In my three previous posts, I've talked about the difficulty of establishing whether an alleged postmortem communicator is a self-aware entity or merely what I call an ego-persona -- a shell of its former self. One way to determine the answer might be to see if the communicator is capable of creativity. If some unusual creative powers are displayed, it would suggest that the communicator is more than just the husk of a human soul.
In fact, there do appear to be such cases. One of the most famous and controversial is that of Rosemary Brown.
Rosemary Brown (1916 - 2001) was a British widow who was purportedly able to channel original musical compositions by such composers as Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Grieg, Berlioz, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and her primary communicator, Franz Liszt. On the face of it, this claim sounds pretty far-out, especially when we learn of Rosemary's everyday interactions with the spirits. According to one source,
The composers have not lost their distinctive personalities, though they've generally grown younger in their astral plane. Chopin likes to wear loud, modern clothes and has become addicted to television. Schubert is lovable and humorous. Though Liszt is a moody "fusspot" who disappears for weeks if he thinks he's been insulted, he loves to shop with her in supermarkets; he seems particularly concerned with the way the price of bananas has risen.
The fact that Rosemary's first book, Unfinished Symphonies, was reportedly ghostwritten by a tabloid newspaper writer, Unity Hall, also does little to inspire confidence.
But before we dismiss Rosemary too quickly, we need to consider the other side of the story, namely, the music itself. All told, she created something like a thousand piano miniatures -- short pieces, 3 to 5 minutes long, in a remarkable variety of styles. Expert opinion on the merits of her music was divided, but some highly qualified musicians felt that the work was of high quality. Her obituary tells us,
Humphrey Searle published an essay on a Liszt piece, Grubelei, in which attention was drawn to the advanced harmonies and tonality typical of Liszt's late compositions. Ian Parrott, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Wales, published an entire book, The Music of Rosemary Brown (1978), sympathetic to the thesis that the music bears original hallmarks of the purported composers which it would be difficult for professional musicians consistently to achieve: here was something that went far beyond the confines of Joseph Cooper's Face the Music pastiches of composers' styles.
While the best of her miniatures certainly stand re-hearing on their own merits, such as the Liszt Grubelei, Schubert Moments Musicaux and other pieces "dictated" by Chopin (various Etudes) and Debussy (La Caverne), it is difficult for professional musicians to raise them to the equals of their "lifetime" works, let alone consider them a progression. The longer the piece, generally the less convincing it became as the composer's concentration - be that of a spirit mind or Rosemary Brown's - was not sustained.
Leonard Bernstein was favorably impressed with a couple of Rachmaninoff pieces, which he played on the piano after meeting Rosemary. He said, "I do not understand how anybody with such limited training as she has could possibly write in so many different styles." (Quoted in Intangible Evidence, by Bernard Gittelson, page 289.)
The Gittelson book also includes this endorsement:
Malcolm Troup, of the London Guildhall School of Music, found Mrs. Brown "utterly amazing. I have played some pieces by her, particularly the works by 'Schubert,' and they are absolutely charming. I would never guess they were not by Schubert. They are, in character and essence, the very heart of his work." (Page 289.)
Time magazine quoted British composer Richard Rodney Bennett as saying,"If she is a fake, she is a brilliant one and must have had years of training. Some of the music is awful, but some is marvelous. I couldn't have faked the Beethoven."
Elsewhere, Bennett has said, "A lot of people can improvise, but you couldn't fake music like this without years of training. . . . Even if some of the pieces are bad, that doesn't mean anything. I produce lots of lousy pieces."
And in Hazel M. Denning's book Hauntings, Bennett is quoted as follows: "I was having trouble with a piece of music and she passed along Debussy's recommendation -- which worked." (Page 124.)
Some of Rosemary's compositions were deemed good enough for concert hall performances and LP recordings.
It appears, then, that Rosemary's best work is at least arguably in the same league as the compositions of the past masters she claims to be channeling. If not equal to their very finest work, then it is at least comparable to their more run-of-the-mill offerings. Which might not be very impressive if Rosemary Brown had extensive musical training. It appears, however, that she did not.
