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Dennis Brain

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The British horn player Dennis Brain (1921–1957) is commonly described by such statements as "the greatest horn player of the 20th Century," "a genius," and "a legend." He was both a prodigy and popularizer, famously performing a concerto on a garden hose in perfect pitch. On his usual concert instrument his tone was of unsurpassed beauty and clarity, complemented by a flawless technique. The recordings he made with Herbert von Karajan of Mozart’s horn concerti are considered the definitive interpretations. Brain enlisted in the English armed forces during World War II for seven years, joining the National Symphony Orchestra in wartime in 1942. After the war he filled the principal horn positions in both the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. He later formed his own wind quintet and began conducting. Composers including Benjamin Britten and Paul Hindemith lined up to write music for him. Even fifty years after his tragic death at the age of 36 in an auto accident in 1957, Peter Maxwell Davies was commissioned to write a piece in his honor. Stephen Gamble and William Lynch have conducted numerous interviews with family, friends, and colleagues and uncovered information in the BBC archives and other lesser known sources about recordings that were previously unknown. This volume describes Brain's life and analyzes in depth his musical career. Its appendices of information on performances will appeal to music historians, and its details on Brain's instruments and equipment will be useful to horn players. "A pleasure to read: serious but personable, unaffected, unpretentious--conversational in tone. The character of the prose can be said to reflect the character of the book’s subject. Eminently satisfying."--Robert Marshall, author of Dennis Brain on Record

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19 Chapters

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Chapter 1 The Early Years (1921–1939)




The Early Years


Dennis Brain was born into a musical family and was expected to become a musician. He studied horn with his father at home and as a student at the

Royal Academy of Music. Information on Brain’s childhood and student days is scarce; however, we know that he showed early promise and that by the end of his studies at the Academy, he was performing and recording professionally.


The Brain family name is synonymous with the horn—his father, Aubrey

Brain (1893–1955) uncle Alfred Brain (1885–1966) and grandfather A. E.

Brain (1860–1929) were all distinguished horn players.

Brain’s mother, Marion Brain (1887–1954), was a contralto (Pls. 1–3 ) and under her maiden name, Beeley, sang in Wagner’s Ring at the Royal Opera

House, Covent Garden until the late 1920s. Before World War I, Sir Edward

Elgar had written “Hail, Immemorial Ind!” in his opera The Crown of India especially for her. Judging from the few recordings available, she possessed a voice of great warmth and power. She had superb breath control and could sustain a long phrase without taking any unmusical breaths, a characteristic that was later to be one of the key attributes of her son’s horn playing.


Chapter 2 The RAF Years (1939–1946)




The RAF Years


Brain was in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II and a year afterwards. He continued studies at the Royal Academy of Music during the war and augmented playing in the RAF Symphony Orchestra with musical engagements in London and the provinces.

RAF duties took Brain to RAF bases at home and abroad and to some extent restricted outside engagements. Sometimes he had to turn down offers of work owing to schedule conflicts and to his increasing demand as a soloist. His concerts as well as broadcasts in solo repertoire increased from 1941 onwards on home and overseas transmissions. This was in addition to many chamber music recitals and broadcasts with strings and other combinations.

He was not restricted to classical music but ventured into the sphere of dance bands, light music, and music for the film industry. With so many musicians away in the services abroad, he was much in demand for film soundtracks as well as in the many ensembles and orchestras being established in and around


Chapter 3 The Brain Quintet and Ensemble




The Brain Quintet and Ensemble

Brain formed the Dennis Brain Wind Quintet in 1946, while still in the RAF.

It later expanded and was named the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble.

Wind Quintet

Brain’s participation in new chamber music ensembles created during wartime may have given him the idea of starting his own ensemble before he was released from RAF duties. Still in uniform, he established the Dennis Brain

Wind Quintet, which after demobilization in September 1946 became very busy, giving concerts in the British Isles and occasionally for broadcast.

Brain returned from his month’s tour with the RAF Symphony Orchestra in Germany at the beginning of May 1946. He was too late to take part in the Quintet’s first concert at the Chelsea Town Hall on April 30, 1946, with

Denis Matthews at the piano. As his horn colleague Norman Del Mar remembered, he played in Brain’s place and flutist Gareth Morris (Pl. 1) also took part. Morris’s diary usually indicated “Q” for Quintet engagements, which invariably included works for other combinations. The diary is the source of many details of the Quintet’s schedule.1


Chapter 4 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra




Royal Philharmonic


Brain was principal horn in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra starting with its founding in 1946. His participation declined because of other obligations, particularly to the Philharmonia Orchestra, and in his last years was only sporadic.

