Browne, William Charles Denis
- Rhian Davies
Browne, William Charles Denis (1888–1915), composer and music critic, was born on 3 November 1888 at Lynnwood, 111 Lillington Avenue, Leamington Spa, the youngest of the five children of William Denis Browne (1836–1916), retired land agent and juror at the 1883 Phoenix Park murder trials, and his wife, Louisa Hackett (1843–1926). Both parents were Irish. His mother's family hailed from Moor Park and Riverstown, Birr, King's county. His paternal grandfather, the Very Revd Denis Browne, was dean of Emly, and his great-grandfather, the Rt Hon. Denis Browne, was MP for Mayo and younger brother of the first marquess of Sligo. Relatives called him Billy, while friends favoured Denis—the first half of his composite surname. All remarked on a charming personality, inspiring yet unassuming. Portraits also project a serene gaze.
Denis Browne won classics scholarships to Rugby School (1903) and Clare College, Cambridge (1907). Rupert Brooke, his contemporary and lifelong friend, wrote for him 'An Easter-day Song in Praise of Cremation' (1906) and 'The Dance' (1915), but no musical settings survive. Both men were active in student productions by the Marlowe Dramatic Society. For Milton's Comus in 1908, Denis Browne helped E. J. Dent to combine Henry Lawes's songs with tunes from 'Elizabeth Rogers hir virginall booke' (BL, Add. MS 10337). One anonymous 'Allmayne' (fol. 32) pervaded To Gratiana Dancing and Singing (1913). Diaphenia and Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy (1912) were also intended as 'Two Elizabethan Songs'. The influence of transcription on his creativity foreshadowed the work of Peter Warlock, as did his championship of ultra-modern music. But whereas Warlock was always a reluctant executant, Denis Browne excelled as pianist, accompanist, organist, and conductor. Dent rated him 'by far the cleverest of the musicians' (Dent, 86) at Cambridge, comparing him with Arthur Bliss, Armstrong Gibbs, Clive Carey, and Steuart Wilson.
Denis Browne was intended for the civil service until a poor degree and pleas from family and friends convinced his father to countenance a career change. As Clare's organ scholar from 1910 to 1912, he studied composition with Charles Wood, the organ with Alan Gray, the piano with a former pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, Ursula Newton, and history with Dent. His Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1911) and Two Dances (1912) were premièred by Clare College choir and orchestra. Six songs (1908–1910?) are unremarkable, though two Tennyson settings, 'Move Eastward, Happy Earth' and 'The Snowdrop', were published in 1909. A seventh song, 'Dream-tryst' (1909), anticipated the experimental Arabia (1914).
Denis Browne sang in the chorus of Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Wasps, and played On Wenlock Edge and Hugh the Drover while they were still work in progress. Vaughan Williams's assertion in a reference that Denis Browne had 'a most musical nature and his artistic judgement and perception are remarkable' (1911, priv. coll.) helped to secure his appointment at Repton in April 1912. He dedicated the motet 'God is our strength and song' (1912) to the school and passed his MusB with distinction in May.
After Denis Browne visited Busoni in Berlin, over-zealous piano practice caused neuritis and threatened paralysis. He resigned from Repton and succeeded Carey as organist of Guy's Hospital in December 1912. He supplemented his income by deputizing for Gustav Holst at Morley College, conducting choral societies in London and Surrey, and writing for John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield's Blue Review. He also contributed eight columns to The Times (1913–14) and seven to the New Statesman (1914), including shrewd critiques of Stravinsky and Skryabin. Denis Browne became the favourite of Edward Marsh's Georgian circle when Brooke was abroad between 1913 and 1914. He attended breakfast and supper parties, first nights, and private views with Mark Gertler and Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, and the latter commemorated him in Friends (1916, 14).
Denis Browne's eight-part Nunc dimittis was performed at Westminster Cathedral on Palm Sunday 1914. He gave the London première of Anton Berg's sonata op. 1 on 11 May, and a lecture entitled 'Modern musical tendencies' before the Musical Association on 19 May. On 15 July he accompanied Wilson in a recital at 10 Downing Street. 'The Comic Spirit', a ballet-pantomime intended for Bristol's Theatre Royal, was unfinished when war began.
Marsh engineered commissions for Denis Browne and Brooke in the Royal Naval division and, after the abortive Antwerp expedition, they sailed for the Dardanelles. Denis Browne passed the journey playing duets with F. S. Kelly and directing the Hood battalion band. He chose Brooke's Skyros grave, and his evocative account of the burial is widely cited. Shot through the neck on 8 May 1915, he recuperated in Egypt and insisted on returning to the front before he was fully fit. His prescient last message came from a trench at Kerever Dere on 4 June, the same day on which he was killed in action: '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 better off in the long run' (W. Denis Browne to Edward Marsh, 4 June 1915, priv. coll.). His body was never retrieved, and his achievement cannot be fully assessed. Dent feared another hysterical response to Gallipoli's 'second great loss to art' (Forbes, 1.264) and destroyed many manuscripts.
- R. Davies, ‘Composers of the Great War’, MA diss., U. Wales, Aberystwyth, 1985
- private information (2004) [family]
- W. C. Denis Browne, letters, 1908–15, priv. coll.
- W. C. Denis Browne, letters, 1908–15, King's Cam.
- H. Taylor, ‘The life and work of W. Denis Browne’ (photocopy), Barclay Squire essay, U. Cam., 1973 [author's collection]
- T. Hold, Parry to Finzi: twenty English song-composers (2002)
- [M. D. Forbes], ed., Clare College, 1326–1926, 2 vols. (1928–30)
- Duet for two voices: an informal biography of Edward Dent compiled from his letters to Clive Carey, ed. H. Carey (1979)
- E. J. Dent, Selected essays, ed. H. Taylor (1979)
- R. Vaughan Williams, testimonial, 1911, priv. coll.
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1916)
- L. Denis Browne, letter to E. J. Dent, 22 Sept 1915, CUL, Add. MS 7973
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Maidenhead
- Clare College, Cambridge, compositions
- priv. coll., letters to his parents and sisters
- priv. coll., scrapbook
- CUL, W. Denis Browne, MS Dd.2.11, fols. 1–23 [transcription]
- King's Cam., letters to E. J. Dent
- priv. coll., letters to Rupert Brooke
- priv. coll., letters to Edward Marsh
- L. Caswell Smith, photograph, 1914, priv. coll.
- facsimile, NPG
Wealth at Death
£79 16s. 3d.: probate, 1916, CGPLA Eng. & Wales