Several months ago, we published a song that appeared in Etude Magazine
in 1920. That song, If You
But Knew prompted Mark Trautman, the Director of Music for Christ
Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey to write to us. Mark told
us that he was a relative of the composer, Anna Priscilla Risher and shared
with us some family background, photographs, songs and information about
her and as a result, we decided that her story needed to be told and her
wonderful music needed to be revived. Thanks to Mark's help, we now add
to our "In search of" archive, Anna Priscilla Risher and her music. I have
subtitled this article as "An American Treasure Rediscovered" for sadly,
much of her music and other talents have been lost in some respects. Searches
on many texts about music and on the Internet bring us very little reference
her and the information we do find is very sketchy and incomplete. Her music
was very popular when she was active and as you will see, Anna Risher was
a feminine pioneer in music, establishing a number of musical groups including
one of the first women's orchestras in California. In addition to an incredible
musical talent, Anna Risher was also a very skilled artist and many of her
works command high prices at auction. For example, her beautiful pencil
drawing of the Laguna Beach coast seen here, recently fetched $1,500 at
It is her music though that we want to explore in this article. Music that
is deep with meaning, masterful in its composition and beautiful in its
melodic expression. Before I say more, let me
share with you one of her most beautiful songs and one of her personal favorites,
The Song of The Brown
Thrush (1922). We do not have covers for all of the music presented
in this article so in some cases we have created some images to simply depict
the subject.. If you still have not downloaded the Scorch player for your
browser, now is a good time to do so. Otherwise, you will miss out on the
full beauty of these wonderful works. Click the image of the Brown Thrush
for the scorch version, click here for
the MIDI version. I'm sure you will agree that this is an American music
Anna P. Risher was born in 1875 Pittsburgh and attended the Pennsylvania
College for Women in Pittsburgh and later studied at the New England Conservatory
where she also completed two years of post graduate work .
She studied under a number of musical luminaries from the period including
A.M. Foerster, Carl Stasny, G.W. Chadwick and Leo Schultz. Young Anna (seen
at right in her music room) clearly had a talent for music. Not only could
she compose but she was also an accomplished pianist, organist, cellist
and violinist as well as vocalist. She studied each of these specialties
as well, under the leading teachers of the day. The family had plenty of
talent and Anna's sister (and Mark Trautman's great-grandmother) Nell (1876-1938)
was also an accomplished musician and also studied at New England Conservatory.
The level of support for both of them was so strong that when the two sisters
went to study in Boston, their mother moved with them to keep house. In
listening to her music, I have seen a remarkable consistency in both the
construction, level of sophistication and what I consider to be a genius
for melodic invention. Even her earliest songs show a tremendous
talent for melodic lines that are simply beautiful. Here we can listen to
one of her earlier songs, As
In Old Gardens, from 1917. Click the garden image for the scorch
version (MIDI version here).
From early in her career, Anna found Etude magazine to be a good venue
for her music. As the years passed, she became one of Etude magazines favorite
composers and in an issue in 1933, they published her biography and a partial
catalog of her works. In February of 1924, Lullaby To Baby one
of many of her works to appear in Etude was published. Though a very short
piece, only 19 measures that plays at 37 seconds including the repeat, it
is a tender and melodic work. One measure of a composer's talent is the
ability to take a simple motif and create an expressive piece that is memorable.
In that regard, Risher shows her genius and skill to us in only a few seconds.
We are unable to bring you the MIDI or Scorch version of this song due to
copyright concerns. This Etude cover is another of
their most beautiful.
Once her initial schooling was complete, Miss Risher held a number of positions
as church organist and choir director and did considerable teaching in the
Pittsburgh area. Among the churches Anna served as organist for were East
Liberty Presbyterian Church and Bethany Lutheran Church, both in Pittsburgh.
While in Pittsburgh, she was very close friends with Carrie Jacobs Bond
and Charles Wakefield Cadmon, Mark's grandmother used to say that Risher
gave the latter his first music lesson.
