Anna Priscilla RisherNovember 2, 1875, Pittsburgh, PA - August 29, 1946, La Crescenta, CA
An American Treasure Rediscovered
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 to 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 auction.
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 masterpiece.
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!
Through 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 of many 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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