Formation of the Royal Philharmonic

Brain had already been principal horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra for about eleven months before Sir Thomas Beecham (Pl. 1) formed the Royal

Philharmonic Orchestra. Brain continued his commitments to the Philharmonia and by very skilful scheduling was able to maintain steady solo and orchestral activities in both for some years. He played at the RPO’s first concert at the Davis Theatre, Croydon, on September 15, 1946 (Pl. 2). The horn section at the outset was Norman Del Mar, Roy White, and Frank Probyn in addition to Brain. The music critic of the Monthly Musical Record gave the following enthusiastic account of the first two concerts:

Sir Thomas Beecham, having parted company with the London Philharmonic, has organized a new orchestra, The Royal Philharmonic by name, which was launched at a concert given in the enormous Davis Theatre at


Chapter 5 Philharmonia Orchestra




Philharmonia Orchestra

Formation of the Philharmonia

Brain was the original principal horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra when

Walter Legge formed the orchestra in 1945. It was to be an orchestra with

“style” but not any particular style, comprising a body of hand-picked players of the highest caliber, and many distinguished conductors rather than one conductor molding the sound. This ensured that, under Legge’s direction, the

Philharmonia boasted a wide repertoire with a variety of different readings of standard works—such as the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky—as well as readings of lesser-known works.

The new orchestra’s reputation was soon established as one of the world’s top ensembles, and conductors as well as players competed for the privilege of taking part in its concerts and recordings. Legge made it clear from the outset that he would tolerate no passengers in the orchestra. Everyone was constantly on their toes, not knowing if they would be hired or fired the next week.1


Chapter 6 A Horn Virtuoso's Letters




A Horn Virtuoso’s


In his now famous Desert Island Discs appearance on the Home Service,

August 13, 1956, Brain mentions that he is a bad correspondent and that he would choose to take a typewriter with him to his desert island to remind him every time he wakes up that he does not have to write a letter! Yet all his correspondence was handwritten. Some of his correspondence, perhaps, will never come to light—letters he wrote to the general public, to concert agents, friends, colleagues, composers, and family.

Those letters that remain reveal much about what kind of man he was, music apart. They show that he was polite, modest, generous, with a good sense of humor. The letters also suggest that he was excellent at time-keeping and organization of his musical schedule. The time-keeping was something he also did as a challenge; when, for example, traveling from Dieppe to Nice, he would look at a notebook he kept of the times for journeys to work out his previous records for the distance traveled by car and how he could beat his own record.1


Chapter 7 Teacher and Lecturer




Teacher and Lecturer


Brain was too busy performing to have much time to teach or to demonstrate and perform for lecture-recitals. Very early on, he had possibly his first experience of teaching when, as a student at the Royal Academy of Music, he gave horn lessons to the future founder of the National Youth Orchestra, Dame

Ruth Railton. We do not know any details of these lessons. Many years later, in her autobiography, Dame Ruth remembered, “Dennis taught me to play the horn and I did his harmony papers for him. He was a true friend and a fine musician, with a simple style, his own beautiful sound, and personal qualities still remembered years after his tragic death.”1 During the 1950s,

Brain’s involvement with the NYO was an interesting extension of his teaching by demonstration. This could not, however, be a regular activity owing to his many other commitments.

Like his father, he taught by demonstration, although, unlike his father, he does not appear to have made much use of horn treatises or study pieces for his students to practice. By contrast, his uncle Alfred did not teach by demonstration. Alfred would have the student play and would make observations and suggestions. Brain later acknowledged his debt to Uncle Alfred, who had been a great inspiration during his brief stay in Los Angeles in early


Chapter 8 Reminiscences by Colleagues




Reminiscences by


The memories of colleagues and friends abound with engaging and amusing anecdotes that help to compensate for the lack of personal letters

(Chapter 6). One of the most striking aspects of these reminiscences is how vivid they are and how they help to paint something of a character sketch of Brain.

The word “colleague” in this chapter includes musicians other than horn players in orchestras throughout the British Isles and in other countries.

