Southampton Recorded Music Society

Professor David Brown – 'The Tchaikovsky Man'

A personal appreciation of a past President

It was with great sadness that the members of this Society learned that their President of almost forty years standing had passed away on 20 June, 2014. He had, over the years, brought a great deal of expert knowledge to our meetings and it is no surprise that his love of Russian music is shared by most of our members.

David Brown's contribution to musicology was beyond measure; he will perhaps always be remembered as 'The Tchaikovsky Man' as a result of a four-volume biography of the composer, written over a period of 14 years.

I met David late in his career, but I soon came to appreciate his vast amount of musical knowledge. The ease with which he could recount a personal translation of one of Tchaikovsky’s letters using his intimate awareness of the Russian language was a wonder that formed the basis of his expertise. I too had loved the music of Tchaikovsky from an early age and it seemed to me just a little sad that, in his early writings, he had to compromise his clear love of the music – a love, which he admitted had grown over the years – for what appeared to be the received wisdom concerning such a Romantic composer. Those perceived tastes of the 60s and perhaps misguided leadership from the BBC Third Programme of the day may have had a little to do with it, but is should be said that the listening public never abandoned their liking for Tchaikovsky’s music, which must have formed the basis of success for David’s books.

David was an unpretentious man and he encouraged a mere scientist like me to research and write about music. He once said to us that some of our members had more expertise than himself! Not true, of course, but it was a mark of the man that he should say it. I recall what was to be his last lecture at the Turner Sims Concert Hall where he apologised profusely for not being a conservatory trained pianist and then proceeded to play his Tchaikovsky examples on the elderly Steinway most beautifully. It was the heavy-handed playing from the young Russian that followed, which brought about the appeal for a new Steinway (thankfully achieved a couple of years later)!

David and Elizabeth were to be seen at just about every classical performance at Turner Sims. One of the most delightful concerts given there was in the spring of 2009, when a great many well-known performers gathered to give of their services in a joint celebration of David and Elizabeth's 80th birthdays. It was a truly memorable event, with all the trimmings, to acknowledge their contribution to Southampton and its University; a contribution that over the years has rightly echoed around the world and given much credit to that institution.

Those who read and write about his work should do so with care in order to grasp the true meaning of the man. I recall his enthusiasm for his final work; "I have one book left in me" was his comment to us about ten years ago and before his mind was affected by a terrible terminal disease. He discussed the book’s progress with us and came to a final accommodation on the matter of the death of his musical hero. The last pages of Tchaikovsky: The Man and his Music discuss the very confused cholera evidence, with its medical inconsistencies, and the claim that the composer was asked to commit suicide by a so-called court of honour because of his homosexual behaviour. He leaves us to make up our own minds, but he emphasises that the story of the 'court' was first recounted some 20 years after the composer's death and was third hand. It was not finally written down and given to the world until another 60 years had elapsed. David commented to me and some of my colleagues that he was reasonably sure that Tchaikovsky knew he was ill, and probably dying, and that having completed his final masterpiece, he made the decision to hasten the end with a little arsenic. Hence, the court of honour story may have had but little relevance, with a natural cause at the heart of the matter.

'Does this matter?', David asked. 'No, not really, for Tchaikovsky’s reputation rests not on the more sensational incidents and aspects of his life, but on the prodigious gift of great music to his own people and to us, and on not only the gratitude of his compatriots, but on the love and veneration they had conceived for this towering genius who was such a generous, modest and – lovable man'.

'Towering genius' indeed; surely it takes one to see one, which is how we shall remember our Tchaikovsky man, whose company we enjoyed over many years as both an internationally respected musician and as a friend. We shall greatly mourn his loss and we send sincere condolences to Elizabeth and to his daughters, Gabrielle and Hilary.

David Pearce
September 2014