In 1918, the family moved to California where Risher secured a position
as Director of Music at the Cumnock School for Girls in Los Angeles. Though
she loved performing and teaching and was active in the musical community
all her life, composition was her first love and after moving to California,
she settled in what was then the village of Laguna Beach to concentrate
more on her composition. It was in Laguna Beach that she also developed
her interest in painting and art. In a letter to a Mr. Drain at the Etude
magazine in March of 1933, she described her interest in art:
"Since coming to Calif. was Director of music at Cumnock School for four years, leaving there to go to the lovely little village of Laguna Beach and devote my entire time to composition. While there, took up painting and am now an active member of the Laguna Beach Artists Society."
Laguna Beach attracted artists and indeed it was a small village when
Risher moved there. In early 1918 artist Edgar Payne opened an art gallery
and formed the Laguna Beach Art Association (now the Laguna Art Museum).
By the late 1920ís approximately 300 people had moved to Laguna Beach permanently.
Nearly half of those residents were artists. It seems that the creative
forces were so strong in this woman that she was able to find time to compose,
teach, paint and still acted as an organist and Director of Music at Saint
James Episcopal Church. In her career, she wrote and published over 300
songs. In addition she composed a number of pedagogical piano technic books,
works for violin and piano, choral works, and large scale orchestral works
including a concerto for piano and orchestra which I would love to hear!
all this she continued to publish regularly in the Etude. Another of her
delightful Etude pieces was from the Etude issue of November 1929, a pleasant
work for violin and piano titled Valse Marionette. Note that the
cover picture on that issue is of one of America's greatest female composers,
Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. Unfortunately, we cannot share with you our Scorch or
MIDI version of this work due to copyright limitations.
While all this was going on in her life, Risher also managed to find the
time to organize musical groups, ensembles and at least two orchestras in
California. The first such group she organized was the Anna Risher String
Quartet. In 1933 she organized the Hollywood Womans Symphony Orchestra,
an organization of fifty woman musicians. She also organized and conducted
the Laguna Beach Little Symphony Orchestra and was the program chairman
of the Society for the Advancement of American Music. All this from a woman
who moved to a "lovely little village" to devote all her time to composing!
Let's enjoy another delightful sample of her work, this being a Scottish
flavored work, The Pipers' Song.
It is a whimsical song that seems to be almost a children's song that speaks
of fairy pipers and has an almost skipping quality to it. Risher uses chords
and harmonies that call to mind the sound of bagpipes to create a musical
image of pipers. By the way, this song, as well as many others had lyrics
by Mary Gleadall, a cousin of Risher. Click the piper image to hear the
scorch version, click here for the MIDI.
The Etude magazine's comments in her biography well summarize the contribution
that Anna Risher made to music in America:
From her own pen, Miss Risher has made many valuable contributions
to American music and is an indefatigable worker in promoting the work of
all American composers.
I cannot help but wonder how such an American musical treasure has been
neglected over the years since her passing in 1946. We have a fairly substantial
library of music references at Parlor Songs yet I cannot find one mention
of Anna Risher. A search of the Internet only brings mention of her paintings
and a few songs. Having now listened to her music and heard its beauty,
I cannot understand why her place in American music history has not been
fairly established. Her music shows good humor, lyrical grace and artistic
genius. Her contributions to women's rights within the music community and
her development of community ensembles and orchestras go far beyond that
other composers who seem to be adored. Is it because her music rises above
the common? Is it because it is of an artistic level that failed to touch
the masses? Regardless of the reason, we at ParlorSongs are hoping to correct
this oversight by providing this short biography and survey of some of her
more popular and widely published music.
As a final work, we offer you a wonderful World War One song, Knitting,
published in 1917. The lyrics of the song speak of the popular home based
activity of women during the war of knitting socks and sweaters for the
boys "over there". With lyrics by Frank Armstrong, this song was popular
during the war and enjoyed a fairly wide publication. Enjoy this great song
by clicking on the cover to hear the Scorch version or click
here for the MIDI.
We hope you have enjoyed this special biography and the music of Anna
Priscilla Risher. Once again, we want to thank Mark Trautman for his generous
help in providing the information and many songs by his great-great-Aunt.
His assistance included sharing originally notated scores of these works
by Ms. Risher as well as the personal photos shown. If you would like to
contact Mark, you can e-mail him,
I'm sure he would be happy to hear from you.
ParlorSongs, May 2001
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