of women in the field of music. In 1928 she was elected president of the Society of American Women Composers, and the same year she received the annual prize given by the League of American Pen Women for her large-scale choral drama Pilgrims of Destiny. Branscombe wrote both the text and music for that work dealing with the voyage of the Mayflower to the new world. In 1932, she received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Whitman College.

In 1933, she founded the Branscombe Choral [sic], formerly the American Women's Association Choral. She conducted the sixty-member women's choir for twenty-one years. Branscombe wrote new works for the group and commissioned works by other women composers. The Choral gave radio broadcasts, performed for commuters in Penn Station and Grand Central Station, and presented annual concerts at Town Hall.

Branscombe's compositional output includes some 150 art songs, piano and chamber music, a few orchestral works, and a large body of choral pieces. Her most important orchestral work is Quebec Suite from her unfinished opera The Bells of Circumstance. In addition to her many choral compositions for women's voices, she wrote Coventry's Choir (1962), which was widely performed in Great Britain. Her hymn, Arms that Have Sheltered Us, was adopted in 1960 by the Royal Canadian Navy. At age ninety-two, Branscombe composed Introit, Prayer, Response, and Amen, commissioned by Riverside Church, New York City. She died in 1977 in New York.