Horn players provide their reminiscences in Chapter 9.

In a career of nineteen years from 1938 to 1957, Brain worked with many of the finest musicians in the British Isles and abroad. The Discography mentions only a few of the enormous number of musicians with whom he performed. Without a personal diary and with such a busy schedule, it is impossible to determine precisely where he was all the time.

It would be impossible to mention all the musicians who remember Brain and recall the music they made together, but this chapter includes some of the more prominent.


Chapter 9 The Legacy—Horn Players Look Back




The Legacy—Horn Players

Look Back

Horn players who have either known Brain or have been influenced by his example have offered tributes and recollections of him. Their words describe Brain’s many-faceted talents as a musician as well as a horn player. Over fifty years after his death, Brain has continued to influence new generations of horn players around the world,. In his lifetime, he was an international figure in the world of classical music, and today that status is magnified rather than diminished.

Brain had a captivatingly beautiful tone. So did his father, who some critics are willing to say had an even more attractive tone than his son.1 Both father and son possessed a bright and penetrating, compact sound that is rarely heard in other players.

Brain’s horn sound was like pure gold, the result of many years of hard, practical exertions. His phrasing was subtler, more elegant, and more musical than that of any other horn player, which, combined with his beautiful tone and brilliant technique, made him the greatest of the great.


Chapter 10 Selected Performances




Selected Performances

No other wind player of modern times has received the recognition and acknowledgement for his proficiency and musical prowess in the form of dedicated compositions as has Brain.

The earliest work composed for Brain (at his request) is Benjamin Britten’s Serenade. It is considered by many to be the greatest contribution to contemporary horn repertoire and continues to attract attention through performances by new generations of horn players.

The last work dedicated to Brain, immediately following his death, was Francis Poulenc’s Elégie for Horn and Piano, which premiered one year after his death. The work expressively relates to Brain’s life as described by

Wilfrid Mellers: “The enigmatic structure of this piece must surely have some allegorical, if not some explicitly programmatic, intention. The ferocious agitato snarls like Death himself, who destroyed Dennis Brain in a car accident. . . .”1

The following discussions are of a selection from among the many works written to recognize Brain. Commemoratory acknowledgments are either a dedication by the composer or a premiere performance by Brain. The Poulenc


Chapter 11 Horns, Mouthpieces, and Embouchures




Horns, Mouthpieces, and Embouchures

Dennis Brain owned and experimented with no fewer than eleven horns varying in form, functionality, and tonal characteristics, most of which he ultimately disposed of for one reason or another. He often visited the Alexander firm in Mainz, Germany, which built a number of horns for him to his specifications. In 1951, he adapted an Alexander single B-flat Model 90 that he had earlier purchased and experimented with, replacing his French-type

Raoux-Millereau. He used the Alexander almost exclusively for the remainder of his life.

Brain reveals his relentless pursuit of the ideal horn in his publication The

French Horn, printed after his death: “As a point of interest, I must confess that I am at the moment negotiating for the manufacture of a five-valved instrument of my own design.”1

Alexander ceased manufacturing this horn after Brain’s death. The instrument, termed the “Brain Model,” was kept in a warehouse for several years until a player in the Munich Bach Orchestra worked with Alexander and completed the instrument. The horn was a B-flat/high E-flat descant, thus with a secure high range. The leadpipe reportedly fit directly into the inner rotary valve. The bell was yellow brass and the main body was gold brass.


Chapter 12 New Directions




New Directions

In the last ten years of his life, Brain scheduled engagements well into the future with the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble and Chamber Orchestra, the

Brain-Pougnet-Parry Trio, and as a soloist, as well as prospective opportunities to conduct, compose, and arrange. How might his career have developed, given an average lifespan ahead of him and taking into consideration his extraordinary achievements at the age of thirty-six?

Donald Froud, a professional horn player, remembered Brain in his last year, and it is clear from his recollections and from those of other colleagues, that Brain was searching for new ways to express himself musically.

