Rosemary Brown: Transcriber for the Dead

Over the years, we have observed many pieces by famous composers that were mysteriously unearthed from the depths of some abandoned drawer or other deemed spurious or wrongly attributed by musicologists and historians. None, however, have been as controversial as the works of Rosemary Brown, a British spirit medium that claimed to have been in contact with famous classical composers dictating their new works to her. Apparently in contact from everyone from Bach to Rachmaninoff, Brown was said to have been inspired by their instruction to write down solo piano pieces to full-scale symphonies, most of which have now been heavily contested by the academic community; the question of the authenticity of these works, however, remains a deeply intriguing one.


Rosemary Isabel Dickeson was born in London on July 27th 1916. She didn’t take rigorous music lessons, as she states, and was only exposed to classical music on a moderate level; her family owned a radio which would be regularly tuned to “easy listening” programmes, and she took ballet dances, which must have brought her into contact with more light classical works. It wasn’t until 1964, after Brown’s husband passed away, leaving her with two children to take care of, that she started making contact with deceased classical composers.


As Brown has stated, she’s had the ability to contact the dead from very early on. In an experience she describes from when she was 7 years old, she witnessed the apparition of an old man in a cassock with white hair, who promised her he would return later in her life to give her music. Only years later did she recognize the man she saw when she was presented with a photograph of Franz Liszt.[1] Indeed, it was Liszt who first contacted her, placing her hands on the piano keys to play a phrase multiple times and letting her transcribe it afterwards.[2] Other composers soon came through with requests to transcribe pieces; Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, Rachmaninoff, the list goes on and on. Each had their distinct style of dictating music to her. Schubert, for instance, would try to sing some of his compositions to her. Beethoven and Bach preferred to prompt her pencil to write down the notes.[3]


Her story soon started gaining popularity. Brown appeared on TV, in a programme hosted by Oscar Peterson and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. She was visited by none other than Leonard Bernstein, who wished to examine the scores she had written for himself. Her transcriptions became published and recorded by major musicians of the time during the 60s and 70s especially, as she almost became a figure of pop culture. She published several books on her mediumship and was featured on a number of documentaries. Eventually, she fell ill and was unable to write down any new pieces. She died on November 16th 2001, aged 85.




It is quite interesting to focus on the reception her works received from the academic community of the time. The 1969 BBC documentary titled “Music from the Beyond- the Mediumship of Rosemary Brown” is a great example of a historic window into her reception theory. The film juxtaposes footage from her interviews where she is explaining the way she works with interviews from experts and academics trying to assess her credibility. Noteworthy is the somewhat judgemental or disbelieving tone the documentary assumes; we haven’t had not so much as an introduction to her life and work in the beginning of the documentary, and we are immediately met in the first 7 minutes with an interview by Professor of parapsychology Dr Tenhaeff here to answer us the question “is Rosemary Brown sane?”- to which the answer is no, by the way. In a similar fashion, another interview appears in this documentary by an acclaimed and prestigious person in the community, composer Ian Parrot, who claims Brown “is not clever” and wouldn’t be able to fake any of this music due to her lack of proper music training. The only major counterweight to these opinions comes in the form of pianist John Lill, who supports her claims of being able to contact spirits as he also believes in the power of entering a spiritual trance during a performance- the sort of circumstance where he performs best, he says.[4] Other people have also been quick to dismiss her work; Dennis Matthews heavily criticized her Beethoven largo e maestoso as being a cheap imitation of Beethoven’s slow movement, Largo e mesto, from his Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10 No. 3.[5] Bernstein himself confessed that, apart from a Rachmaninoff piece, there wasn’t much of interest in her work.[6] What is more, people have questioned her very limited range of contact with composers; Stuart Jeffries criticized her exclusion of female composers from the pool, while David Scott Rogo asked her to see if she can transcribe Monteverdi or Machaut, to which she replied that she was on a different wavelength with those composers and thus couldn’t connect with them.[7] All this leads us to the main question surrounding everyone’s arguments: Who is the real author of these pieces?


