Professor David Clifford Brown obituary

Sheffield graduate David Clifford Brown, who went on to become Professor of Musicology at the University of Southampton and an internationally renowned authority on nineteenth-century Russian music and English Renaissance music, died on 20 June 2014, aged 84, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

The University crest in stained glass

David Brown was born on 8 July 1929 in Gravesend, Kent, and attended the town’s grammar school. Even as a teenager he was showing the musical talents that would underpin his future life, and he went on to study at the University of Sheffield, gaining a BA in English, Latin and music (1951), followed by a BMus (1952).

At Sheffield, David met not only his future wife, Elizabeth, but the many fellow students who would become lifelong friends and share his joy of music-making. It was a remarkable generation. Like David, several of them came from very ordinary backgrounds but went on to forge notable careers in musicology, including medieval specialist Gilbert Reaney, who became Music Professor at the University of California, and Denis Arnold, a future Professor of Music at Oxford.

During National Service (1952-54) David trained as a Russian interpreter on the Joint Services language course at Cambridge, where his fellow students included Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn and where he gained new language skills that became the impetus behind his future focus on Russian music.

After starting his professional life as a schoolteacher, in 1959 David was appointed Music Librarian at London University. Three years later, his academic career began with his appointment as a lecturer at the newly formed Music Department at the University of Southampton, where his colleagues included Professor Peter Evans, the authority on Benjamin Britten, and the composer Jonathan Harvey. David’s wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1953, would join the University’s staff in due course, becoming Staff Tutor in Music for the extra-mural department and the first manager of the Turner Sims Concert Hall, one of this country’s leading venues for chamber music.

David is remembered not just as an expert and inspirational tutor and lecturer: he was extremely active within the University’s music-making sphere, forming and conducting the University Madrigal Society, which gave frequent broadcasts on Radio 3, and contributing his talents as a pianist to various concerts, both within and outside the University. David also worked as an editor, reviewer, broadcaster and external examiner, wrote concert programme and DVD sleeve notes, and contributed countless articles to various journals. He served for many years on the Editorial Committee of Musica Britannica, and one of the most rewarding areas of his work was ‘reconstructing’ the lost parts of English Renaissance choral music.

But David’s greatest legacy as an academic is his work as a music biographer, and he was unusual in that he focused on two very different areas: music of the English Renaissance and that of the nineteenth-century Russian school.

His first major book, published by Faber & Faber in 1969, was on the English madrigalist Thomas Weelkes, a colourful character described by David as ‘the most spectacular drunkard in church history’. It earned him a PhD. This was followed in 1974 by Mikhail Glinka: A Biographical and Critical Study, the first major study of the composer in English, and his concise study of another madrigalist, John Wilbye.

Then came his major literary achievement: his four-volume life and works of Tchaikovsky - a mammoth task, its publication spread over 14 years.

It may surprise some to know that, prior to starting on his biography, David was no particular fan of the composer, and like many dismissed him as one who stimulated the tear-ducts rather than the heart and intellect. Livia Gollancz, the redoubtable doyenne of the famous publishing house, had other ideas, however. She was relentless in persuading David to take on the task of writing the biography, and he soon discovered just how wrong he’d been about the work of this tortured but very ‘human’ composer. As his admiration and fascination grew, one volume turned into two, and then three, and then four. David’s magnum opus garnered not only widespread critical praise, but also the Derek Allen Prize from the British Academy and the Yorkshire Post Music Book Award.

‘There is simply nothing comparable on Tchaikovsky in any language, not even in Russian’ wrote one critic, and even the official Soviet reviewer had to admit, ‘Frankly, we have nothing like it’. It remains the largest life-and-works of a Russian composer ever published, and fundamentally altered many people’s appreciation and understanding of Tchaikovsky.

In 1983, David was given a personal chair as Professor of Musicology at Southampton University. He retired in 1989 and went on to produce three more books: Tchaikovsky Remembered in 1993, Mussorgsky: His Life and Works in 2002, and Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music in 2006. In 2009, David and Elizabeth were both deeply touched by the wonderful concert staged by the University at the Turner Sims to celebrate their 80th birthdays, to which artists of the eminence of Trevor Pinnock and Dame Emma Kirkby willingly contributed their services. The year was topped by another honour when they were both given the City of Southampton Award for music services to the city.

But even as he worked on his final book, David was aware of the onset of the disease that would blight the remainder of his life. It was a disease he dreaded, and he felt fated to fall prey to it: some forty years previously, he’d witnessed the way it turned his sweet-natured father into a confused and aggressive man. Unlike his father, David did at least benefit from the drugs that can now delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and he still managed to enjoy many of life’s pleasures – especially listening to music – almost to the end, if on an increasingly limited scale.

Thanks to the devoted care of Elizabeth and his daughters, Gabrielle and Hilary, David was able to remain at the rural home he loved near Romsey in Hampshire until the final weeks of his life, which were spent in a nearby nursing home. He died on 20 June 2014.