November 4, birthday of Gena Branscombe

Gena Branscombe (4 November 1881 – 26 July 1977) was a Canadian pianist, composer, music educator and choir conductor who lived and worked in the United States.

Love in a Life: I thought once how Theocritus
Ah! Love, I Shall Find Thee

October 28, birthday of Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel (b. 1980)

Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel is a Berlin-based Danish singer/songwriter. Since Wikipedia doesn’t list many women composers, I also search it for singer-songwriters on any given day. Agnes grew up in a musical household. Her mother played Bartok and Chopin and she learned to play piano at a very early age. Her piano teacher told her to only play things she liked, which is probably why she stayed with it. This piece is nice and atmospheric, which is usually what I listen for first in any new piece of music. I found two versions of it on Youtube, one really trippy and the other a bit more poppy. I like them both. How about you?

Fuel to Fire

Fuel to Fire (Official Video)

October 20, birthday of Sandra Dickinson

Today’s composer should bring a few smiles to the faces of my British readers.  The composer Sandra Dickinson, a British-American actress, born in Washington, DC, grew up near here in Maryland, and moved to England where she has had an interesting career.  Fans of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” will recognize her as Trillian, the earth woman Zaphod Beeblebrox picks up on earth, stealing her away from Dent, Arthur Dent.

For her second marriage, she married the fifth Doctor Who, Peter Davidson.  After their divorce, she married Mark Osmond, another British singer/actor.

Before “Hitchhiker’s” she made her debut on British television in a commercial for Bird’s Eye Beefburgers, directed by Alan Parker (who later did Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”)  In the 1980s, she and Davidson composed the theme to a children’s television show named “Button Moon.”

Birdseye Beef Burger: “Ganster 1970”

Theme from Button Moon

October 19, birthday of Yoko Shimomura

Today feature is Sinfonia Drammatica Yoko Shimomura, a Japanese composer, most noted for her compositions for videogames.  She has been described as “the most famous female video game music composer in the world,” and her works have been performed by symphony orchestras in Paris and Mexico City.

“Legend of Mana : Title Theme”

Dearly Beloved from Kingdom Hearts

October 18, birthday of Lotte Lenya


Today I feature Lotte Lenya, whom I believe I first saw in the role of Rosa Klebb, in the James Bond movie, Dr. No From Russia With Love” (Thanks Marie Marshall!).  It might have been my brother Bob, who said, “That’s Lotte Lenya.  She was the wife of Kurt Weill.”  Now Weill I knew because my father was Hungarian.  The connection is Ernie Kovacs a Hungarian-American, who seized on the power of the new medium, television, and created absurdist and surrealistic sketches that must have inspired the crew of Monty Python.  So, what’s the connection to Weill?  A running gag on Kovac’s show was his blackout sight gags which appeared periodically on the screen that had an oscilloscope streaming a  version of Weill’ “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife) from Die Dreigroschenoper (3 Penny Opera) sung in a very exaggerated manner by a German comedian named Wolfgan Neuss.  Here is an example:

Lenya married Weill in the 1920s in Germany after starring in the 3 Penny Opera in the role of Pirate Jenny. After that she became a famous stage and film star until she and Weill fled Germany after the National Socialists (i.e., Nazis) came to power. They settled in New York and lived for a time in Connecticut. After Weill died, she reprised a number of his songs, but my favorites is still Pirate Jenny’s song.

“Seeräuber Jenny” (Pirate Jenny)

October 10, birthday of Ellen Andrea Wang

Since July, I have featured only female composers.  Though one source lists over 6000 female composers, I can’t find the birthdays of even a fraction let alone their works.

Ellen Andrea Wang (b. 1986) is a Norwegian composer, singer and upright base player.

This is from Wikipedia:  “Raised in Søndre Land, Oppland, the vicar’s daughter is known for being front figure, vocalist and bass player in her own band Pixel, and for collaborations with pianist Dag Arnesen.


October 4, birthday of Violeta Parra

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I won’t post.  On with today’s composer.

