Women Composers Hidden in Plain Sight

Greetings, readers! This is my first blog post as a Music Reference Specialist at the Library of Congress. One of the most exciting aspects of joining the staff of the world’s largest music library is to become familiar with the vast scope of resources we hold. After an orientation to the Prints and Photographs Division in my second week, I searched for one of my favorite topics, “women composers,” in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC).  My third search result was a stunning digitized glass negative entitled “Women Composers, 4/23/24” from the National Photo Company Collection. In addition to the content and original format, I was also intrigued by the minimal information in the record as compared to other PPOC entries – many of which identify individuals in group photos. I wanted to know more: Who were these women? Where was the photo taken? What event brought them together that received media attention? In the name of getting to know our resources, I endeavored to solve this mystery with the final goal to expand the catalog record with each woman’s name and the location.

Left to right: Phyllis Fergus, Ethel Glenn Hier, Amy Beach, Harriet Ware, and Gena Branscombe. McPherson Square, Washington, DC, 23 April 1924. National Photo Company Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-F81- 30175 [P&P] | LC-DIG-npcc-25586

I showed the image to multiple colleagues and we all agreed that the woman in the middle was Amy Marcy Cheney Beach. I also consulted historical newspaper databases – available to all users on site at the Library – to see what happened in Washington, DC during April 1924. I learned that the League of American Pen Women (LAPW) held their biennial conference at the Shoreham Hotel from April 23-26. This made perfect sense because Amy Beach was active in the LAPW; it was one of few professional organizations open to women at the time, let alone women composers.

The Washington Post reported on this event as early as April 20, 1924. In “Activities of the Clubs,” the LAPW received three paragraphs of attention, albeit about their costume carnival rather than their professional mission. However, that same day’s “Notes on Music and Musicians” revealed that on April 23, 1924, Amy Beach, Gena Branscombe, Ethel Glenn Hier, Mary Turner Salter, and Harriet Ware were scheduled to perform at the Shoreham Hotel, noting that “this concert will mark something new in recitals as it will be the first in which more than one American woman composer has appeared in person on one recital program.” An article from The Washington Post on April 24, “Movie Stars Greet Convention of Pen Women in Capital . . . Composers’ Recital is Held in Evening,” further confirms that a concert took place at the Shoreham on April 23.

. . . Could the image I found have been taken right before this recital?

Next, I searched for images of these composers to compare against the glass negative in PPOC. I used books, web queries, databases, PPOC, Music Division special collections, and archives at other institutions. Interestingly, composer-pianist Phyllis Fergus is in the PPOC image but was not in the April 23 recital and Mary Turner Salter was in the recital but not in the image.

Concert program, 23 April 1924. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number ML42.W3L22

Another article deepens the story, “Radio Programs Today” in The Washington Post on April 25, 1924. WCAP broadcasted a concert at 8:30pm from the Arts Club of Washington with music by Amy Beach, Gena Branscombe, Phyllis Fergus, Ethel Glenn Hier, Mary Turner Salter, and Harriet Ware. Like the April 23 performance, this recital featured all the composers as accompanists and soloists. The article lists repertoire and clearly gives the recital’s purpose. It was “incidental to a dinner and reception given . . . in honor of America’s foremost women composers.” This second concert with Phyllis Fergus may explain why she was in the April 23 image. (Fergus became the first musician president of the LAPW in 1936.)

I found two copies of the April 23 program in the Music Division that further confirm and illustrate the event. An April 27 review in The Washington Post, “Notes on Music and Musicians of the Capital,” gave a glowing account of the recital. “In no way slighting other workers in the art, it would be a fair estimate to state that these women [Beach, Branscombe, Hier, Salter, and Ware] form, perhaps, the strongest quintet of its kind that could be gotten together in this country.”

Concert program, 23 April 1924. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number ML42.W3L22.

According to the April 25 radio listing, the Shoreham Hotel audience heard a different program and roster of performers than the WCAP listeners and Arts Club guests. Maybe personnel availability explains the programming differences; for instance, works with cello only appeared on April 23. An attendee of the April 23 concert (possibly the donor to the programs, Theodore F. Gannon) also annotated differences between the printed program and the actual performance. In one copy, Branscombe’s “With Rue My Heart is Laden” for baritone and piano is crossed out and “I Bring You Heartsease” written below. “I Bring You Heartsease” was repeated on April 25.

Since the month of June is near, check out Amy Beach’s “Juni (June),” performed on April 25, 1924 by soprano Gretchen Hood and Amy Beach.

Printed title page of Beach, Amy, “Juni (June),” Op. 51 no. 3. Boston: A.P. Schmidt Company, 1903. Call number M1621.B.

First page holograph of Beach, Amy, “Juni (June),” Op. 51 no. 3, 1903, Box 26-Folder 7, A.P. Schmidt Company Archives, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The fact that my search for the women in this image revealed two distinct concerts with a week of press speaks to the importance of these composers to 1920s America. Thanks to the Prints and Photographs Division catalogers, formerly invisible women will soon be visible in both an image and expanded catalog record. These women and their compositions are now yours to discover!

[Caption edited by Melissa Wertheimer on April 26, 2019 to reflect further research. Location of photograph changed from “Shoreham Hotel” to “McPherson Square.”]

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