William Denis Browne

William Denis Browne (1888–1915)

William Denis Browne was born in Leamington Spa of Irish parents. He was known as Billy to his relatives and Denis to his friends, and was noted for his charming, inspiring but unassuming personality.

Denis Browne attended Rugby School and Clare College, Cambridge, where he read Classics. However, poor degree results meant his intended career in the Civil Service did not materialise, but instead he became an organ scholar and studied composition with Charles Wood, piano with Ursula Newton and history with E. J. Dent. He was a promising pianist, accompanist, organist, and conductor, and was highly rated by Dent.

In 1912, he passed his MusB and briefly took a teaching position at Repton, but moved to London later in the year, taking the post of organist at Guy’s Hospital. He also wrote for Blue Review and became music critic for The Times and the New Statesman. He assisted Holst in teaching at Morley College and conducted various choral societies. Denis Browne gave the London premiere of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.

As a lifelong friend of Rupert Brooke, the two having met at Rugby, he attended sessions of Edward Marsh’s Georgian poetry circle.

Denis Browne secured a commission in the Royal Navy division along with Rupert Brooke, Australian composer F. S. Kelly and Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. They departed for Gallipoli with the Hood Battalion on 28 February 1915. Denis Browne, Brooke and Kelly were all to die on active service while Asquith survived, but with severe injuries which led to his leg being amputated. Brooke died of blood poisoning on 23 April 1915, and at his burial on the Greek island of Skyros, Denis Browne was one of the pallbearers.

On 8 May, Denis Browne was shot through the neck and after recuperating in Egypt he returned to the front before being fully fit. He was killed on 4 June at Achi Baba on the Gallipoli peninsula having on the same day written the following words to Edward Marsh: ‘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.’ He was 26. His body was never recovered.

William Denis Browne’s career as a teacher, pianist, conductor and critic meant that composition was to remain more in the background; by the outbreak of the First World War, he had a fairly small output of choral and orchestral pieces, an incomplete ballet The Comic Spirit, and eleven songs to his name, most of which were published after his death. In a career of such unfulfilled potential, his four last songs are generally regarded as his finest. These are Diaphenia, Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy, To Gratiana Dancing and Singing and Arabia.


Information from the above summary can be found in the following books and online resources

Stephen Banfield: Sensibility and English Song

Trevor Hold: Parry to Finzi: twenty English song-composers

Grove Music Online (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)

To find out more, click on the links


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