The Women of Warner/Chappell

The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician Melissa Capozio Jones. It is the second of two blog posts on music publisher Warner/Chappell.

Manuscript score in pencil.

Clare Kummer. Full score for “Annie Dear” from Annie Dear, 1924. Box 332, folder 1, Warner/Chappell Collection, Music Division.

Preparing the Warner/Chappell music collection for researchers was an exciting journey into late-19th- and early-20th-century musical theater and popular song. Along with the works of well-known songwriters of the time, such as the George and Ira Gershwin, Sigmund Romberg, and B. G. “Buddy” DeSylva, it also includes the works of several lesser-known women composers. With so few women in such an expansive collection, it was hard not to be fascinated by their music and, by extension, who they were as composers and women. Their stories ended up proving as interesting as their music, and it seemed only right to share a few of them here.

First is Clare Kummer (née Beecher, 1873-1958), a prolific composer, lyricist, playwright, and performer. Her career spanned five decades and included nine full-length musicals, musical contributions to six additional musicals, eighteen Broadway plays, eleven film and television credits, and more than seventy popular songs. She also authored the book Bible Rimes for the Not Too Young, a collection of comical interpretations of Bible stories. In 1905, her popular song “Dearie” sold over one million sheet music copies, a true feat of the day. She was also the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the social activist and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. It makes a person wonder just what exactly was in those Beecher genes. In 1917, it was suggested in an article by the New York Tribune that Kummer was to win the Pulitzer Prize for her play, A Successful Calamity, but was passed over by the committee. The article stated, “the committee selected A Successful Calamity, by Clare Kummer, as the year’s best play, but for some reason… [the] award was not made.”[1] Regardless of whatever may have occurred, Kummer continued to write and compose, publishing works well into her later years. Scores for her final full-length musical, Annie Dear, can be found in the Warner/Chappell Show Music.

Manscript score in pencil.

Linda Rodgers Emory. Score for piano for “Double in Brass,” undated. Box 310, folder 14, Warner/Chappell Collection, Music Division.

The story of Linda Rodgers Emory (1935-2015) is one of the most intriguing. Much like Kummer, Emory came from an exceptionally talented family. Daughter of famed musical theater composer Richard Rodgers and sister of composer Mary Rodgers Guettel, Linda was surrounded by music early on. As a child she would perform her father’s newly completed works on the piano for family and friends, playing duets with her father–she on the treble line and her father on the bass. She continued to play into early adulthood when she began writing songs during the early years of her first marriage. After a brief period as an independent songwriter and after several collaborations with her sister, Mary, Linda realized her songwriting career left her dissatisfied. She once said that, “piano was the only thing I adored, the only thing that made me absolutely happy,” but she nevertheless stopped playing, and she was unsure why.[2] She spent the next several decades pursuing and thriving in a career in medical social work and research. While her musical career was short-lived, she did write a number of works, including a musical revue collaboration with her sister titled Three to Make Music. Several of Linda’s works for piano as well as a handful of titles by Mary are found in the Warner/Chappell Popular Songs.

 

Handwritten manuscript score in pencil with lyrics. Title, composer, and lyricist names underscored in red crayon.

Elizabeth Firestone, Piano-vocal score for “Night” with lyrics by Rita Hume, undated. Box 302, folder 21, Warner/Chappell Collection, Music Division.

Let’s finish off with a look at Elizabeth Firestone Willis (1922-1989). Much like Kummer and Emory, Willis had intriguing familial ties. The Firestone name might sound familiar to readers, and that would be because Willis was the granddaughter of the founder of Firestone Tires, Harvey S. Firestone. Like her companions in this write-up, Willis made a name for herself on her own, with a long list of accomplishments. After starting out in composing for children’s broadcasting, Willis went on to write original jazz compositions, popular music, classical works, and even several film scores. She performed in-person and on television and radio with the London Symphony, Mel Torme, B.B. King, Lionel Hampton, and others. In collaboration with Hampton she composed “The George Bush Election Theme” for President George H. W. Bush, which was not her first foray into presidential election music. Three decades earlier, at the impressive age of thirty she became the music coordinator for President Eisenhower’s election campaign, work she would continue throughout his administration. Even after she stepped back from her musical career, she remained active in supporting the arts, serving as a trustee for both the Archives American Art and the New England Conservatory of Music, and as a member of the National Council of the Metropolitan Opera Association. A piano-vocal score for her song “Night” can be found in the Warner/Chappell Popular Songs.

These three short paragraphs barely scratch the surface of women composers of the early and mid-twentieth century, but hopefully they provide a brief glimpse into the lives of these three women as well as welcome introduction to others who can be found in the Warner/Chappell Collection.

[1] Schang, F. C., “In the Theatrical Trenches,” New York Tribune, July 1, 1917, //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1917-07-01/ed-1/seq-29/

[2] Rich, Frank, “Oh, What a Miserable Mornin’,” New York Times, October 28, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/28/magazine/oh-what-a-miserable-mornin.html

An earlier version of this post did not include citations.

One Comment

  1. Rebecca Samawicz
    September 15, 2021 at 8:35 am

    Thanks so much for this article.

    It is telling that just reading their family names at first glance that we suspected these three were women with enormous advantages. Takes nothing away from their own talent and energy, though, and perhaps even courage for a Rodgers to switch to medical social work.

    All could easily have sat back and sipped party punch or champagne all their lives. Kudos! Much like our amazing Mrs. Coolidge and Mrs. Whittall.

    Do I hear a fun Coolidge concert programme in the making? Perhaps an all-women programme on Founder’s Day?

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