The issue of authenticity in music of dubious origins is quite a complex one. It is generally believed that, although there are elements of style we can trace in the work of a particular composer, the real character of that composer truly shines in the moments where he/she breaks from such models of expectation. It is in his most dissolute or unconventionally dissonant, for example, that Bach’s music seems to shine as truly belonging to Bach. We tend to think, moreover, that if there’s anyone that has the right to break the stylistic norms of Bach’s music, it would be none other than Bach himself. Therefore, we often observe an evolutionary arc in the composer’s style of expression which shows a trajectory of growth. Think, for example, about Beethoven’s late orchestral and piano works as opposed to his earlier ones; there’s a distinct difference in expression between the Beethoven of the “Eroica” symphony with the Beethoven of the Ninth, or the Beethoven of the Op. 10 sonatas with the Beethoven of the last sonatas or the “Hammerklavier” sonata. As a result, we are often reduced to replicating what is generally consistent in the music of these composers when trying to imitate or replicate it. This leads us to whether we believe Brown is imitating styles or is genuinely transcribing or improvising through supernatural inspiration. People like Professor Tenhaeff tried pointing to an overexcited subconscious energy that works in the background when she is communicating with the spirits. As she states in the BBC documentary, however, she feels like she would be able to tell if it was her subconscious egging her on to compose rather than another voice inspiring her. The case still remains largely unsolved, although her compositions have been generally accepted as at least deserving some recognition for their contribution to the understanding of all these composers, occasionally receiving performances and recordings by esteemed performers.


What I find, in conclusion, to be the biggest lesson in the life and work of Rosemary Brown is how we were compelled to reconsider, once her works gained popularity, the way we understand concepts of authenticity, style and identity in music. It is truly fascinating to think that, supposing all these composers lived on after their death, that these could be their works hundreds of years following their departure; what would that mean for our understanding of their stylistic growth? How will we be able to look at Beethoven’s Tenth or Eleventh symphonies (supposed transcriptions of which by Brown exist, actually), after the composer’s “swan song” that was deemed the Ninth? Would there be a way for us to trace a systematic growth in the period following their death until now? While largely unresolved, these issues are definitely worth thinking about when faced with figures whose artistic work is hailed as fully representative of their ability or vision, or who have been deified based on the work we currently know and recognize.


Phoebus Kyriakoudis, November 2020

[1] Jeffries, S., 2019. All Hail Rosemary Brown – The Dinner Lady Who Played Like A Pianist Possessed. [online] the Guardian. [2] Music from the Beyond- the Mediumship of Rosemary Brown. 1969. [film] Directed by B. Raimond. London: BBC. [3] Jeffries, S., 2019. All Hail Rosemary Brown – The Dinner Lady Who Played Like A Pianist Possessed. [online] the Guardian. [4] Music from the Beyond- the Mediumship of Rosemary Brown. 1969. [film] Directed by B. Raimond. London: BBC. [5] Willin, M., 2015. Rosemary Brown. [online] Psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk. [6] Jeffries, S., 2019. All Hail Rosemary Brown – The Dinner Lady Who Played Like A Pianist Possessed. [online] the Guardian. [7] Willin, M., 2015. Rosemary Brown. [online] Psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk.


References

Douglas, M., 2001. Rosemary Brown, A Friend Of Dead Composers, Dies At 85 (Published 2001). [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/02/nyregion/rosemary-brown-a-friend-of-dead-composers-dies-at-85.html> [Accessed 20 November 2020].

Jeffries, S., 2019. All Hail Rosemary Brown – The Dinner Lady Who Played Like A Pianist Possessed. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/dec/05/rosemary-brown-liszt-beethoven-pianist> [Accessed 20 November 2020].

Music from the Beyond- the Mediumship of Rosemary Brown. 1969. [film] Directed by B. Raimond. London: BBC.

Willin, M., 2015. Rosemary Brown. [online] Psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk. Available at: <https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/rosemary-brown#Criticism> [Accessed 20 November 2020].


Phoebus has also written:

Performance and Technology in a Socially Distanced World

Manos Xatzidakis / For a Little White Seashell (1947)

Dmitri Schostakovich / Symphony No.5 (1937)

Review of 2018 Album (F)lute Songs by Mary Jane Leach

Wanda Landowska - Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas (Warner Classics, 1993 Remastered)

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