Today marks the centenary of the death of one of British music’s too-long-overshadowed figures: the composer, critic and pianist, William Denis Browne. Born in Leamington Spa in November 1888, Denis attended Rugby School, where he met Rupert Brooke, whom he followed to Cambridge — Brooke to King’s College; Denis to Clare, where he served as organ scholar. They knew each other well, and together became part of Edward Marsh’s circle, Marsh arranging ultimately for Brooke and Browne to serve together in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, in which they were together dispatched for Gallipoli in 1915, neither of them to return home again.
At Cambridge, Denis Browne became one of Edward Dent’s most important protégés. Dent, who knew both Brooke and Browne, believed Denis to be every bit the worth of the now much lauded Rupert Brooke, but that he was too honest an artist to have wanted the sometimes blind attention that Brooke attracted even from the first announcement of his death. Dent therefore refrained from pushing him into an uncritical limelight, and waited a few years before seeking to make his work more widely known. Today, he is still little know, his reputation standing on just a few songs — a few of the eleven he completed. One of these is one of the masterpieces of English song, and has gone on to become one of the most influential songs of the century: To Gratiana Dancing and Singing.
There is no doubt that, had he survived, he would have been one of the key players in 20th Century British music. As a performer and critic, he was embracing the work of the modernists — Scriabin, Berg and Schoenberg — and was starting to introduce some of those ideas into his own music. He worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and some of the most notable singers of his day. His was a truly remarkable genius, and was unquestionably the greatest loss to British music of the First World War.
In his pocket book he left a modest note to be passed on to Edward Dent in the event of his death:
It’s odd being dead. Rupert’s gone too, so there’s no reason why I should mind; and at any rate I’ve had a run for my money, and he was stolen unfairly before a shot was fired. There will be no-one to give me such a jolly funeral as I gave him, which is a pity.
Think of me sometimes.
In honour of this centenary, I have put up on my website an article I wrote on WDB some years ago, which I hope might be of some interest, and I will be posting some scores and a selection of his other writings. That page is here: http://www.philiplancaster.com/r/wdbrowne.htm
If you do nothing else today, try to seek out either To Gratiana Dancing and Singing or his truly remarkable and unique last song, Arabia. Both are available for download for a matter of pence from Hyperion, from their wonderful War’s Embers disc (what I think to be the best performance of Gratiana on disc), or you can hear at least Gratiana on YouTube. Arabia is certainly worth the 70 pence download cost (and more!), being not, as far as I can see, available for free from anywhere. If such artistry as is shown by singers and pianists should ever be given for free — but that is a question for another day, perhaps. Today is Denis’s day. Remember him.