In the 1970s, a British housewife earned fame as a composer and pianist with music she said was communicated to her by the spirits of dead, famous composers.
Some musical experts of the time were convinced this was true, as Rosemary Brown’s compositions did seem to be of a caliber and style to be expected from these composers. Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886) was her chief instructor, but she also purportedly received music from Ludwig van Beethoven, Fryderyk Chopin, Claude Debussy, J.S. Bach (whom she found intimidating), Franz Schubert, and more.
Even those who scoff at the idea of spirit composers, admit Brown’s compositions are extraordinary and something unusual was at work. H.A. Edwards wrote of Brown in “A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age”: “While I am prepared to concede that Mrs. Brown may … have produced her material from her own subconscious, I certainly do not believe that it was through the medium of any supernatural agency.”
Tapping into one’s subconscious to produce masterful works of art not possible with the conscious mind alone is only slightly less fascinating than composing works under the direction of dead composers. Brown was said to have had only a few years of piano lessons, although Edwards reported that she later admitted to belonging to a musical household and to being raised as a competent musician in her own right.
Elene Gusch, B. Mus., wrote in an article titled “The Music of Rosemary Brown From a Pianist’s Perspective” of Brown’s prolific and skilled work: “It would have been difficult for even a very able and well-trained composer to come up with them all, especially to produce them at the speed with which they came through.”
What Musicians Think of the Compositions and Their Authenticity
Pianist Peter Katin, an expert Chopin interpreter, was impressed by the works Brown said Chopin transmitted to her and recorded many of them. English composer Humphrey Searle published an essay remarking on the similarity between Liszt’s later compositions in his life and those Brown purportedly channeled from him.
One of Brown’s most highly praised works was “Grübelei” (“Meditation”), said to have been transmitted by Liszt. Brown often protested, when asked to prove her medium abilities in various ways, that she could not control her ability to contact the composers, that she was a passive conduit. It’s not like pressing a button to call them.
Rosemary Brown’s “Grübelei,” purportedly transmitted to her by the late Franz Liszt.
She warned the BBC of this in 1969 when the producers wanted to film the process of her receiving music. Nonetheless, she tried and said to Liszt as the cameras were rolling, “Be sure you give me something spectacular!” Liszt came through on the spot with a brilliant piece too complex for her to manage. She wrote it out and had another pianist who was there attempt it. That pianist said, according to Gusch, “Mrs. Brown, I think you’ve got something here.” It was “Grübelei.”
A 2001 obituary for Brown in The Guardian noted that Searle said of Liszt’s new music: “We must be grateful to Mrs Brown for making it available to us.” The obituary also noted that, “Many distinguished pianists played Brown’s inspired compositions, among them Peter Katin, Philip Gammon, Howard Shelley, Cristina Ortiz, and John Lill.”
Composer Richard Rodney Bennett was having trouble with his work and Debussy purportedly gave him advice through Brown that greatly helped him. Bennett told Time magazine: ”If she is a fake, she is a brilliant one, and must have had years of training. Some of the music is awful, but some is marvelous. I couldn’t have faked the Beethoven.”
Gusch commented on her impression of authenticity after comparing many of Brown’s pieces with the works of the composers they were said to come from. For example, “The Beethoven scherzo and bagatelle fit right in with his shorter and easier known pieces, and their forward-rushing energy and expansiveness feel like him to me.”
Not all experts agreed. André Previn, then conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, was unimpressed by the compositions, according to the New York Times. Some said that, while they did embody the characteristics of the dead composers’ work, they didn’t offer anything new of great genius. Perhaps Brown was just reworking their compositions from life and imitating the style?
Why No Outstanding, New Masterpieces?
The compositions may not have been staggeringly momentous, but they were far from simple, said Gusch. They were of varying complexity. Gusch wrote: “One might expect that, since the method of transmission was so arduous, the pieces in this collection would be quite simple. That is not the case. While they are not ‘gigantic works of technical virtuosity,’ many require fairly advanced pianistic skills. One finds successions of four and even five-note chords in each hand, as well as passages using crossed hands.”
Liszt had purportedly explained through Brown that: “The music transmitted is not put forth with the object of surpassing previous musical achievements. The aim is to pour through a sufficient measure in terms of musical expression to give clear demonstrations of the personal idiom of each composer concerned. Therefore, each composer endeavours to filter through the essence of his own spirit rather than to attempt gigantic works of technical virtuosity.”
In her book “Immortals at my Elbow,” Brown said: “To get anything as elaborate as a piece of music across clearly without any mistakes in transmission, is an almost impossible feat.”