Edward Godfrey Brown was born in Barrow-in-Furness, the son of Edward Brown, DMus, an organist and choral director. Godfrey studied violin, organ and piano at the Royal College of Music and for a time worked as an orchestral player in London. On his return to the north west of England he held the position of organist in a number of parish churches as well as conducting a different choral society on four nights of the week.
In 1912 he successfully applied for the post of conductor of the Belfast Philharmonic Society, made vacant by the resignation of Dr Francis Koeller who had held the post for twenty-five years. The position of organist of Holywood Parish Church became available at the same time and Brown was successful in securing it, and so he and his wife settled in Holywood at Fernbank.
The ‘Phil’ was an amateur society that had been formed in 1874 from a merger of two pre-existing musical societies. Brown’s first task was to try to create a symphony orchestra that could give orchestral concerts independently of the chorus. This proved problematic as Belfast had few professional players who could be called on to strengthen the orchestra, and the cost and difficulty (especially during the First World War) of bringing them over from England limited this option. In 1922 Brown was appointed Director of Music at Methodist College Belfast and at once set about enlarging the place of music in the school. However Brown was to spend only two years at Methody for in 1924 he was made Director of Music at 2BE, the BBC’s station in Northern Ireland. He was in fact the first person to join the staff and in the early years of the station he was in all but name the head of the service. This gave him the resources to recruit professional players from England and an orchestra of 17 players was quickly put together. In the early days music formed the largest part of the new station’s output.
Now that there was a core of professional players Brown was able to strengthen the ‘Phil’ and in the Belfast Wireless Orchestra he had a band able to tackle a wide repertory. Under Brown’s energetic direction the ‘Phil’s’ repertoire and standard of performance grew and musicians of the calibre of Adrian Boult, Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams were invited to conduct the Society. But probably Brown’s greatest coup was in persuading the Master of the King’s Musick and England’s greatest composer to visit Belfast to conduct his own works. Sir Edward Elgar was seventy five when he made his only visit to Ireland to conduct his choral masterpiece ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ in the Ulster Hall in October 1932. The performance was by all accounts a triumph and those who were present spoke about it for years afterwards. Sir Edward was keen to return for a second visit but illness prevented this and he died in 1934. During his visit in 1932 Elgar visited the Lord Mayor in the City Hall and was taken to view the Parliament Buildings at Stormont, which were soon to be officially opened by the Prince of Wales. It is said that Sir Edward visited the parish church in Holywood and played the organ.
Brown was made OBE in 1936 and retired from the BBC in the following year. But by this date the BBC was spending less on its orchestra and the days of plenty were over. With the outbreak of war in 1939 the forty musicians found themselves out of work. Brown continued the ‘Phil’ with a largely amateur orchestra until his retirement in 1950. Fittingly his last concert featured ‘The Dream of Gerontius’.
Brown continued in his role of parish organist and teacher of private pupils. He had also established the Holywood Musical Festival in 1947 and remained as its Director until his death on 2 February 1955. He is buried in Redburn Cemetery.
Location of plaque: ‘Fernbank’ 117 Downshire Road, Holywood, Co. Down
Date of unveiling: 23 August 2010
Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE