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Remembering Francis James Brown
Last uploaded : Sunday 27th Jan 2008 at 00:15
Contributed by : Carol Gould


News I have received so much hate mail and obscene abuse, inclduing death threats, from Liverpool Football Club fans that I decided to run this tribute to Jim Brown that the TIMES asked me to write in January, to sort of cleanse my soul of the painful, personal and hurtful abuse sent to me by a species of man in Liverpool so many light years removed from anything in my entire life's experience. At these trying time, Jimmy, you consummately civilised fellow-American who gave a lifetime to this often unappreciative country, I remember you...
Carol Gould
11 April 2008
by Carol Gould
9first published 27 January 2008)


I first met Francis James Brown, the American composer who died on 18 January 2008, when my play, ‘A Chamber Group’ was produced by Joint Venture at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1980. Jim and Mary Gifford, later to become his wife, greeted me with infectious enthusiasm over coffee during the interval and we became friends for life. Jim and I subsequently collaborated in London on an opera, ‘Poor Marzelline,’ a sequel to the ‘Fidelio’ story and on ‘Red Hot Mama,’ a musical about Sophie Tucker.

Francis James Brown, known to his friends as Jim and whose doughty Scottish ancestors were amongst the first to emigrate to the New World in the seventeenth century and settle in virtually uninhabited Iowa Territory, was born in Rochester, New York on 26 October 1925 to a mother with an artistic flair. His father was a professor of Sociology who worked in the Truman Administration and was the first American educationalist to be sent to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

Brown was a piano and composition graduate of Eastman School of Music and in 1951 earned a scholarship to study composition under Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood. In 1952 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to continue his studies with Dallapiccola in Florence, where he met Stanley Seeger, with whom he was to collaborate on many musical works, including the score of the feature film ‘Priest of Love‘ directed in 1980 by Christopher Miles and starring Ian McKellen as DH Lawrence and Janet Suzman as Frieda. Writing as Joseph James ( Seeger’s middle name was Joseph) this was a triumphant collaboration.

Francis James Brown met British actress and singer Mary Gifford in 1974 in Greece, where on behalf of the British Council they were performing his original musical setting of the King Arthur story. They married in 1983 in Los Angeles, where Jim was attached to both the Classics and Music Departments at Stanford University and was lecturing at the Schoenberg Institute.

Amongst his prolific repertoire of operas, film scores, musicals, ballet suites and orchestral works performed around the world are song cycles based on the works of Walter de la Mare, Kathleen Raine and Rainer Maria Rilke. His most recent premieres were organ suites at Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.

In his essay ‘Transposing Rilke,’ about a song cycle based on a translation by Alfred Perles of ‘The Lay of Love and Death of Christopher Rilke’ Brown wrote: ‘ Whenever I am commissioned to set poetry, I spend a period of time immersing myself in as much knowledge of the poet’s life and work as I can.. my aim is to be able to climb inside his mind…The [Rilke] work covers every emotion from erotic and sexual awakening to the nightmarish violence and futility of war….During Christopher Rilke’s nightmare I make use of polytonality to symbolise the violence of his dream.. The final words of the Lay describe the aftermath of the young man’s death and are spoken and sung..’

The Rilke Lay was first performed on July 27th 1989 at Leighton House in London in the presence of Alfred Perles in his ninety-second year. The Lay was subsequently given its American premiere in 1990 at Renee Weiler Concert Hall in New York. It was performed again in London by the Welsh baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and pianist Nigel Foster at a Rilke-Rimbaud evening in 2005 at the National Opera Studio’s Clore Building and recorded by KissanProductions.com

Jim and Mary Brown divided their time between London and their beloved house on Andros in the Greek Cyclades. Like him I am a decades-long expatriate American and would from time to time commiserate about silly little things we missed, unique to places like New York or Philadelphia, my hometown. He lived, ate and breathed music and was fiercely devoted to two things: Mary and his work.

Writing about the score for ‘Priest of Love,’ Christopher Miles notes: ‘ On one London summer evening Jim and Stanley Seeger came to our Chelsea House… Jim started to play a beautiful, romantic but unsentimental melody.. Immediately I felt it was just right, embracing the strength of Lawrence’s relationship to Frieda with a hint of Wagnerian turbulence.…

Miles continues: ‘ Apart from the many excellent pieces and operas he wrote as Joseph James, there was a lighter side to his talent when he accompanied his wife Mary in cabaret….The songs were performed my them with such brio this it is hard to realise that one side of this talented partnership is no longer with us.’

Jim possessed the indomitable spirit of his Scottish-American ancestors and it was therefore a shock to learn of his death from pulmonary complications when I had only just had a laughter-filled conversation with him before Christmas.

In the words of Rilke,

‘Und die Musik, immer neu, aus den bebendsten Steinen,
Baut im unbrauchbaren Raum ihr vergottlichtes Haus.’

‘And music, ever new, builds out of the most tremulous stones her divinely consecrated house in unexploitable space.’

Francis James Brown is survived by his widow Mary and stepchildren Dr Giles Harborne, Suzanna Prizeman and Bernard Harborne.



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