JAMES BROWN by
David C F Wright
Back row: Georgina Dobrée, Graham Barber, Alan Hicks, Francis
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. Matthews
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
James was educated in Ipswich. When he left Northgate School in 1941 he went
up to St. Johns, 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. Margarets. 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 Morleys 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 years 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 minds 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
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
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
All these works are of a gentle, quiet, sincere and genuine man and musician.
James Browns Piano
Concerto had its premiere on Sunday 12
October 1997 in Leeds Universitys 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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