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WILLIAM DENIS BROWNE (1888 - 1915)

by Pamela Blevins ©2000

‘...I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4.46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.’

W. Denis Browne writing to Edward Marsh, 25 April 1915

William Denis Browne is best remembered today for his friendship with Rupert Brooke and his moving account of his death and burial while en route to Gallipoli in 1915. The long shadow cast by Brooke’s powerful personality and his enduring fame has obscured Browne’s own considerable achievements as a composer, performer and critic before the war. It has only been in recent years that Browne, on the basis of only four songs composed between 1909 and 1913, has enjoyed a small revival of interest in his life and work that reaches beyond his friendship with Brooke.

Born on 3 November 1888, William Charles Denis Browne was the son of William and Louisa (Hackett) Denis Browne of Lynnwood, Leamington. Despite his Midlands birthplace, his ancestry was Irish on both sides. His mother had family ties to Tipperary and his paternal grandfather, the late Very Reverend Denis Browne, was Dean of Emly, Ireland. He had three older sisters.

Denis showed precocious musical ability from the age of five when he began playing hymns on the family piano. By the age of ten, the audacious child was making the rounds of churches in Leamington pleading with incredulous organists to let him play their majestic instruments. Although he was small and had great difficulty reaching the pedals, his keyboard mastery was astonishing in one so young. At the age of 15 he was such a proficient musician that he was conducting choir practice at the family church as well as playing organ for all services. He was blessed with both perfect pitch and a music-loving mother who encouraged her son to develop his gifts.

Denis was educated at Greyfriars Preparatory School, Leamington, under the Reverend A. B. Beaven. In 1903, he was awarded a mathematics scholarship at Harrow but turned it down in favor of a classics scholarship at Rugby, where he met Rupert Brooke. At Rugby, Denis was admired for his charm, gentleness, modesty, cheerfulness, humour and idealism, and for his brilliant musicianship.

Despite being a year younger than Rupert, Denis enjoyed a degree of maturity, self-confidence and emotional stability that seemed to elude his friend. While Brooke possessed a stronger physical presence, Browne appeared content to dwell in his friend’s shadow, perhaps recognizing Rupert’s need for a stabilizing influence in his life. Denis took pleasure in encouraging and supporting Brooke in his endeavors, and there seems to have been none of the rancour and game-playing that informed other of Brooke’s friendships, particularly with the young men and women who fell victim to his confused sexuality.

In Denis Browne, Rupert appears to have found an artistic partner, a collaborator who shared his love of beauty and desire to express it. In the early days of their friendship, Denis engaged in some hero worship of his friend, as younger boys often do but that phase passed. As their relationship grew, it evolved into one of mutual respect. Denis began setting Rupert’s poems to music. In 1906, Browne sent a request to Brooke asking him to provide a poem for an Easter Day Song. Brooke claimed that the ‘idea irritated’ him so much, he ‘hammered out a song...unlike other songs’ — it was titled "A song in praise of Cremation written to my lady on Easter Day". While Brooke may have been displaying youthful arrogance and feigned annoyance, Browne, in his turn, took this mockery and composed a "solemn" sacred work reminiscent of Elgar that greatly impressed Brooke.

In 1907, Browne obtained a classical scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge and was able to join Rupert who had been installed at King’s College for a year. While at Clare, Browne gained two music scholarships and studied organ with Dr. Alan Gray (1855-1935) and composition with Dr. Charles Wood (1866-1926). He became the College organist in 1910 and shortly thereafter acted as the moving force in the acquisition of the Chapel’s fine new organ. Browne’s reputation spread throughout musical circles in Cambridge, where he was regarded as a conductor of great ability and as a musician of exceptional promise. He also participated in dramatic productions along with Brooke.

In addition to Brooke, Browne’s friends in Cambridge included composers C. Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) and Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), and singers Clive Carey (1883-1968) and Steuart Wilson (1889-1966), whom Browne later accompanied professionally in recitals. But it was his close friendship with Cambridge don and musicologist Edward Dent (1876-1957) that was to have particular significance for posterity.

Browne was graduated from Clare with degrees in Classics and Music and settled in his first job as assistant music master and organist at Repton. He immediately began to inject a high degree of professionalism into the school’s Music Society, shaping the skills of the young performers so ably that they were no longer required to call on outside professional musicians to bolster their ranks for their concerts. However, within a few months, Browne resigned his post, after developing a painful and potentially disabling condition of his hands called tenosynovitis.

