can’t see the forest

Rosemary Brown – Just Writin’ it Down

Posted in Classical Music, Music, myth, paranormal, psychic, Science, strange, weird by Curtis on 9/27/07

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Rosemary Brown (1916 – 2001) relates in her autobiography:

“The first time I saw Franz List [sic] I was about seven years old, and already accustomed to seeing the spirits of the so-called dead. For some reason he never said who he was that morning. I suppose he knew I would eventually see a picture of him somewhere and would recognize him . . . He then said: ‘when you grow up I will come back and give you music 1.'”

Rosemary BrownMany years later, as a mother and widow in South London, Brown went on to produce several hundred compositions, most of them short piano pieces. She claimed the music was dictated to her by the spirits of deceased composers, certainly to include Liszt. Brown’s parents and grandparents were allegedly psychic, and she considered herself to be a spirit medium.

Brown was the subject of television broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s, through the course of which she was tested in various ways (none at all satisfactory in proving her claims to be a medium, but certainly demonstrative of her skill as a composer). Her compositions have been scrutinized by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodney Bennett, and experts generally were impressed with the quality of Brown’s work but did not believe it to constitute proof of her claims 2. What can be said with certainty is that each work does exhibit stylistic features that are characteristic of the work of its alleged composer. It has been written that similarities were less evident and sometimes absent in the large scale features of extended works. The composers, we are told, “spoke” to Brown in English, though most of them had not spoken English proficiently in life. “Why shouldn’t they go on learning on the other side?” Brown is supposed to have quipped.

Franz SchubertRosemary Brown described Franz Schubert’s singing voice as poor—she probably did not realize that, in fact, Schubert was given a prestigious scholarship for his singing voice as a young man and sang in the choir of the Vienna Imperial Seminary beginning in 1808. Perhaps a few hundred years below ground does terrible things to one’s voice.

Brown claimed to have had no formal music training, and very little informal training. She had completed “two years of piano lessons and a couple of halfhearted trips to the opera,” and a neighbor once related that she “could just about struggle through a hymn” at the piano3.

Because Brown styled herself as a psychic medium and because of their own metaphysical beliefs, many accept that Brown was effectively transcribing the works of dead masters through some sort of spiritual telepathy. Since classical music is an area of strong, career expertise for me,  I would like to discuss Brown’s work from a musical standpoint and point out some non-musical issues that are problematic for the “spirit medium” explanation.

Ultimately, the phenomenon of Brown’s music is simple to explain if one understands that it is extremely unlikely that Brown was as musically ignorant as she purported to be.


ChopinConsider this piece (QuickTime) which Brown calls an étude by Chopin. Those familiar with Chopin’s works will recognize that this piece is eerily similar to the Prélude in E-flat minor, Op. 28 No. 14, in several ways. The tempo, the harmonic modality, the topography of the melody, and the texture are directly related, and the ending cadence of this piece is all but identical in detail to that of the prélude in question—nearly as if it had been cut and pasted. Brown’s composition is much less carefully controlled than its authentic counterpart, and is certainly not balanced and refined enough to have been a published work of Chopin, but it is not without some degree of craftsmanship. This creation of Brown’s is so similar to the E-flat minor prélude of Chopin that I would venture to call it a second version of that piece. If I may be permitted a moment’s indulgence in metaphysico-aesthetico-psychology, why would Chopin dictate from the grave a few lines of music so closely identical to one of his early, relatively minor pieces?

Another problem is that Brown’s piece is of much less technical difficulty than any of the forty-eight Chopin études from Op. 10 and 25, or than any of the several Chopin études which were published outside these two major collections. It is, really, just about as challenging as the E-flat minor prélude, come to think of it. While some of the real Chopin études are more difficult than others, the very point of an étude, particularly one of Chopin, is to present formidable technical challenges to the pianist. Brown’s étude does not even remotely approach such a level of difficulty.

But the main issue is this—to my ear, this piece is quite obviously an attempt to imitate the style of Chopin. It possesses none of the pristine clarity of idea and meticulously worked-out construction we expect of a master. It is the work of a minor composer: Rosemary Brown.

Here (QuickTime) is a piece Brown said was communicated by the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy, a Danse Exotique. While the title is not characteristic of Debussy, the music is reminiscent in tone and character of Debussy’s waltz for piano, La plus que lente, though it is not as achingly faithful a portrait of its model as Brown’s version of the Chopin E-flat minor prélude. It also contains textural and harmonic echoes of a second Debussy piece, . . . la sérénade interrompué, from the first of his two books of préludes for the piano.

