31 October 2018
Music from beyond: the Rosemary Brown Collection
This seasonal post takes a look at MS Mus. 1207-1213, the Rosemary Brown Collection, described in the British Library’s catalogue as ‘manuscripts of piano music purportedly received from the spirits of deceased composers’. Rosemary Brown (1916-2001) was a spiritualist from Balham who, during a period of convalescence following an accident at work in the mid-1960s, began to produce reams of music dictated by the spirits of various composers. In her obituary by the composer and musicologist Ian Parrott, she was described as ‘a modest, sincere and utterly genuine musical medium’.[I]
The British Library’s collection comprises extensive drafts and copies of works ‘inspired by’ canonic composers from Bach to Stravinsky, dating from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s; the majority are for solo piano and by a handful of frequent visitors – most prominently Liszt (Brown’s favourite), Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, and Rachmaninov. Brown is listed consistently as the principal author, allowing publishers to avoid some esoteric copyright conundrums. Liszt appeared to Brown first, and gradually introduced a small troupe of other composers keen to transcribe their posthumous thoughts onto worldly manuscript paper. In later years, perhaps prompted by Brown’s expanding audience, John Lennon, Fats Waller, and Gracie Fields also made appearances and offered some new songs.
The quality of Brown’s connection with her visitors varied: Robert Schumann, for instance, often appeared fuzzy and crackly, perhaps owing to his own proclivities for reaching into other worlds via table-tipping (Schumann had famously based his last piano work, the Ghost Variations WoO. 24, on a theme dictated to him by the spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn).[ii] Clara Schumann would sometimes visit, with Brahms in tow, to transmit new piano miniatures by her husband, though sadly offered none of her own music. Affectionate accounts of Brown’s relationships with the composers, along with amusing anecdotes about their characters and appearances, can be found in her three memoirs: Unfinished Symphonies (1971), Immortals at my Elbow (1974), and Look Beyond Today (1986).
Brown claimed to have had minimal musical training, and to have struggled to keep up as the composers attempted ‘automatic writing’ by moving her hands on the keyboard, or as they dictated phrases at considerable speed. The process was painstaking, and the scribbled early versions of compositions in the manuscript collection contain basic memory aids for the workings of musical notation, as well as extensive crossings-out and revisions. Brown caused quite a media stir in the late 1960s and 1970s, and widespread interest from journalists, broadcasters, and musicians led her to appear on radio and television shows – including a delightfully earnest BBC documentary – and meet figures such as Leonard Bernstein, who was impressed by all but one bar of Rachmaninov’s posthumous offerings. She underwent extensive psychiatric tests by international experts, all of whom declared her of sound mind, and even agreed to attempt a supernatural transcription while the BBC recorded: she was unsure whether any composer would agree to work under such pressure, but fortunately Liszt stepped up and produced the rather lovely ‘Grübelei’.
Among Brown’s foremost musicological advocates were Ian Parrott, a professor at Aberystwyth University who wrote a monograph devoted to Brown’s music,[iii] and Sir Donald Francis Tovey, who had once supported Jelly d’Aranyi in her spirit-led quest to discover Schumann’s lost violin concerto. Tovey, who had died in 1940, returned to transmit a lengthy programme note for a 1970 recording of Brown’s piano music. More recently, Brown has piqued the interests of music psychologists including John Sloboda, while Matthew Brown has explored works transmitted to Rosemary by Debussy in a chapter titled ‘The medium and the message’, and Érico Bomfim has tested the authenticity of a Schubert-Brown sonata by scouring it for formal and harmonic Schubertian idiosyncrasies.[iv]
The Schubert-Brown connection is interesting from many angles. The portly composer popularly known as ‘little mushroom’ appeared to Brown as being ‘really quite handsome, particularly as he does not have that “puffy”, rather jowly look familiar from most portraits'.[v] Perhaps his eternal form resembled the rather more dashing drawing of the young Schubert attributed to Leopold Kupelwieser, which was widely circulated in the second half of the twentieth century after appearing in a book by Otto Erich Deutsch, but was later revealed as a misidentification by scholars in the 1990s.[vi]
The Schubertian highlights include a pair of Moments Musicaux, a handful of Impromptus, and a sonata; there are also fragments of music for string quartet and several songs. One such song was received from Schubert in October 1967, the first draft titled ‘Desolation’ and later updated to ‘Spring Sorrow’. It’s squarely phrased, harmonically simple, and melodically clunky: had Schubert penned this while ‘with us’, it’s unlikely to have become a highlight of the Deutsch catalogue. Another, titled ‘Musing’, demonstrates a combination of poetic tropes that appealed to the living Schubert with those informed by his experiences of an afterlife (‘Can there be life after death’s bitter sorrow? Wilt thou re-waken in Heaven tomorrow?’). More interesting than the musical content of either song is the language of the text, which was received in English. Brown has explained that some of her composer communicators had perfected several languages after their earthly lives had ended, while others relied on the translation services of spiritual intermediaries. In Schubert’s case it seems to be the latter, [vii] as his English remained very poor – a likely suspect for these singing translations could be the spirit of A.H. Fox Strangways (1859-1948), whose popular English volumes of Lieder were first published during Brown’s childhood and have a certain twee kinship with these Schubert-Brown lyrics.