In 1912, Browne visited Germany and Switzerland in the company of Steuart Wilson for part of the time. In Berlin, he spent time at the home of composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni, taking lessons from him and, in the process, becoming one of Busoni’s favorite young pupils. Browne had previously studied piano with Ursula Newton, a former pupil of Busoni, who likely provided the introduction to the great master.

Upon returning to England, he embarked on a hectic freelance career. By early 1913, he was working as organist of Guy’s Hospital, teaching composition at Morley College, lecturing at various other colleges, conducting choral societies, acting as accompanist for Carey, Wilson and French soprano Jane Bathori-Engel, and writing music criticism and essays on contemporary music for The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the weekly New Statesman and the monthly Blue Review. Browne had served as an early collaborator with John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield in starting the short-lived Blue Review, a journal devoted "to bringing together the best among the younger generation in literature, music, and the arts."

Browne remained close to Brooke during his time in London and moved in artistic circles. However, he did not meet the well-connected patron Edward Marsh until a performance of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka when afterwards, Brooke, Marsh, Browne and several other friends dined together. Browne soon became one of Marsh’s most valued and admired friends, often attending the theatre, concerts, dinners, teas and parties in his company and as a result meeting some of the most famous people of the day. Marsh did not always share Browne’s enthusiasm for new music. After attending a performance of Stravinsky’s controversial Le Sacre du Printemps, Marsh told Denis who ‘adored’ the ballet, that he would believe Denis truly liked it if "he could assure me that he would enjoy hearing a canary, a slate pencil, a motor whistle and a paper bag all at once." There is no record of Browne’s response, but Marsh complained that the music actually caused him physical pain.

In 1913, Browne composed the song which stands as the most significant personal achievement by which he is remembered today beyond his friendship with Brooke. The song, To Gratiana dancing and singing, was written for Steuart Wilson, who gave the first performance at Guy’s Hospital in 1914. It harks back to the 17th century in both the choice of text — a poem by Richard Lovelace — and the source of the melody. Browne borrowed the melody from an anonymous ‘Allmayne’ he had first heard in the form of a court dance in the 1908 Cambridge production of Milton’s Comus in which he was one of the dancers.

Browne’s deep feeling for poetry enabled him to recreate the drama of the lovelorn poet’s experience as he and other men watch the enchanting and perhaps unattainable Gratiana from a distance musing on her charms as ‘Each step trod out a lover’s thought’. When she stops dancing and singing, her admirers look at each other and see ‘The floor lay pav’d with broken hearts.’ After the Great War, English singer John Coates singled out To Gratiana as ‘one of the few great songs written by a modern British composer’ while others regard it as the ‘pinnacle’ of English song. Browne’s friend Edward J. Dent observed that ‘One secret of Denis Browne’s success in song-writing was his own deep poetic sensitiveness. The idea of a poem, felt fully in every nuance, had every chance with him of finding ideal musical expression in ‘interior rhythms authentically evoked.’

There were, of course, other compositions: a ballet, several short orchestral works, church music and more songs including Dream Tryst (Francis Thompson), Move eastward and The snowdrop (Tennyson), both published but now lost, Diaphenia (Constable), Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy (Jonson) and Arabia (de la Mare). Browne returned to Cambridge to complete requirements for his M.A. which was awarded to him in 1914. He completed Arabia in June of that historic year. It would be his last composition.

When England declared war on Germany, Rupert Brooke and Denis Browne both joined Winston Churchill’s newly formed Royal Naval Division thanks to Edward Marsh’s position as Churchill’s private secretary. Churchill, who knew Brooke’s poetry and his ability to "sing of England and English life’, sensed that Brooke might eventually ‘prove of value to the empire’ and let it be known that if Rupert wished to join the newly formed Royal Naval Divsion, he would undoubtedly be given a commission. Such a seemingly generous offer was not enough for Brooke who tried to make his joining the unit contingent on Denis Browne also being offered a commission. By mid-September, both Brooke and Browne received their commissions as sub-lieutenants, Anson Battalion, 2nd Naval Brigade. They saw minor action as part of the Antwerp Expedition at Antwerp in October and by early March were on their way to the Dardanelles aboard the Grantully Castle to participate in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. Enroute Brooke died from septicaemia resulting from an infected insect bite.