DebussyBy the end of his relatively short life, Debussy’s musical output had evolved from the mostly dance-like movements of his youth, inspired by Romantic period composers, into the much more original, irreverent, amorphous sort of soundscaping for which he became famous. Here, we have the problem of style—if Debussy did dictate this Danse Exotique from the grave, he mysteriously chose to return to his youthful style and to neglect the development and maturity of thought and artistry which is so integral to his later work. And, again, while Brown’s effort is not bad music, strictly speaking, to the refined ear it is simply not good enough to be Debussy. Perhaps the process of death routinely turns established geniuses into cheap imitations of themselves in the hereafter.

There is nothing I can definitively say as an expert on musical composition that would categorically prove that these composers did not write these pieces. What I can do is point out that these two pieces do not fit into context with the bodies of real work by the artists Brown insisted wrote them, and that they are, in some obvious respects, consciously imitative of specific extant works without achieving anything near the level of finesse we expect of great composers. I can also gently remind the reader that these composers were dead at the time it is claimed that they wrote these pieces, which ought to be a strong enough impetus to send any educated person on a search for logical explanations.

It is hard to get a sense of Brown’s musical ability from media reports. While her neighbor evidently did not think highly of her skills at the keyboard, some accounts describe her as being capable of playing many of the pieces she “transcribed.” What is widely emphasized is that there was no evidence Brown had ever received formal music training. But there are numerous imaginable instances in which someone without a thorough education in certain subject matter can come to be highly knowledgeable and skilled in that subject, either through independent study or as a function of apparently innate gifts, or both. And even if Brown could not play the piano very well, still, over the years, it is quite reasonable to assert that she could have amassed enough knowledge to write her own compositions in the styles of great composers.

Outside the realm of music theory, there are at least two questions I would pose to those who support the veracity of Brown’s explanation for her work:

  1. Why did only famous, household-name composers dictate to Brown? That is, although Brown is supposed to have served as medium to quite a few composers, they are all members of the highest echelons in the pantheon of established masters. Why didn’t once-famous but now obscure composers such as John Hook, Daniel Gottlieb Turk, John Field, Johann Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, etc.,  communicate to Brown? Put another way, if Brown’s peculiar “skill” was available to dead composers, why did only the most famous ones employ her, and why are the works they communicated so lackluster in quality and short in duration? It is reasonable to assume that, if Brown consciously imitated specific composers, she would have chosen those composers best represented in the media available to her. I submit that she did not write down any works “by” less famous composers because she was not familiar with their styles or even their very existence.
  2. Why was almost all the music in the form of short piano pieces? This is not so much an issue when considering Chopin, the vast majority of whose output was for the piano, but it is curious to think that a Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms—all of whom Brown supposedly channeled—wouldn’t have wanted to write string quartets or even larger works. Why was Brown continuously occupied with piano music? It is because her personal knowledge of music was extensive enough to handle piano literature, but not complex orchestration.

For me, the two most likely explanations for Rosemary Brown’s music are these:

  1. Brown was a musical autodidact of phenomenal quality and withheld the extent of her study from public knowledge. There is no question that Brown had talent as a composer, even though her works do not exhibit any remarkable genius. We know that she did undertake at least a small quantity of musical study. Having been empowered with the basic tools, Brown certainly could have privately developed that knowledge and skill in order to compose piano music of substance, even without having great skill at the keyboard.
  2. Brown was a musical savant. While most savants display what are viewed as behavioral disorders in addition to remarkable ability in a certain field, many of them are perfectly “normal” and functional in society. Consider Daniel Tammet, the British man who can easily multiply and divide large numbers almost instantaneously and who once recited the value of π to over 22,000 decimal places without a single mistake—he says that every number from 1 to 10,000 appears to him as a distinct abstract image, but he’s a plain, well-spoken, ordinary enough English guy if ever you met one, and believes a severe seizure he had as a young boy could have awakened phenomenal pattern-manipulating abilities within his brain.

It is puzzling to think that Brown, obviously a woman of some talent, would have chosen to decline credit for her skillful—if not exactly extraordinary—work. Since she was raised in an environment conducive to validation of the paranormal, perhaps she had some bizarre reason for using her talent to support such beliefs. It is also plausible that, as an untrained musician with an antiquated and outmoded style of composition, Brown felt she could gain more publicity and attention by presenting her work as the product of supernatural activity. No one wants to hear the works of a second-rate composer—but works transcribed from the dead, well, that’s another matter.

Either explanation would present interesting problems to the behavioral scientist, but neither requires the shouldering of such tremendous metaphysical machinery as a belief that the spirits of dead composers chose to telepathically convey relatively ersatz trifles to an English widow.

