PhD student tackles enduring mystery of woman's ghostly compositions

Ever hear the ghost story about the British woman who claimed she could channel the otherworldly skills of some of classical music's greatest masters?

Composer/medium Rosemary Brown claimed to channel classical music's greats

Rosemary Brown, who lived from 1916 to 2001, was a British composer who claimed to be a spiritual medium channelling new works from deceased classical masters. (David Johnston)

Ever hear the ghost story about the British woman who claimed she could channel the otherworldly skills of some of classical music's greatest masters?

Carleton University PhD student Érico Bomfim has, and found it so intriguing he's devoted years of musicological research to it.

Rosemary Brown (1916-2001) was a composer who claimed to also be a spiritual medium. Her particular skill, she claimed, was channeling entirely new works by some of the most important dead composers in western music history. 

The list is long and includes J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Grieg, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninoff.

Carleton University PhD student Érico Bomfim has studied the compositions of Rosemary Brown, a composer who claimed to be a spiritual medium. Brown said her works were actually dictated to her by the spirits of some of the most important composers in western music history. 1:19

'Dictating pieces'

"She claimed to be in touch with the spirits of those composers. She claimed to be able to talk to them, and she said that they were dictating pieces to her," Bomfim told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

"She didn't seem to have a very deep musical knowledge, and how come a person without a deep musical knowledge would be able to reproduce all those styles?"

Brown claimed to have conversations with the spirits of composers, and would sometimes ask questions of them while transcribing. (Tom Blau)

Through the years, psychologists and musicians have opined about the veracity of Brown's claims — both for and against.

But Bomfim believes musicologists in particular haven't done enough to deeply study the works. One of his specific focuses is comparing the sonata form used in the works she attributed to Schubert.

Could she have been faking it?

The BBC did a documentary about Brown, and Bomfim said a piece Brown claimed to have channelled called Grübelei, in the style of later Liszt works, particularly impressed an important Liszt scholar.

But could it have all been a ruse?

"That's certainly a possibility and that's certainly what the skeptics think about it, but the thing is, she [wrote] this piece [in front] of the cameras when BBC was recording, and it's quite a complex piece," Bomfim said.

"And also ... she didn't seem to have a very deep musical knowledge. She just had some piano lessons, she was not a trained composer. So it's quite hard to believe that she would be able to write that kind of piece, especially if we keep in mind that it's close to Liszt's late style."

Bomfim believes more musicologists should study Brown's compositions, instead of dismissing them as ghost stories. (Stanley Devon)

Bomfim said Brown's method required no ceremony — she didn't act like she was being possessed by the dead composers or anything like that.

BBC's footage shows Brown transcribing music "as fast as she could," Bomfim said, sometimes stopping to look off the page and ask questions.

"To reproduce so many styles [of classical music], that never happened. There's not any other case besides Rosemary Brown. There are many musicians that are able to imitate styles, but mostly ... it's a humorous practice, playing Happy Birthday To You in Beethoven's style. But those are trained musicians, and they didn't show themselves to be able to write lots of new musical pieces in lots of different styles," Bomfim said.

"Rosemary Brown's case is absolutely unique, and that's why I believe it really deserves close attention from musicology."

Erico Bomfim is a visiting doctoral student at Carleton, originally from Brazil, he is studying the works of composer and spiritualist Rosemary Brown who may or may not have had her works dictated by ghosts. 14:06