There is some dispute about exactly how much musical instruction she may have had. Brief articles about her usually say that she had only a couple of years of piano lessons and attended the opera once or twice. Other, more detailed articles report that she had considerable childhood exposure to the world of music. Her obituary, linked above, puts it this way:
She was born Rosemary Dickeson in 1916 in Stockwell, south-west London, the second of three children, to an electrician and a catering manageress. They lived above a hall used for functions and dancing classes in Balham. Dancing became her passion and she won many amateur ballroom and creative dance competitions. Her formal education was concluded as a scholarship girl at Rosa Bassett School, Streatham, but, with her father set against a career as a professional dancer of any kind, she left at 15 and joined the Post Office, working her way through various counter and wireless telegraphy jobs until her marriage in 1952 ...
Even so, all evidence indicates that she abandoned her musical pursuits as a teenager and did not resume playing the piano until 1948, when she was 32. Wikipedia tells us,
After the Second World War she had bought a second-hand piano and taken lessons for a year. But a neighbor, once a church organist, was not impressed. "She could just about struggle through a hymn," he said.
The bottom line is that while she probably was not the complete musical naif pictured in some biographical sketches, she also was not highly trained. According to Rosemary herself, her lack of training was seen as an asset by her spirit guide, Liszt.
Liszt, Rosemary later explained, gave this excuse for picking her as his intermediary: " 'You have sufficient training for our purposes. Had you been given a really full musical education, it would have been no help to us at all. In the first place, a full musical education would have made it much harder for you to prove that you could not be writing our music yourself. Secondly, a musical background would have caused you to acquire too many ideas and theories of your own. These would have been an impediment to us.' "
Although Rosemary did not produce her music under scientifically controlled conditions, she was once tested under difficult circumstances. The BBC arranged for her to write an original composition while the cameras were rolling and musicians were watching. The story is told this way:
In 1969 the BBC arranged to observe Ms Brown in the act firsthand. They sat her down on a piano bench and waited for Franz Liszt. In due course he appeared, to her anyway, and dictated a piece he called Grubelei that, like much of this material, was far beyond her technical competence to perform. Composer and Lizst specialist Humphrey Searle scrutinized Grubelei and found it to be remarkably characteristic of Liszt’s last few years. "It is highly chromatic," he later recalled, "and one hand is written in 5/4 time against 3/2 in the other. The latter is not a thing that Liszt ever did as far as I know, but it is the sort of thing he might have done."
Naturally, skeptical explanations have been offered to explain -- or explain away -- Rosemary's musical gifts. One suggestion was that she had received extensive musical training but forgotten it because of amnesia!
Rosemary's doctor dismissed this notion.
A more serious suggestion is that Rosemary had an unconscious talent for musical mimicry and was able to reproduce the styles of various classical masters in the same way that entertainers like Liberace and Victor Borge used to do. But the enthusiasm shown for Rosemary's work by at least some eminent musicians and music theorists suggest that her abilities went far beyond those of popular entertainers. Remember the verdict of Ian Parrott, Emeritus Professor of Music, that Rosemary's "music bears original hallmarks of the purported composers which it would be difficult for professional musicians consistently to achieve: here was something that went far beyond ... pastiches of composers' styles." (Quoted above; the words are the article's paraphrase of the professor's views.)
Then there is the ever present super-psi explanation -- that Rosemary was able to clairvoyantly read long-lost sheet music hidden away somewhere.
Time magazine, apparently unaware of the super-psi hypothesis, carped that,
If Rosemary is in touch with Liszt, the best way to prove it is not to produce the lukewarm but pleasant Grubelei she claims to have received from him, but to discover something from the past, perhaps Liszt's now vanished manual of piano technique, which he wrote for the Geneva Conservatoire.
Of course, had Rosemary discovered any such thing, it would quickly have been said to fall under the category of super-psi.
