Jovanna Tosello
Illustration of Rosemary Brown by Jovanna Tosello. Tosello is a Brazilian-American animator and illustrator living in New York and working as an animator and designer for the Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

Mystical Medium or Ideal Female Composer? Rosemary Brown composed hundreds of pieces of music, all channeled from iconic composers beyond the grave. Does her other-worldly inspiration subvert or uphold the stereotypes confronting female composers?

In the late 1960s, Rosemary Brown had dinner at the lavish Savoy in London with Leonard Bernstein. In his suite, according to Brown’s first book “Unfinished Symphony” (1971), the legendary conductor and composer asked her, “Would you care for some chicken—it’s very good … or the shrimps here—they are simply delicious?” Once they selected their food, Bernstein turned to the matter at hand: had Brown brought any music to show him? Indeed she had. The spirit of deceased composer Sergei Rachmaninoff had visited her early that morning, Brown claimed, before she received the invitation from Bernstein. At that moment, the late Romantic composer notated a new piece and transmitted it through her. When Brown presented it at the Savoy, Bernstein played it himself “with great brilliance and remarkable speed, rolling out some of the passages like thunder.” He played Brown’s other offerings too: pieces similarly transmitted from beyond the grave by Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, and Ludwig van Beethoven, but the piece “by” Rachmaninoff especially impressed him. “I felt quite like Cinderella that night when I met Mr. Bernstein at the Savoy …,” Brown recalled.

The sheer volume of her composition, today held at the British Library, sets Brown apart from other figures who have claimed similar communion with the dead.

Brown was born on July 27, 1916, in south-west London. During her career, she produced hundreds of compositions—new pieces she supposedly channeled from canonic composers, all deceased. The sheer volume of her composition, today held at the British Library, sets Brown apart from other figures who have claimed similar communion with the dead. So too does Brown’s limited background in music—she only had childhood piano lessons. In the 1960s and 1970s, the music attracted much attention. Remarkably, while making the BBC documentary, “Mrs. Brown and the Composers” (produced by Geoffrey Skelton and Daniel Snowman in 1969), Liszt appeared to Brown with the film rolling. “Be sure you give me something spectacular,” Brown implored him. Then on camera, she wrote perhaps her most remarkable work, Grübelei. Humphrey Searle, an English composer and author of a book on Liszt, confirms “It is the sort of piece Liszt could well have written, particularly during the last fifteen years of his life.”

“Why me?” Brown asked in “Unfinished Symphony,” pointing to her lack of training in music. Because Liszt supposedly responded, “… a musical background would have caused you to acquire too many ideas and theories of your own. These would have been an impediment to us.”

Channels—those who communicate as Brown did with the dead—tend to be women. As Jon Klimo explains in his book on the practice, for some, women’s predominance in channeling was freeing, even liberating, a way to buck social convention. But, at the same time, the practice shackled women to certain feminine stereotypes, including notions of women’s intuition and aptitude as receivers. Women are perceived as passive, even angelic, and therefore, the perfect go-between. Brown herself reflected on this idea, writing, “I needed to be very self-effacing to work with the composers since it meant I had to forget myself entirely and let them establish themselves.” She credited this ability to her experience as both a wife and a mother (she had two children) rather than any essential femininity: “I have no doubt that marriage helped me to become fully mature, and motherhood, more than anything else, urges a woman to cultivate the utmost adaptability.”

“Men want us to be nice and harmless composer women …”

Thinking this way enabled Brown to sidestep stereotypes that confound other female composers, even to this day. One female composition student, Sarah Kirkland Snider, writing for “New Music Box,” recently wrote about being dismissed as a future mother: “Oh Sarah, you’re going to get married and have kids. Do we really need to bother with this?” Brown, in contrast, found her children an unlikely asset. Her mediumship also helped her navigate the notion that women lack the strength and endurance composition requires. As one critic wrote of composer Fanny Hensel, despite her music’s “gracious, pleasant element,” it lacked a “powerful feeling drawn from deep conviction” (recorded in Anna Beer’s “Sounds and Sweet Airs”). Brown never claimed intellectual depth or compositional conviction. She thought any intellectual pretensions would have only been a hindrance.

Even Brown’s recourse to the style of other composers, her unoriginality, fit the convention. “Men want us to be nice and harmless composer women,” Maria de Alvear observed in “Music Downtown” (1997). It helps, she continued, if women only compose unchallenging, somehow familiar music: “It’s so nice when a woman composer sounds like Pierre Boulez; everyone understands that. There are no problems with the musicians, no problems with the score, no problems with the press.”

Even today, whatever their artistic inspiration, female composers struggle for recognition and are often neglected in the repertoire of prominent symphony orchestras.

Largely forgotten for decades, resurgent interest in Brown has led to several recent blog posts about her with headlines such as “A walk on the weird side of history” (Strange Company, 2013) and “Weird Classical” (the blog of New York’s classical radio station WQXR, 2017). But, really, how “weird” is Brown’s story? The history of music boasts colorful characters galore and more than its fair share of occult tales and divine communication. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, for one, claimed he originated on the star Sirius, where the primary language is the arts, and music in particular. “… I do not make my music, but only relay the vibrations I receive …,” he insisted in his 1968 autobiographical composition “Aus den Sieben Tagen” (From the Seven Days). Even Johannes Brahms maintained, “Straight away the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God…measure by measure, the finished product is revealed to me when I am in those rare, inspired moods.” Such other-worldly inspiration also features in the 1917 opera “Palestrina” by German composer Hans Pfitzner, in which the sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is struggling to compose a new setting of the Mass. He sits at his desk, dejected, until the spirits of past great composers appear before him, followed by angels who sing the strains of what will become part of his heralded “Missa Papae Marcelli.”

So, music and magic go hand-in-hand. As Gary Tomlinson noted in his book “Music in Renaissance Magic,” both have similar functions: to manipulate particular forces to produce desired effects. Early philosophers saw the connection too. Plato noted the magic power of music to affect human behavior while Pythagoras theorized that musical-magical notions, or what he called “music of the spheres,” explained the existence of harmony in the cosmos.

Still, Brown’s story is noteworthy. Her fame, though fleeting, was exceptional for a female composer. “There have always been women composers,” observes Roswitha Sperber in “Women Composers in Germany,” “but only in rare cases were they granted an artistic breakthrough.” Even today, whatever their artistic inspiration, female composers struggle for recognition and are often neglected in the repertoire of prominent symphony orchestras. Brown stood out in this way—Cinderella at the Savoy. And yet, with recourse to channeling, she maintained a rather traditional femininity. Consciously or not, she both subverted and upheld prejudices against the female composer. Rather than “weird,” her story can be seen as a particular response to perceptions of a woman’s relationship to music and the stereotypes that continue to thwart women in composition today.

Rosemary Brown, illustration by Jovanna Tosello
Illustration by Jovanna Tosello