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James Brown (1923-2004) British Composer: MusicWeb(UK)

JAMES BROWN by David C F Wright



Back row:
Georgina Dobrée, Graham Barber, Alan Hicks, Francis Cummings
Seated: Zoe Fairhurst, James Brown

Photograph taken at the time of James Brown's 75th Birthday concert 1998.

James Clifford Brown was born on 18 August 1923 at 49 St. Matthew’s Street, Ipswich to Henry John Brown, an electrical engineer and later professional cellist, and his wife Lois (née Smith) who was a junior school teacher. Henry and Lois were married in Chesterton, Staffordshire in 1912 and had two other children Tom, a chartered engineer and Dulcie who has been a civil servant, missionary and music teacher of cello and classical guitar.

James was educated in Ipswich. When he left Northgate School in 1941 he went up to St. John’s, Cambridge to read English and Music but war service with the Army interrupted this between 1942-45. He studied music with Hubert Middleton, Philip Radcliffe and Henry Moule. He graduated with a BA in English and a Mus B in 1946. He achieved his MA in 1949.

Looking back, his first piano lessons had been with Elsie Copsey, a colleague of his father, and then in 1932 with Margaret Job, the daughter of Jonathan Job who originally came from Lichfield but settled in Ipswich becoming the Borough Organist. He was the predominant musical figure in Suffolk and took young James under his wing as a chorister at St. Margaret’s. Job was an excellent, if conservative, choir-trainer, a rigorous but very likeable teacher. James took organ, harmony and counterpoint lessons from him during 1936-41. In 1940 he was appointed organist and choirmaster at All Hallows, Ipswich. He was sixteen.

During 1947-8 he was research assistant to Henry Moule then engaged in statistical investigation into the musical language of Morley’s madrigals. In 1948 James became the third member of staff at Leeds University teaching the syllabuses for B Mus and BA in music. As time went on and the number of staff increased James specialised in teaching composition. He was also university organist and gave annual recitals. He was at the university until his retirement in 1983.

He had a year’s sabbatical in Rome during 1961-2 studying contemporary music with Boris Porena a pupil of Goffredo Petrassi the distinguished composer and elder statesman of Italian music.

James is a complete musician. He contributed music to the first revue staged by the Footlights Club in Cambridge after the war. He is a proficient organist and pianist. He is a very able composer who, while he has yet to make an impact in this field, will, ultimately, be recognised.

In his teenage years he was drawn to Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Sullivan, German and Elgar. In his early adult years he delighted in Bach, Stravinsky, Walton and Bliss. Despite his catholic taste he admires the "wonderful clarity of purpose and the beautiful order, symmetry, colour and deep feeling of Webern." He also enjoys all melodists from Berlioz to Jerome Kern. But his favourite composer of the 20th Century is probably Messiaen.

This may explain the French influence in his music as well as the English tradition. In fact, to those who do not know his music, it could be described as ‘subdued Messiaen.’ Or, to be more precise, it has a quiet strength which, in itself, makes his music notable. His music is not extrovert or brash; it is not angry, noisy or petulant. He is not interested in music being virtuosic or sensational but in being music. It is thoughtful and reflective but it certainly does not live in the world or grim psychological anachronism. Its gentleness and sincerity give his music a very tender and passionate feel. He once told me that he had not married since composing is his life and demands solitude. Whether you like his music or not it has an individual and original voice.

Mention must be made of a few of his works. Five Reflections for piano (1950) is atmospheric and has, in the second, a Bachian feel. The third is an effective shifting pastoral which is touching; the fourth has a warm melodic attractiveness and the finale is a tripping Allegro con brio. The title is apt. You can both hear and see with the mind’s eye the moving of the water. It is nostalgic but not of the wallowing variety. The massive Piano Sonata also dates from 1950. Its opening Moderato has a ‘call to arms.’ It seems, at first, to be uncertain but this only heightens the interest. The music is developed with craftsmanship and melodic invention and harmonies sometimes unexpected. It is ‘adult’ music, strong but subdued, sometimes sad, sometimes sinister and mysterious. It has a memorable main theme that retains its identity in all its guises. The adagio is possibly too closely related to the opening movement. It contains some interesting explorations of sonorities and is perfectly laid out for the piano. The Allegro calls for sparkling finger work and, again, possesses memorable material. In the relaxed moments there is a yearning. The Recitative section is akin to a soliloquy or self-examination. The music is fascinatingly enigmatic. It is sensual but in an autumnal way. Perhaps the work as a whole is a little too introspective but, nonetheless, is a compelling document. The Epilogue is tuneful and choral-like. The frequent use of the higher register of the piano may be wearisome and I cannot help feeling that this rather special movement would make a good orchestral piece with the brass employed in the choral passages. The Piano Concerto (1993) has the same hallmarks and some exquisite pastel orchestration.

The Baptism of Christ (1978) for baritone, boys’ choir, mixed chorus and orchestra is in the established line of the English choral tradition. It is cathedral music. It is a work of feeling and has a spirituality as opposed to being music out for material gain. It is not fireworks or music in the fast lane. It is not out to impress but does provoke a spiritual response from a discerning listener.

The cantata Ad Incestum Lucernae for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra dates from 1974 and is a setting of a text by Geoffrey Hill. It is a work of committed humanity and benevolence and this shines through this admirable score.

The Serenade for Orchestra (1968) is attractive and has moments of tension in the Andante. The finale is one of subdued fun. Again, the music is not extrovert. Another Serenade (for clarinet in A and piano) dates from 1985 in its revised form. It is leisurely and pleasant. The Sonatina for clarinet and viola (1952) successfully marries these compatible instruments. What is intriguing about this work is that the music talks. It is that intimate. The sonata for violin and piano (1956) is a substantial work in three movements Allegretto e Variazioni, Allegro con fuoco and Moderato e piacevole. It is a well-integrated and exciting work and, quite frankly, the best British work in this medium that I have enjoyed in almost forty years.

The Piano Trio (1981) is an accomplished work albeit simple in design and construction following a traditional plan. The opening Allegro risoluto generates much interest while the central Adagio sostenuto has a strange beauty. The finale Molto vivace is very strong and powerful.

There are many beautiful and sensitive songs.

For years I have sought for a living British composer of exquisite songs in the tradition of Gurney, Quilter and Finzi. In James Brown I have found that unique gift.

There is a 45 minute Symphony (1956) as well as a Miniature Symphony (1964) and a Cello Concerto (1979). There are two operettas The Voice of Love (1957) and Men on the Moon (1961) both having piano accompaniments.

All these works are of a gentle, quiet, sincere and genuine man and musician.

James Brown’s Piano Concerto had its premiere on Sunday 12 October 1997 in Leeds University’s Great Hall. The distinguished soloist was Alan Cuckston. It was a success and warmly received.


James sold his house in Kirkstall, Leeds and moved into a warden-assisted residence in Bridlington where he was very happy. He entertained the fellow residents with his piano playing and arranged for all his manuscripts to be held at Leeds University under the supervision of Professor Richard Rastall.

I spoke to James on 21st December 2004 and we discussed musicians and composers we knew. Later that day he complained of discomfort and it was thought that he had appendicitis. He was taken to hospital where he dies of a heart attack.

His funeral was held at the East Riding Crematorium on 30th December 2004.

While it is said of many people that they will be missed it is true of james. He was a really lovely man.

© Copyright  1998 David C. F. Wright.

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