After burying his friend on Skyros in April, Browne saw action in the Dardanelles, where he suffered a neck wound and was evacuated for treatment at hospitals in Cairo and Alexandria. He returned to his unit in early June.

On June 5, 1915, Edward Marsh had journeyed to Leamington to visit with Browne’s family for the first time. Mrs. Browne and her three daughters talked about Denis, exchanged happy stories and together looked at old family photographs. Later in the day, Marsh went up to Denis’ room where he sat at an open window overlooking the garden. He took up a piece of notepaper and wrote a letter to Browne, but Denis would never receive this letter. The previous day while participating in the second battle of Krithia, Browne was shot first in the shoulder and then in the stomach. As a fellow officer attempted to bandage his wounds, Browne insisted that he take his wallet. The man could do little else for Browne. He had to retreat leaving Denis behind as the trench was retaken by the enemy. A week later Browne was reported ‘wounded and missing’. His body was never found.

The petty officer handed over Denis’s wallet to another friend and inside was a message for Edward Marsh written on a scrap of paper. ‘I’ve gone now too; not too badly I hope. I’m luckier than Rupert, because I’ve fought. But there’s no one to bury me as I buried him, so perhaps he’s best off in the long run. I got a little image from a tomb for you at Cairo: will you ask my mother for it? It is with the rest of my things, packed in a cigarette box. Dent is looking after my MS music. Good-bye, my dear, & bless you always for your goodness to me. W.D.B.’

In addition to his profound grief over Denis’s death, Marsh was tormented by the fear the Browne’s mother would hold him responsible for her son’s death because he had pushed for Browne’s naval commission. She assured him that she did not and expressed only gratitude for what his friendship had meant to Denis, telling the bereaved Marsh that she was ‘conscious only of the happiness which he must have brought into the lives of Denis and his companions’.

Shortly after Browne’s physical death, another part of him died. In a letter written enroute to war, Denis instructed Edward Dent, his musical executor, to destroy any music ‘that did not represent Denis Browne at his best’. It was a difficult task and Dent called upon Steuart Wilson and Ralph Vaughan Williams to help with the critical analysis of each work. Within a little more than two weeks after learning of Browne’s death, Dent had burned most of his friend’s compositions. It is not known how much music Browne had composed, but his entire musical legacy, which is held at the archive of Clare College, consists of four short orchestral works, nine songs and three sacred works. None of his settings of Rupert Brooke’s poems survives.

In the aftermath of Denis Browne’s death, his friends were reluctant to attempt to publish Browne’s music. Dent, in particular, felt ‘there would be nobody to care about it’ and that ‘We must wait till people like Steuart [Wilson] and Clive [Carey] and [Frederick] Kelly etc are free to think about reasonable things again’.

In early 1918, Marion Scott, founder of the Society of Women Musicians and a keen promoter of contemporary music carried on a ‘most interesting correspondence with Mrs. Denis Browne’ who was undoubtedly eager to have her son’s music performed. Then Scott approached Dent who made it clear to her that he was ‘unwilling to let the SWM have the songs". However, Scott was a very persuasive woman and Dent finally agreed to meet with her. Fully aware of Dent’s reticence she expected him to send her on her way in ten minutes but she stayed for two hours as Dent ‘turned out thing after thing of Denis Browne’ and she found herself amazed by ‘their individuality and latent power’. On April 24, 1918, just three years and one day after Browne buried Rupert Brooke on Skyros, Browne’s Dream-tryst was performed at a Society of Women Musicians program at Wigmore Hall.

The following year his song Arabia appeared in The Monthly Chapbook, published by Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop and all four of the songs by which Browne is known today were published in 1923 and 1927 by Winthrop Rogers and the Oxford University Press. During the Brooke Centenary Festival at Rugby in 1987, Denis Browne’s Two Orchestral Dances for small orchestra were performed for the first time along with Frederick Kelly’s Elegy (for Rupert Brooke). Browne’s songs have been recorded by Graham Trew, Martyn Hill, and most recently Ian Bostridge.

In 1916, the poet Wilfrid Gibson recalled his friend Denis Browne in a short poem.

‘Night after night we two together heard

The music of the Ring,

The inmost silence of our being stirred

By voice and string.

Though I to-night in silence sit, and you

In stranger silence sleep,

Eternal music stirs and thrills anew

The severing deep.’


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