Brown, Edward Godfrey (1874–1955), conductor and musical director, was born 15 January 1874 at 74 Blake St., Barrow-in-Furness, Cumberland (Cumbria), the only son among four children of Edward Brown (1853–1941) and Emma Brown (née Godfrey). His father came from Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and became organist of St James's parish church, Barrow-in-Furness in 1871, a post he was to hold for fifty-nine years; he also founded and conducted the Barrow Choral Society, established an extensive teaching practice, matriculated at New College, Oxford (1877), and became doctor of music (1883). Edward Godfrey Brown studied violin, organ, and piano at the Royal College of Music in London for four years and spent some time in London as an orchestral player and member of, inter alia, the orchestras of the Royal Italian Opera and the Crystal Palace. Returning to the substantial musical life of north-western England, he held various posts in Barrow-in-Furness and elsewhere before becoming organist of the parish church in Penrith and conductor of the Penrith musical society, a flourishing organisation which mounted a substantial biennial two-day festival, and from which he formed a district orchestra of fifty to sixty performers. Among the many professional contacts he made was Sir Henry Wood, who recommended him for the conductorship of the Belfast Philharmonic Society in 1912 when it fell vacant on the resignation of Dr Francis Koeller. From the many applicants for the post, Brown's London qualifications and provincial experience overcame the bias hitherto dominant in favour of musicians from the continent of Europe.
The Belfast Philharmonic Society was primarily a choral body; its concert season consisted of three or four oratorios, with an ad hoc orchestra consisting mostly of amateurs. Godfrey Brown set about the formation of a symphony orchestra which would give concerts of its own as well as playing for the Philharmonic Society. It proved difficult; he had only spent two years in Belfast when the first world war broke out, to be followed by the years of the Irish ‘troubles’. It was 1917 before the Belfast Symphony Orchestra came into being, and it could play only a few concerts a season, because there were so few professional players available locally and it was too expensive to summon them from London and elsewhere in England as Brown had been accustomed to do in Cumbria. As he said in a letter to his chairman in 1920, ‘amateurs and semi-professionals need more rehearsal than can be afforded. . . with the experienced professional concert orchestral player the conductor simply turns the tap on, and the music flows’.
Relief was nearer than he knew. When the BBC began transmitting programmes in November 1922 the original plan for eight stations made no provision for Northern Ireland, largely for security reasons to do with the still disturbed state of the country. It was February 1924 before Belfast learned that it was to have a radio station. The first member of staff appointed was Godfrey Brown as director of music. In his twelve years in Belfast, as well as directing the Philharmonic Society and building a symphony orchestra, he had taught and trained widely beyond Belfast and adjudicated at feises: ‘his experience of life in Northern Ireland was to prove invaluable because among the early programme staff he was almost unique in having any at all’ (Cathcart, 19). In the early years, when the broadcasting of other activities required the devising and learning of new techniques, music was the fully grown resource; it was instantly available, and it took up much the largest part of the schedules. Brown was given the initial task of recruiting a professional orchestra; most of them were ‘drawn from the best orchestras in England’ (ibid., 20), and they were based in Belfast. They were very busy: light music ‘without departing from a high moral tone and good musical standard’ was encouraged (ibid., 21) in accordance with the policy laid down by the BBC's managing director, John Reith; to comply further with his concept the legacy of the great composers was copious, ideal, and ready to hand. Brown was allowed, indeed encouraged, to augment his core of seventeen players on occasion with local instrumentalists and additional professionals from England. His programme files show a played repertoire of great breadth and depth, the number of players sometimes as high as seventy. The best soloists, vocal and instrumental, were simply summoned from England. Sir Henry Wood and Adrian Boult were invited from London to conduct, Fritz Brase (qv) from Dublin. Arthur Bliss and Vaughan Williams were invited over to conduct their own new works. As a self-appointed task he compiled an exhaustive orchestral repertoire list with instrumentations and timings: Reith in thanking him declared it useful to the BBC all over the UK. Brown also on his own initiative formed a station dance band, military band, and string quartet. The station was expected to offer the opportunity to broadcast to local people: Brown with his local knowledge was well placed to identify, invite, and audition.
Nor was it the relatively small sector of the population that had radio sets that was the only beneficiary: Brown took a wider view of his opportunity. He had retained his conductorship of the Philharmonic Society, and his BBC players formed the core of the orchestra for its concerts. The BBC, anxious to make its name, encouraged him, and there ensued a golden age of concerts in Belfast and Northern Ireland at large. In the 1929–30 season the orchestra played a series of twelve concerts in the Wellington Hall and a spring series of thirteen in the Ulster Hall, as well as schoolchildren's and provincial town concerts, and provided the orchestra for the six Philharmonic Society concerts. The assiduous Belfast concertgoer could have attended three dozen concerts; if stamina was sufficient to take in a visit to the Museum on Wednesday afternoons that total was more than doubled. Belfast had generated concerts of its own since the eighteenth century, but there had never been so much orchestral music in the town or of such a standard. Nor had it ever cost the concertgoer so little; the admission prices were very low, subsidised by the BBC. By 1934 Northern Ireland was recognised as a BBC ‘region’, and the orchestra's permanent establishment had increased substantially from its initial seventeen.
It was an artificial situation, brought about by the BBC's need to establish itself and Godfrey Brown's virtuoso exploitation of its munificence. By the middle 1930s, however, the BBC had no need to establish itself, and the money it had been giving to music as its staple fare was now needed by talks, news, features, drama, variety, sport, and outside broadcasts. The subsidy of concerts was much reduced, and in the national slump audiences fell away. The golden age was over, its demise hastened by the withdrawal of the subsidies made by city and district councils. Brown was awarded an OBE in 1936 and retired from his BBC post in the following year. B. Walton O'Donnell, however, his successor, died in harness (20 August 1939). A fortnight later the second world war broke out and BBC broadcasting shrank to a trickle. It was Godfrey Brown who had to come into Broadcasting House in Belfast with the melancholy duty of conducting the final concert of the broadcasting orchestra he had built up and then distributing dismissal notices to the forty members on the hitherto permanent establishment.
It was many years before the BBC reinstated a fully professional orchestra in Belfast. Godfrey Brown went on conducting the Philharmonic Society with a mainly amateur orchestra until he retired in 1950. He died at his home in Holywood, Co. Down, on 2 February 1955, survived by his wife, his son, and his three daughters.
In the thirteen-year period when he was the BBC's director of music he had honoured his appointment to that post, and had also achieved all the aspirations for music in Belfast which he had outlined to the chairman of the Philharmonic Society in 1920. His saturation of the concert world of Belfast, and Northern Ireland at large, with the repertoire of the great composers played to professional standards left behind an impetus towards the reinstatement of a concert life which was felt to be the community's due and which led eventually to the creation of the Ulster Orchestra in 1980.