Violeta Parra was a Chilean was a friend of Pablo Neruda.  In 1970, he dedicated a poem,“Elegia para Cantar” to her after she committed suicide in 1967.

This is from Wikipedia:  Violeta del Carmen Parra Sandoval (4 October 1917 – 5 February 1967) was a Chilean composer, songwriter, folklorist,ethnomusicologist and visual artist. She pioneered the “Chilean’ New Song”, the Nueva canción chilena, a renewal and a reinvention of Chilean folk music which would extend its sphere of influence outside Chile, becoming acknowledged as “The Mother of Latin American folk”. In 2011 Andrés Wood directed a biopic about her, titled Violeta Went to Heaven.

“Run run se fue pal norte”

September 23, birthday of Catherine van Rennes (Catharina van Rennes)

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I won’t post.  On with today’s composer.

Catherine van Rennes (Catharina van Rennes) was a Dutch composer and music teacher who also composed a cantata for an international conference on women’s suffrage in Amsterdam in 1909.  Can’t find a recording of that, but here’s a nice lullaby.

Wiegeliedje – (Cradlesong) 

September 20, birthday of Laurie Spiegel

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I won’t post.  On with today’s composer.

I’m sure the music of Laurie Spiegel (b. 1945) will delight a number of my friends who are into minimalism and the works of composers like Moondog, Glass, Reich and Reilly.  She taught herself the guitar, then studied lute, mandolin and banjo.  I don’t know how but she got into Bell Labs where she worked in computer graphics and she studied music composition with  Jacob Druckman and Vincent Persichetti at the Juilliard School.  She was big in the New Music scene of the 1970s but then got out of the limelight and has worked as a teacher and composer of soundtracks.  One of her works appears in one of the Hunger Games movies.

The Expanding Universe

September 18, birthday of Henriette Renié

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I won’t post.  On with today’s composer.

I’m very excited to learn that Henriette Renié (18 September 1875 – 1 March 1956) has, unbeknownst to me, touched me through two what seem to be totally disparate interests of mine–a piece, “Danse sacrée et danse profane” by Claude Debussy and the comedian, Harpo Marx.

Renié was something of a prodigy:  at five she decided to give up the piano when she saw a performance by the harpist Alphonse Hasselmans, after which she declared that she was going to study with him.  However, it wasn’t until the age of 10 when she was tall enough that her feet could reach the pedals that she was allowed to study the harp.  She quickly became a virtuoso and was encouraged also to compose by other professors including Jules Massenet.  She started teaching but had a falling out with Hasselmans.  Though she tried to make it right, he would only recommend her to students he didn’t want–rich girls whose parent thought harp playing would make them more desirable as a wife!

I’ve written about Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane elsewhere on this blog, and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  As a harpist in Paris at the turn of last century,Renié hung out with the great composers of the time–Debussy, Ravel, Massenet, Widor, etc.  What I found out was that Renie actually arrangedDanse sacrée et danse profane for harp for the composer!

After Hasselmans refused to let one of her private students to enroll in the Paris Conservatoire, the next year Renié succeeded and this student, Marcel Grandjany, brought her technique of playing to the United States.

Harpo Marx taught himself to play the harp when one came into his possession.  He didn’t know how to tune it, so he tuned it in a way that made sense to him (which was not standard tuning) and he learned how to hold it from a picture of an angel holding a harp!  After he became rich, he hired professional teachers so he could learn to play the right way, but they were more fascinated, it seems, with his technique.

According to Wikipedia, one of those teachers was Henriette Renié!  I can’t find any other reference to this fact.  Who cares?  It’s an interesting nexus of talents, no?  So below I’m featuring one of her first compositions, followed by Debussy’s piece, and finally Harpo destroying a piano playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp Minor, and from the ruins creating a harp.  All of these pieces are sublime in their own way.

Concerto en ut mineur (C minor)

Anneleen Lenaerts plays Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane

Harpo Marx (preceded by Chico playing the piano)

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