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Spectral Muses Revisited: The Channeled Melodies of Rosemary Brown

Rosemary Brown (1916-2001) was a middle-aged South London widow, making ends meet as a grade school kitchen assistant, who rocketed to international fame in 1968 through a BBC broadcast recounting her purported collaborations with long-dead composers. These included Liszt, J.S. Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Schubert (who of course no longer needs spectacles), Monteverdi, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann, Mozart, Grieg, and Poulenc. And after he died in 1971, Igor Stravinsky joined them.

Though Ms Brown's musical education had consisted of no more than two years of piano lessons and a couple of halfhearted trips to the opera, she went on to turn out over a thousand pieces worthy, in the estimations of a number of musicologists, of many of these legendary giants. Concert pianist Hepzibah Menuhin (Yehudi's sister), observed, "There is no question but that she is a very sincere woman. The music is absolutely in the style of these composers." Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, who studied under Sir Lennox Berkeley and Pierre Boulez and scored the film Murder on the Orient Express, said, "A lot of people can improvise, but you couldn't fake music like this without years of training."

In 1969 the BBC arranged to observe Ms Brown in the act firsthand. They sat her down on a piano bench and waited for Franz Liszt. In due course he appeared, to her anyway, and dictated a piece he called Grubelei that, like much of this material, was far beyond her technical competence to perform. Composer and Lizst specialist Humphrey Searle scrutinized Grubelei and found it to be remarkably characteristic of Lizst's last few years. "It is highly chromatic," he later recalled, "and one hand is written in 5/4 time against 3/2 in the other. The latter is not a thing that Liszt ever did as far as I know, but it is the sort of thing he might have done."

I'm no expert here but from what I've heard of Rosemary Brown's music it certainly sounds convincing. At the very least we have a stupendous volume of splendid musical parodies in front of us, and it remains to be explained how someone of such prosaic means could have produced them non-supernaturally. I am rather surprised that Ms Brown reported no contact with Sir Edward Elgar, her country's most cherished composer, whose unparalleled orchestrations would have been supremely difficult to mimic. Or, similarly, Ralph Vaughn Williams or Sir Charles H.H. Parry or Fritz Delius (who once snarled, "Grieg had more music in his little finger than Stravinsky has in his whole body."). In any case, you the living can contact Romana-Hamburg and judge for yourself. They offer the documentary Music from Beyond on DVD and a corresponding CD compilation of 40 of Brown's piano pieces, 38 of them performed by Gerhard Helzel.

The preceding article comes from the "Curious Thing of the Week" section of my website.

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