Desolation / Spring Sorrow, 5th October 1967
Among the flow'rs I wander,
And pluck a random bloom;
Although it shines with a wondrous beauty,
It fails to pierce my gloom.
Above the birds are singing
In trees so green and fair;
Although their songs are so gay and charming,
They fail to ease my care.
A grief that nothing can banish
Has clouded over my heart:
For my love whom I love dearly,
Alas! Is far apart.
One question frequently put to Brown by both believers and sceptics concerned famous cases of unfinished works, of which Schubert’s B Minor Symphony D. 759 is a popular example. Brown recalled that she had ‘actually heard the end of the Unfinished Symphony and it is very, very beautiful’, and expressed hope that one day the score would be dictated to her.[viii] Apparently, though, Schubert later changed his mind, and decided that the symphony should forever remain a mystery in two movements; perhaps he was enjoying the completion efforts of scholars such as Brian Newbould, which were being undertaken with gusto around the time of Franz’s visits to Balham. However, Schubert did assure David Cairns that certain manuscripts of famous ‘lost’ works, such as the ‘Gastein’ symphony, were still waiting to be discovered, and he refuted Schumann’s pervasive suggestion that the ‘Grand Duo’ D. 812 is in fact a piano transcription of a lost orchestral work (he apparently declined to pass judgement on Joseph Joachim’s 1855 orchestration). Those hoping for completions of works by the man himself will only find further disappointments in perusing the Brown collection: for instance, while Schubert dictated a slow quartet movement in A-flat major, it does not provide a continuation of the tantalising A-flat ‘Andante’ fragment of the C Minor quartet, D.703/ii.
Revisiting the Rosemary Brown phenomenon half a century on prompts questions that weren’t asked at the time. While the primary concern of Brown’s contemporaneous critics was to ascertain the ‘authenticity’ of the works she received on formal musical grounds, I wonder whether musicologists today would pursue different lines of enquiry: for instance, why would only established canonic composers – (un)dead white men – take advantage of Brown’s considerable media platform? What a shame that no women composers, composers of colour, and entirely unknown names of the past came forth to make themselves known. Perhaps their time is still to come, if there’s a willing twenty-first century medium out there to pick up where Brown left off…
With the interest in composers’ afterlives gaining fictional tract in novels like Jessica Duchen’s Ghost Variations (a retelling of the discovery of Schumann’s violin concerto) and Frédéric Chaslin’s On achève bien Mahler (in which Mahler appears in 2011 with the intention of completing his tenth symphony), perhaps interest in Brown’s unusual musical life is due a revival. Whether one takes her at her word or not, her activities raise interesting – and, naturally, unanswerable – questions about pastiche and divine transcription, authorship and intermundane labour, gendered notions of genius (which, in the case of Brown’s visitors, seemingly transcends even death) and domesticity (the music is facilitated by a suburban housewife). Rosemary Brown’s output and reception give a snapshot into a bizarre pocket of mid-late twentieth-century musical culture, and her memoirs are certainly a thrilling late-October read.
Frankie Perry is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, writing a thesis on arrangements and reimaginings of nineteenth-century lieder. She is nearing the end of a 3-month research placement at the British Library where she has been working on the collections of Harrison Birtwistle and Elisabeth Lutyens.
[i] Parrott, ‘Obituary: Rosemary Brown’, The Guardian, 11/12/2001: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/dec/11/guardianobituaries.
[ii] Brown offers an alternative explanation – that ‘[she doesn’t] think his powers of concentration as regards communication are very good really’. Unfinished Symphonies, 147. On Schumann and tables, see John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age” (1997), and Laura Tunbridge, Schumann’s Late Style (2007).
[iii] Parrott, The Music of Rosemary Brown (1978).
[iv] Sloboda, The Musical Mind (1985); M. Brown, Debussy Redux: The Impact of his Music on Popular Culture (2012); Bomfim, ‘O enigma da música mediúnica: investigando uma forma-sonata atribuída ao espírito de Schubert pela médium Rosemary Brown’, Il Congresso da Associação Brasileira de Teoria e Análise Musical (2017).
[v] Unfinished Symphonies, 128-9.
[vi] See articles by Rita Steblin, Elmar Worgull, and Michael Lorenz in Schubert durch die Brille, 1992-2001.
[vii] Brown’s statements on Schubert’s language skills are contradictory: in Unfinished Symphonies she claims to have attempted to take down some songs in German (no manuscripts in the British Library collection correspond to this), while in media appearances relays that they came through directly in English.
[viii] Unfinished Symphonies, 133.