One fairly elaborate skeptical rebuttal has been offered by Harry Edwards, author of A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age. (At least I think this unsigned article is by Edwards, if I can judge by what appears to be an attribution at the bottom of the page.)
After quoting Richard Rodney Bennett's comment that "you couldn’t fake music like this without years of training," Edwards immediately adds that Bennett "wasn’t saying that it couldn’t be faked!" Which is technically true, but when you look at the various Bennett comments quoted above, it is clear that Bennett was reasonably convinced of Rosemary's genuineness.
"One interesting aside," Edwards adds, "Ms Brown was able to converse with Beethoven despite it being well documented that he was deaf!"
Apparently we are supposed to believe that Beethoven's deafness persists in the afterlife.
"The mediums of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who reported contact with entities were undoubtedly frauds," says Edwards. Of course he provides no evidence to support this sweeping claim.
The article gives Rosemary's year of birth as 1931 (it was 1916) and says that Look Beyond Today was her fourth book (it was her third). Despite being dated September 2005, the article is also unaware of Rosemary's death in 2001. These oversights suggest a less than thorough examination of the case.
The closest Edwards actually gets to debunking Rosemary Brown is to report a prank and that he played on the media after Rosemary claimed she had heard from John Lennon. Edwards says that he
had a great to desire to question the veracity of her claim. Cognizant of defamation laws however, I decided that it would be more prudent if the spirit of John Lennon did so.
With this in mind, and in an endeavour to show how easy it is to be accepted as a psychic and to get publicity for extraordinary claims, I wrote a satirical letter to the Sydney Sun newspaper, with some remarkable results.
In part, I also claimed to be psychic and in touch with the spirit of John Lennon who, I said, refuted Mrs Brown’s claim to have spoken to him. Positing the technical reasons (the problems involved with interstellar communication) why these claims were questionable, I went on to elaborate my own fantasy.
The letter was not published, but an interview ensued with the Sydney Sun on March 10, following which some of my claims were reiterated in the next edition of that newspaper.
Subsequently I was interviewed on Good Morning Australia, and People magazine featured my extraordinary claims in a three page spread on May 18, 1987. My point had been well taken!
It's not clear what point he thinks he's made, other than that the tabloid media will easily fall for dumb stories. There was nothing evidential in the claims he put forward, nor did he produce any music -- and it was the music, after all, that made Rosemary Brown newsworthy in the first place.
Admittedly, it is hard to imagine Franz Liszt strolling with Rosemary in the supermarket and commenting ruefully on the price of bananas. It is no less difficult to picture Chopin as a TV-addicted couch potato in the afterlife. And maybe, just maybe, unconscious musical mimicry could produce hundreds of compositions of high enough quality to fool some experts.
But it's hard to see how unconscious mimicry could supply Richard Rodney Bennett with the answer to the problem he faced in writing his own composition. It's even harder to see how and why Rosemary would have imagined close personal contact with musical masters over a period of decades while turning out work that matched their highly diverse styles.
As far as I can tell, nobody who actually investigated Rosemary first-hand concluded that she was consciously lying about her psychic experiences. I suppose we could speculate that her unconscious mind generated these hallucinatory experiences in order to provide cover for its own compulsive mimicry. But at this point we seem to be endowing the unconscious mind with rather prodigious talent -- the ability to creatively hallucinate a variety of historical figures, mimic their musical styles, and create original compositions good enough to pass muster with the experts.
For those who insist on rejecting the very idea of postmortem survival out of hand, endowing Rosemary Brown's unconscious with nearly superhuman abilities may be the only available alternative. Unfortunately, the "super-unconscious" hypothesis suffers from a lot of the same defects as the super-psi hypothesis. Whenever we posit the existence of an unknown and unmeasurable human talent that borders on omniscience, we leave the realm of testable hypotheses and enter a world where any evidence, no matter how compelling, can be rationalized away.
That's why I'm inclined to think that Rosemary really was in touch with creative intelligences - not husks or shells or ego-personas, but creative minds. She worked with them as their instrument, and together they made beautiful music.
But don't take my word for it. Listen for yourself.