I met Augusta Cecconi-Bates in Cape Vincent on a lovely September morning as she was setting up a vegetable stand at Farmer’s Market on the Green alongside Broadway Avenue. Augusta currently lives in Dupauville, but she was in Cape Vincent to help a friend at the farmer’s market. Here, she is well known for her chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies. Elsewhere, she is known as a composer of operas and operettas. Her most recent operettas were not only written in the Thousand Islands, but were inspired by characters with roots to Thousand Island history.
Augusta grew up in Syracuse. Her parents were second generation Italians who played opera constantly. Young Gussie soaked in every note. Her mother took Gussie to see her first live opera when she was only six.
“They almost wouldn’t let me in, thinking no one so young would be able to sit through or appreciate an opera,” she recalls. Her mother told them that young Gussie knew this opera almost by heart. She started taking piano lessons as a child during the depression. Her lessons cost 25 cents a week. By age ten, Augusta knew she wanted to be a composer.
Gussie studied music at Middlebury College, Syracuse University and Cornell. While her parents had inspired her to love opera, they had also taught her to be practical. After graduation, Gussie taught music to keep food on the table. She composed to keep her heart singing. During her teaching years, she composed mostly for her students. One year she composed an operetta for kindergarteners called Dream Bears.
From the very beginning, Gussie’s love for music was combined with her love for the spoken word. A grade school teacher told Gussie that to truly appreciate poetry you had to hear it, not just read it silently from the page. She remembers reciting poetry in school and how the words touched her heart. In third grade she learned The Song My Paddle Sings by Pauline Johnson. In the 1980s she wrote an entire musical based on the Stephen Crane poem, War is Kind.
Gussie is not just a composer of music, but also a librettist. For those of you like me who aren’t well versed in opera, a librettist is a person who writes the words for an opera. She is Rogers and Hammerstein rolled into one.
I asked Gussie about where she gets her inspirations and she pointed to her head. “It’s all inside. Music is such an internal thing. It’s your background, what you’ve heard through your life, a snippet here, a phrase there and then one day seemingly I just write an operetta overnight. But it was ten years in the making.”
Such was the case for her two recent works. Molly of the Mohawks, which debuted at St. George’s church in Kingston in 2008 and Vancouver’s Poet, which will debut in Rosiere, NY on October 19, 2011.
Gussie first learned of the title character for her 2008 piece right here in Cape Vincent. In the United States, we don’t hear much about Molly Brant. Molly was a Mohawk woman who united her people to help the British during the Revolutionary War. Vancouver’s Poet is a story about Molly Brandt’s granddaughter, Pauline Johnson. Both have a connection to the Thousand Islands as Molly lived on Carleton Island from 1789 to 1799. The subject of Vancouver’s Poet is the granddaughter of Molly Brandt and poet of The Song My Paddle Sings, the poem Augusta learned by rote in third grade.
Gussie is also heavily involved in producing her latest endeavor. “Unless you find someone to perform your music, it’s just paper on the shelf.” Said Augusta. It’s a slow process and doesn’t happen without funding.
As we sat on a park bench on the Village Green in Cape Vincent, Gussie spoke passionately about the Mohawks of Akwesasne. I’ve always thought of the Thousand Islands divided between two Nations. but she reminded me there is a third nation the Kahniakehaka (Mohawk) Nation which encompasses all of the Thousand Islands.
I asked what was her connection to the Mohawks. and she smiled. “I’m not native blood, but I have a Native American name given to me 55 years ago,” she said. A friend of her husband, a Mohawk, gave her the name of Willow Wind because he knew she composed music. “I carry that name proudly.”
At 78, there are lot of snippets here and there floating behind her bright gray eyes. And as the wind blows through the willows of Cape Vincent, I have to wonder what other words and music are waiting to flow from Augusta- Cecconi-Bates’ pen.
By Lynn McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life. This review introduces music composer Augusta Cecconi-Bates. Lynn often writes about her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past two years from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends and taking nature walks. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh. As we go to press, the McElfresh family are returning to their Florida address in Dunedin.