John Browne


John Browne is first among the composers of the Eton choirbook both in size of contribution and excellence of achievement. Harrison justly considers him to be 'among the greatest composers of his age' and 'perhaps the greatest English composer between Dunstable and Taverner.' It is astonishing that work of such exceptional interest should be known to us only from the Eton choirbook, even given the paucity of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century sources; works by Lambe and Davy are after all found elsewhere. Carols ascribed simply to 'Browne' are preserved in the early sixteenth-century Fayrfax Book (British Museum, Additional MS. 5465), but it is possible that they were composed by William Browne, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal from 1503 to 1511.

Nothing is known for certain about Browne's life. A John Browne from Berkshire, born in 1425 and scholar successively of Eton and the sister College of King's, Cambridge in the 1440s, is almost certainly too old to be our man: for musical reasons we should expect Browne the composer to have been born at about the same time as Lambe, or a little later, rather than a quarter of a century earlier. Therefore it is extremely likely that the composer was the John Browne from Coventry elected scholar of Eton in July 1467 at exactly the same time as Lambe, and aged 14 in December of that year (which would make him just a year or two Lambe's junior). The John Browne (d. c. 1498) who was Rector of West Tilbury and canon of St Stephen's, Westminster had important legal and civil service connections and is almost certainly not the composer.

John Browne stands apart from the other Eton composers in his exceptionally varied choice of vocal forces--no two surviving works employ exactly the same--and in some predilection for very somber texts. He stands apart from Lambe and the older composers in his greater liking for imitation and his somewhat less rigid handling of it (with for example more entries at intervals other than the unison or octave, notably at the fifth). Like Davy he is less inclined to use the old 'under-third' or 'Landini sixth' progression at a cadence (with leading-note falling by step before rising to its tonic) so beloved of Dunstable and Dufay.

Page from The Eton Choirbook showing Browne's Stabat Mater

A Partial John Browne Discography  |  IV M: England Through 1635   |   Latin Church Music 1460-1575: The Composers