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A ghostbuster from the world of classical piano

This Monday is Halloween, a good time to consider Rosemary Brown, who claimed a connection with the dead that was inimitably — and musically — vital. Born in London in 1916, Brown established early connection with spirits: as a 7-year-old, she said, she was visited by a spectral figure she recognized, some years later, as composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who had departed the earthly plane in 1886. Liszt re-established contact in the 1960s, bringing colleagues; soon, Brown was transcribing works dictated from beyond the grave by Liszt, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, and the like.

1970 brought an album called “A Musical Seance,” featuring sixteen of Brown's transcriptions, performed on piano by her and (in more virtuosic pieces) Peter Katin. Extensive liner notes — including Brown's impressions of her communicants; essays by composer Humphrey Searle and parapsychologist Dr. W.H.C. Tenhaeff; and a note from musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, dead for 30 years — made much of Brown's ordinariness: “just one of millions of housewives the world over.”


That perception was crucial. Those who believed Brown to be an otherwise unremarkable musical amateur tended to find her transcriptions convincing; Searle, Richard Rodney Bennett, and musicologist Ian Parrott gave her works professional and academic endorsement. Others judged that the “new” works merely reworked repertoire familiar to any reasonably tutored pianist. Some psychologists, while dismissing the spiritualist dimension, nonetheless regarded Brown's music as a remarkable instance of fluent subconscious recall. But the process was inconsistent. Promised works for larger ensembles never materialized; a commission from organist Gillian Weir, transmitted to Liszt through Brown, went undelivered.

Other pieces continued to appear, though, many of them recorded, published, and, interestingly, copyrighted. In a 2003 paper, legal scholar Thomas Cotter (citing Brown, among others) noted the messy intersection of religion (including, say, Brown's spiritualism) and copyright, particularly in works purporting to be dictations from gods, angels — or, perhaps, long-dead composers. Cotter's list of stumbling blocks reads like deadpan comedy. Authorship by an immortal being would conflict with the constitutional requirement for “limited” copyright; even if such a being could transfer rights to an earthly representative in writing, a court's recognition of the document might well contravene the Establishment Clause forbidding the legal favoring of one religion over another.


Perhaps that's why Brown's transcriptions were usually published as being “inspired” by their famous tunesmiths. Still, Brown could assert a crucial role: Since her own death, in 2001, her collaborators have shown no sign of finding another worthy medium.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at