Wilfred Brown: At the Crossroads of Human Experience
By Stephen Duncan Johnston
This exemplary book, recording the life and character of one of the English-speaking world’s great non-operatic tenors, proclaims integrity in every aspect. It’s niche territory: while books about operatic singers are legion, those taking as their subject singers who took as their “centre of gravity” the concert hall, church and radio station are not common fare.
This case-bound book examines in impressive detail the short life and crowded times of Wilfred Brown (1921-1971). As to the ‘bare bones’ of the book there is little to astonish and much to reassure. It is all done from evidently sedulous study of sources across nine chapters buttressed by 30 pages of endnotes, bibliography, discography, appendix and index.
The chapters help the book’s structure by specifying, in their titles, the years spanned. The flow and strata of the chapters is assisted by section headings, mid-chapter. There are twelve apt and intimate illustrations which contribute materially to the narrative. However, the book gives every sign of a lifetime of research and is packed with detail. In that sense it is as concentrated a read as Stephen Banfield’s Gerald Finzi - An English Composer (Faber and Faber 1997) and Othmar Schoeck by Christopher Palmer (Rochester, Eastman, 2009). It’s a much shorter book than either of those but it’s in the same style and has a similar reach and tempo. Sedulous research is proclaimed from every page and reader’s time is rewarded with attentive detailing.
Dame Janet Baker contributes a brief but very personal foreword which launches this flotilla of chapters with a balance of respect and affection.
Brown was an elite tenor active especially in the middle of the last century while the Third Programme was at high tilt and the record industry found its footing and its confidence. He was a member of The Deller Consort in much the same way that Ian Partridge was for me a star voice in the Elizabethan Singers, Baccholian Singers and Pro Cantione Antiqua. Another voice, just as rarely encountered, that has an affinity with that of Brown is that of Gerald English. Like those two comparators, Wilfred Brown was an exemplar of the shaping and timing of words in the English language. Brown’s LP - set down in September 1963 - of Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis cantata for tenor and strings for many years stood, and still stands, as the zenith of breath control and intelligent enunciation and shading of Thomas Traherne’s words. It remains a perfect rendition of a great and mystical piece which in my view has yet to be surpassed. It was made with the English Chamber Orchestra and the composer’s son Christopher Finzi some seven years after the composer’s death. Other British composers were advocated by Brown’s singing including Vaughan Williams, T. Wallace Southam, W. Denis Browne, Peter Warlock, Ivor Gurney, Lennox Berkeley, George Butterworth and William Walton. We can hold out some hope that one day his vinyl-based recital of English songs with Margaret McNamee (piano) on Jupiter (JUR 00A5) will be made accessible on CD.
Brown also made his mark through his participation in Bach’s Passions (review); he was a noted Evangelist. His voice can also be heard on LPs of Handel, Purcell, and Haydn, and in one recital with John Williams (guitar).
For many years Brown worked for the BBC Religious Broadcasting Department and his faith and warm regard for the English language fitted him well for such a role. The two ‘worlds’ (song and religion) ‘collided’, to mutual advantage, when he included songs by Mary Plumstead in two Songs of Praise programmes in 1968 and 1969.
Books about singers outside the operatic world are not that common; English singers even more so. This one sets an assiduous example from an author who clearly made it his business to know his subject.