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Rosemary Brown (1916–2001)
"Just because a composition is written and played in the style of a particular individual, it doesn’t follow that they wrote it." --Harry Edwards
Rosemary Brown was a widowed housewife from South London in 1964 when she claimed that the ghost of Franz Liszt (d. 1886) had given her a new composition of his. At that time she also revealed that she had been visited by a white-haired spirit wearing a black cassock when she was seven years old and that she now realized that the spirit was actually the ghost of Liszt. Rosemary's early belief in ghostly visitations would have been accepted as normal by her mother and grandmother, both of whom thought they were psychic (Rose).
For more than two decades Brown claimed she was visited by the ghosts of many famous composers, including Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Schumann, and John Lennon. All sought her out, she said, to pass on new compositions they'd written after they were dead and to prove there is life after death. She also claimed that she had visits from the ghosts of Shakespeare, Van Gogh, and St. Paul (Rose).
She described the ghosts who visited her as wearing clothes, moving about, speaking English, and capable of moving her hands. In one of several books she wrote, Brown claims that Liszt rotated a swivel chair (Unfinished Symphonies: Voices from the Beyond, 1984, Corgi reprint edition; the original was published in 1971 by William Morrow & Co.). Brown's ghosts also provided commentaries on life in the 20th century. Beethoven, she said, was no longer deaf and had learned English in the afterlife and was now quite cheerful.
If you believe in an afterlife, that some sort of non-bodily beings live on after death with bodily properties (take up space, are visible, move, touch, talk, hear, and the like), and that sometimes these ghosts communicate with living beings like Mrs. Brown, then her stories might find a sympathetic ear. You might be willing to accept accounts that claim Brown was too incompetent and inexperienced in music to have written the compositions on her own. You most likely would not look for an accomplice with a musical background and ability who might participate in a hoax. You might look to the musical compositions themselves to see if they bear any resemblance to the kind of music the authors composed when they were alive. You might look to music critics for favorable evaluations of the music as being possibly composed by Liszt or Beethoven.
If, on the other hand, you don't believe in an afterlife or in ghosts who appear in clothes, speak a new language, and compose music, then Mrs. Brown's stories do not resonate with an air of authenticity. You would probably accept the accounts of her musical ability that challenge the notion that she was virtually untutored and claim that she had sufficient training and background in music to have composed the pieces she produced. For example, you would probably look with favor on the following claim by skeptic Harry Edwards:
Originally she stated that she had had no musical training, later she was reported to have had only a couple of years of music lessons, and recently admitted to belonging to a musical household and being a competent musician and pianist.
You might suspect that she had an accomplice, even though nobody has been named as a possible or probable co-conspirator. And you would probably think that her claim that the ghosts prove there is an afterlife was just a selling point to enhance her popularity and help sell books and recordings and get her interviews with a mass media more interested in titillating entertainment and sales to a gullible public than in serious investigation.
If you don't believe Brown really got messages from the dead, you probably think it fishy that John Lennon spoke to her from the spirit world just as she was doing publicity for her fourth book, Look Beyond Today (Edwards). Lennon, she said, gave her some lyrics and a few messages to pass on to his fans. And whereas the true believer would find comfort in the fact that a respected composer (Richard Rodney Bennett) couldn't prove the compositions Brown issued were not from the likes of Bach or Beethoven, the skeptic would be more sympathetic to the John Lennon expert (Bill Barry) who declared "John never wrote songs as bad as that." It is curious, isn't it, that the great composers didn't improve over the many years they had to consult with each other in the afterlife. They passed on nothing of note that you or I will ever hear in a concert hall except, perhaps, as a curiosity.
A skeptic would probably find it more than just amusing that Brown claimed that Liszt appeared to her while she was grocery shopping and inquired about the price of bananas, while Chopin popped in to watch television with her (he was not amused) (Martin 2001). Was Brown mentally ill? Did she enjoy making outrageous claims just to see the reactions of the gullible and naive?
Both skeptics and true believers might wonder why the dead composers chose Brown as their earthly conduit. True believers might follow the lead of their evangelical counterparts and claim that the dead work in mysterious ways. Skeptics might note that it makes as much sense for dead composers to contact a widowed housewife in South London as it does for other ghosts to contact a former ballroom dance instructor (John Edward), a former switchboard operator (George Anderson) a former seminarian (James Van Praagh), a serial polyandrist (Sylvia Browne), and a former prostitute (Rosemary Althea). Althea was a prostitute in a former life, according to my spirit guide Harry.
Brown had her supporters and her detractors. I admit that it is possible that there is a dead composers society whose members chose a widowed housewife from South London to communicate with. I admit it is possible for ghosts to wear clothes, sing songs, tap dance, walk through walls, float near bedsides or piano tops, and do a host of other things usually reserved for the living. These things are possible in the sense that I can think them without contradiction. Are they plausible? Are they probable? Only to true believers, I think. A skeptical mind should prevent anyone from taking these claims seriously. They require the transference of a consciousness with all its memories and knowledge from a deceased brain into some sort of ephemeral "body" that continues to exist after death. Or they require us to believe that this ephemeral body somehow exists throughout a person's life and is essentially attached to consciousness while the brain functions as a kind of parallel processor that is discarded at death. Both of these notions are too farfetched to be taken seriously.
A skeptic should wonder whether Brown was deluded or a hoaxer. We can only guess here, but from all accounts Brown seems to have genuinely believed in her ghosts. She gave the appearance of being sincere. Many of her supporters appeal to what they consider a fact: she had nothing to gain by perpetrating a hoax. That claim is so obviously false that I won't bother to try to refute it beyond reminding the reader that she wrote books with titles like Immortals by My Side and published recordings of the immortals' new compositions. Anyway, I imagine that it is just a matter of time before someone claims to be channeling the ghost of Rosemary Brown and is interviewed by Piers Morgan or Anderson Cooper about her conversations with the dead lady's ghost.
Rosemary Brown, a Friend of Dead Composers, Dies at 85 by Douglas Martin, The New York Times. December 2, 2001
Last updated 21-Jan-2013