My final position is that Rosemary Brown was more skilled and knowledgable than she let on, probably an autodidact or savant of notable quality but not one whose musical works would have gained attention on their own without employing a link to the supernatural. She was gifted enough to imitate great composers reasonably well, and perhaps could have been a significant composer in her own right, but chose not to be. Those who believe her assertions of paranormal activity do not do so on any arguable musical pretext, because there is none. And, as usual with regards to the supernatural, the burden of proof is upon the believers, not their critics.

Links:

Wikipedia – Rosemary Brown

CuriousNotions.com – Spectral Muses Revisited

The Independent – Obituary

Michael Prescott’s Blog – Music in the Night

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3 Responses

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  1. Leo Enticknap said, on 8/21/09 at 4:37 pm

    I was intrigued at your comment: ‘While her neighbor evidently did not think highly of her skills at the keyboard, some accounts describe her as being capable of playing many of the pieces she “transcribed.”’

    I was her neighbour (at 111 Hartfield Road, Wimbledon) between my birth in 1973 and leaving home to go to university in 1992. It was a blessed relief to finally read something sceptical about the woman. I suppose I’m biased beyond being able to judge her rationally: Brown was a nasty, manipulative bully who persecuted my mother and myself over many years, and used her position as Mother’s ground landlord to extort money out of her (interestingly, she started doing this after her brief period of celebrity in the late ’70s – and, I suspect, the income that came with it – began to wane) and much else besides.

    Mother and I would hear her playing for hours on end and for years on end through the thin ceiling separating 111 and 111A. Admittedly, my credentials for judging this are not strong: I only got as far as Grade Four on the piano, though I know my Hammerklavier from my Pictures at an Exhibition and believe that I’d recognise musical ability when I come across it. For a period of about 6-7 years she would practise two or three pieces endlessly (they sounded mid-c19 and German or Austrian to me – possibly in the intended style of Schubert) – I’d recognise them instantly if I’m ever unfortunate enough to hear them again. This made me slightly surprised to read on another website that she apparently ‘downloaded’ several hours of music in total. I can honestly say that in almost nineteen years of living in the same building as Brown, I never heard her play more than about fifteen minutes of actual content.

    But she practised those fifteen minutes relentlessly, and from what I heard I didn’t form the impression that she was a particularly competent pianist – quite the opposite, in fact. She repeatedly stumbled over relatively simple phrases and her playing was very tentative. If your conjecture is correct – that she disguised her musical ability because she knew she’d have made less of an impact as a musician in her own right than she did by attributing her work to the supernatural – I suppose this is consistent. The last thing she’d want is for her neighbours to hear her playing to concert pianist standard, as that would let the cat (or in Brown’s case, a highly aggressive and poorly trained beagle who repeatedly attacked our cat) out of the bag. She was certainly highly deceitful and manipulative in her personal life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this extended to her professional one as well.

  2. Curtis said, on 11/18/09 at 5:50 am

    Thanks so much for your perspective, Leo . . . it’s astounding to hear from an actual neighbor, and I’m sorry your experience with Rosemary was less than favorable both musically and personally!

    I’ve offered some theories as to what might have really been going on, none of which, of course, I’m in any position to prove. From the standpoint of musicianship, one thing I can offer is this: even if Rosemary Brown really couldn’t play piano very much better than what you heard during all that time, still she would have been capable of creating somewhat interesting music works in the style of well-known composers. For instance, I can’t play more than a couple of (unpleasant) notes on the trumpet, but I can write music for that horn very effectively. The playing skill and skill at composition don’t always go hand-in-hand, as might seem intuitive. A very acute and experienced listener can be made into a good composer; even some of the greatest concertizing artists of our time don’t have that skill.

    The main reasons I am so skeptical of Brown’s story, other than the fact that I simply don’t put much if any stock in the so-called “paranormal” per se, are that, even assuming for a moment that I did believe in such things, (a) why would only household name composers communicate to Brown, regardless of the fact that for each composer we know by name there are hundreds more most of us don’t; (b) how could she understand what they were saying–did they all learn English in the afterlife?; and (c) why did they only want her to write short piano pieces and not music of any other genre (symphonies, quartets, songs, etc.)

    Aside from these considerations, it is just readily apparent to me, and I say this with a great deal of confidence, that the works of Brown’s that I have heard are clearly imitations of the styles of other composers by someone with an acute ear but without any real compositional genius.

    I’m honored that you took the time to share your story with us.

    Best regards,
    Curtis

  3. Torjay Valter said, on 12/14/11 at 2:17 pm

    We will never know for sure. I know Liszt, Chopin, Grieg, etc.. and especially Debussy. This “dancing” is not strong work, but there are thought-provoking details. .. Liszt’s “Grübelei” is a beautiful piece. More work Chopin’s. (Not just my opinion.) Well, that is. If Rosmary Brown was charlatan, it was a very talented composer. One small problem: it is possible that there are a other world :)


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