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4 posts from October 2018

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]


Photograph of Rosemary Brown composing music
Rosemary Brown, 1980 [image from]

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.


Opening page of 'Song for the World' by Gracie Fields/Rosemary Brown
'Song for the World' (Gracie Fields/Rosemary Brown, 1979).

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]

Drawing of the young Schubert attributed to Leopold Kupelwieser


Opening bars of Brown's Moments Musicaux inspired by SchubertThe 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.

First page of 'Desolation' by Brown inspired by Schubert


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:

[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.

24 October 2018

Music Doctoral Open Day - 4 December 2018

Have you just started a PhD in Music or are you a Masters student considering studying at doctoral level?

If your answer to either of these questions is "yes", then the British Library Music Doctoral Open Day on Tuesday 4 December 2018 is for you!

The day will explain the practicalities of using the library and its services, and help you to navigate physical and online music collections. You will also have the opportunity to meet our expert and friendly staff together with other researchers in your field.

Music Doctoral Open Day 2017 manuscripts show and tell

A packed programme of events is available for the bargain price of £10 per attendee, including lunch and other refreshments.

What is more, this year's event is generously sponsored by the Royal Musical Association. This means that RMA student members are eligible to claim back the registration fee directly from the RMA.

Please book your place via the British Library website and email [email protected] for further information on claiming back the cost.


10 October 2018

William Byrd, catholic composer

    William Byrd, one of the most prolific English composers of his time, was born in 1543 (or possibly late in 1542) and died in 1623.

    A devout Roman Catholic, Byrd was also a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal with a secure position at court. Well known among the Catholic nobility, with whom his ties were naturally close, Byrd also enjoyed a wealth of connections across Protestant society, including major cultural figures such as Sir Philip Sidney.

    This post explores Byrd's music for the Roman Rite.

The Masses

R.M.15.d-tileWilliam Byrd. [Mass for three voices] Cantus. London: Thomas East, 1594. Cantus. British Library R.M.15.d.4.

   In 1593 Byrd moved from Harlington in Middlesex, where he had lived since the 1570s, to Stondon Massey in Essex. This was only a few miles from Ingatestone, the seat of his friend Sir John, afterwards Lord, Petre. It was almost certainly for clandestine Mass celebrations at Petre’s house that Byrd composed his three Masses, issued separately without title pages, dedicatees or any indication of the printer (Thomas East), but with Byrd’s name placed courageously at the top of every page. The four-part work was printed (and composed) first, the three-part next (shown above) and the five-part last, all between about 1592 and 1595. Second editions of the three- and four-part Masses appeared about 1600.

Gradualia Book I, 1605

K.2.f.7. dWilliam Byrd. Gradualia, ac Cantiones Sacræ, quinis, quaternis, trinisque vocibus concinnatæ, Lib. Primus
Excudebat Humphrey Lownes. Londini: Impensis Ricardi Redmeri. Superius. 1610.. British Library K.2.f.7.

Byrd followed the publication of his three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass with an even more daring venture. His Gradualia is one of the most comprehensive provisions of Mass Propers and related music for the Roman church’s year ever attempted by a single composer. When the first book appeared in 1605 he evidently felt that the times were less dangerous, for it was printed with a titlepage and a dedication to the Catholic Privy Councillor Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton.

 But the moment proved ill chosen: it was the year of the Gunpowder Plot and anti-Catholic sentiment was rife. Despite having been approved before its publication by Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London and an ecclesiastical censor of books, Byrd’s Gradualia became dangerous currency. The Frenchman Charles de Ligny was arrested merely for having a copy of the ‘papistical books’ in his possession. The image above shows the communion sentence from the Corpus Christi mass and Ave verum corpus, a Eucharistic prayer in the version printed in the Primer, for private devotions.

Gradualia Book II, 1607

K.2.f.6-tileWilliam Byrd. Gradualia: seu cantionum sacrarum quarum aliæ ad quatuor, aliæ verò ad quinque et sex voces editæ sunt.
Liber secundus.
London: Thomas East, assign of William Barley, 1607. Bassus. British Library K.2.f.6.

   Despite the hostility shown to Book I of Gradualia, Byrd went ahead and published Book II in 1607, openly declaring that the music had been composed for use in the house of its dedicatee, Lord Petre. But he may have found it necessary to withdraw both books until 1610, as the sheets were reissued then with new title pages. The partbook of Book I shown here has the substitute title page of 1610, but those of Book II are from the only surviving set with the original 1607 title pages. On the wrapper of the bassus part the unknown first owner has written ‘Mr William Byrd his last Sett of Songs geven me by him Feb. 1607.’

K.2.f.6. a'William Byrd. Gradualia: seu cantionum sacrarum quarum aliæ ad quatuor, aliæ verò ad quinque et sex voces editæ sunt.
Liber secundus.
London: Thomas East, assign of William Barley, 1607. Bassus. British Library K.2.f.6.

Byrd’s handwriting: Certificate concerning an annuity granted to Dorothy Tempest.

   The letter below, a similar copy of which is also in the British Library (Egerton 3722), along with the two signatures to his will are the only known examples of Byrd’s handwriting.

    One of those implicated in the Catholic plot of 1570 in favour of Mary Queen of Scots was Michael Tempest, who was convicted of treason but managed to escape to France entering the service of Philip II. His wife Dorothy and their five children were left without means of support, and Queen Elizabeth granted her an annuity of twenty pounds a year, to be paid quarterly. On 17 October 1581 Byrd wrote to his friend William Petre (son of Sir John, discussed above), an official at the Court of Exchequer, reminding him that a payment was due, at the same time sending the letter below to certify that she was alive and well.

Ms Mus 1810 Byrd cWilliam Byrd. Autograph certificate on behalf of Dorothy Tempest, 25 June 1581. British Library Ms Mus. 1810/26

02 October 2018

Welcome to Discovering Music

    The British Library has the pleasure of bringing you an exciting free educational resource providing unparalleled access to our music collection: Discovering Music.

   Aimed at A level students, teachers, undergraduates and the general public, the site features manuscript and printed sources as well as recordings to support the study of particular music topics. The site also sheds light on the historical, political and cultural contexts in which key musical works were composed and musicians operated.

MS. Mus. 1810 - Debussy - f01r - Article 3Claude Debussy (1911) 'Brouillards', from Préludes, Book 2 British Library Shelfmark MS Mus. 1810

The first stage focuses on music from the early 20th century, while other periods will be explored in the future. This present web space highlights some of the Library’s most treasured collection items, in high-resolution digitised images, including manuscripts by Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and others. In addition, the site features a rich range of contextual material, including letters, notebooks, illustrations, newspapers, photographs and other forms of ephemera. 

You can explore this exciting web space from different angles: Themes, Collection items, Works and People. These gravitate around the centrepiece of Discovering Music, an exciting series of articles:

BThe Second Viennese School: Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern
Mark Berry introduces the three composers labelled as key members of the ‘Second Viennese School’, each influential in his own way on musical modernism throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

Music and the creative process: Elgar’s Third Symphony
The composer Anthony Payne, who completed Elgar’s unfinished Third Symphony, describes Elgar’s compositional methods as seen in the surviving sketches for this work at the British Library.

Delius in performance
Joanna Bullivant explores how Delius’s compositions were brought to life by various interpreters. Did he give his performers enough information? How important are the contributions made by the famous musicians with whom he worked: the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, the pianists Theodor Szántó and Evlyn Howard-Jones, and the violinist May Harrison?

Folksong revival in the early 20th century
Eric Saylor surveys the social contexts and musical impact of the folksong revival in the early 20th century.

Ballet in Paris in the early 20th century
Jane Pritchard discusses the ballet companies and their artists who were active in Paris in the early 20th century.

BBritish composers in the early 20th century
Jeremy Dibble gives an overview of British composers in the early 20th century and their context.

Delius, Paris, Grez
Lionel Carley explores Delius’s long association with France, and how the distinctive landscapes of Paris and Grez-sur-Loing inspired some of his most famous scores.

Exploring Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations
Julian Rushton discusses the early history of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations.

The use of the instruments of the orchestra
Lucy Walker surveys three orchestral masterpieces of the early 20th century.

Music and the First World War
Kate Kennedy examines the impact of the First World War on British composers and the music composed both during the war and in its aftermath.

Music and the Holocaust
Stephen Muir examines the impact of the Holocaust on musicians and musical life in Germany and Austria in the Second World War.

SkMusic for film: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten
Music formed an important component of the propaganda and educational films produced during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. In this article, Nicholas Clark explores the film scores composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten between 1940 and 1948.

Music and the Russian Revolution
Pauline Fairclough discusses the impact of the Russian Revolution on Russian composers’ lives and careers.

Delius and America
Daniel M. Grimley explains the significance of America in Delius's life, music, and career.

Stravinsky and Neoclassicism
Stephen Walsh discusses Neoclassicism as a concept focussing on the music of Stravinsky who extensively used this compositional ‘attitude’ in his music.

The Society of Women Musicians
Sophie Fuller discusses the history of the Society of Women Musicians and some of its leading members.

Delius's workshop
Daniel M. Grimley examines Delius's compositional routine and looks at the processes involved in assembling a large-scale musical work.

Tonality in crisis? How harmony changed in the 20th century
Arnold Whittall explores changing approaches to harmony and the concept of tonality in early 20th-century music.

Vaughan Williams and The English Hymnal
Simon Wright explores the role of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in selecting and arranging the music for The English Hymnal.

Teaching resources

These 19 articles are accompanied by three teaching resources to support the study of 20th-century classical music at GCSE and A Level.

Composition: learning from Delius and Elgar
Use Delius's and Elgar's sketches to develop compositional skills and understand their music.

Music and place: sacred music and folksong
Learn how English composers were inspired by folksong and ideas of the sacred.

Overturning tonality: into the 20th century
Explore new ways of composing in the early 20th century