I spoke to Dennis in the summer of 1957. He was sitting in his beloved

TR2 outside the V&A [Victoria & Albert] in Kensington where he was due to give a recital, but was not anxious to go in until the last minute. That was always his way with solo engagements. He said to me, “You know,

Donald, I’ve got a reputation in the business for never cracking a note, but every morning I wake up I’m one day older and it’s one day harder to live up to that. My ambition now is to take up conducting and let others do the playing!”1





William Lynch and I (Stephen Gamble) had both been researching Dennis

Brain independently for many years when we first came in contact in July

2001 because of an advertisement I had placed in The Horn Magazine offering some of my collection of Brain recordings for sale. We first discussed co-authoring a biography in November of the same year and started work the following year, shortly before the Royal Academy of Music in London celebrated the eightieth year since Brain’s birth with a performance on

November 15, 2002 (more than a year after the actual anniversary). This was also the first occasion at which his B-flat Alexander was to be played in public since August 31, 1957.

When we began our collaboration, it soon became apparent what a wealth of new material was available, untapped and waiting to be gathered.

At the end of this project, much material about Brain’s career still waits to be explored. We do not know the full extent to which private enthusiasts recorded his performances off-the-air from broadcasts. We have not been able to search many music archives around the world, in part due to limited accessibility, and in part due to lack of institutional funding to catalog archive inventories. We hope that subsequent editions of this book will add to the list of known recordings.






The intent of this discography is to give as comprehensive a listing of Brain’s solo and chamber recordings as possible, together with a selection of orchestral recordings, and to reveal newly discovered recordings that have not been featured in any previously published discography. It includes quotations from The Gramophone, Monthly Musical Record, Radio Times, and other sources, but it is not a complete list of every recording that Brain is known to have made.

New works include six solo works for horn and orchestra, two for horn, violin, and piano, three for wind quintet, eight chamber music works for various combinations, fourteen orchestral works, five performances in international archives collections (solo and chamber works), and two of film media. The new items are marked with an asterisk (*).

This list includes commercial recordings (published and unpublished) as well as radio archive recordings and off-the-air recordings. Matrix numbers for recording takes are given only if a recording is unpublished, for example, the British Library Sound Archive takes of the


Appendix A Brain Ensemble Music Library




Brain Ensemble Music Library

Audrey Brain has stated that the music scores used for the Quintet’s engagements were divided equally between the Brain brothers. This may have been a precaution in case one or the other was indisposed at the last minute and a deputy was required for either.1

Some of the scores are handwritten copies; a few appear to be autograph manuscripts of composers, including Fricker’s Quintet, with instruction on the oboe part, and an unknown quintet (composed in 1946) by a pupil of Paul Hindemith, Heinrich Jacoby (b.1909–d.1990), also known as Hanoch Jacoby. Poulenc’s Sextet (minus the piano part) has Brain’s signature and that of Poulenc on each of the parts. This is probably the score used for the performance with Poulenc at Wigmore Hall in the winter of 1947. Poulenc does not appear to have played with them on any other occasion. Mozart’s Serenade K388 also has Brain’s signature on each part. The Serenade K375 has Leonard Brain’s initials on each part.

The following are what remains of that collection. Scores used by the Quintet after Brain’s death are not listed. How extensive the repertoire may have been originally can only be judged from the works performed and also from the works for quintet that were in Brain’s music library. Evidence of these is contained in a letter to Denis Stevens, dated November 3, 1951 (with Brain’s approximate timings after each piece).2


Appendix B The Early Horn




The Early Horn

The script for “The Early Horn” is preserved on microfilm at the BBC Written Archives near

Reading. Private recordings of most of the actual broadcast have been preserved by enthusiasts.

The following is a reconstruction of this program, using the surviving tape fragments from private sources, and Brain’s BBC script. The BBC did not preserve the recording made on July 6 and 11, 1955. Nearly all the music is preserved on the tapes, but some of the extracts and scales

Brain played, as well as part of his talk, are missing. For these missing passages, references are to the BBC script and appear in bold.1

Horn Call: Méhul 2


Raoux 1818 hand horn

Alexander B-flat single horn with valves

The instruments that you’ve just heard range from 1818 up to the present day—in fact, from the sublime to the ridiculous—the first being the most modern and cheapest; the second an old French hand-horn with the date 1818 and floral pattern inscribed on the bell; the third being my usual every-day instrument, an Alexander. In case you’re curious about the first example, the reason is simple, that I have included it to show that on any tube containing a column of air a series of notes, determined by nature, can be produced. And as that fact is almost the point of this programme, it is not inappropriate that one should begin with a common, or rather garden object, which I imagine has not been broadcast before—a hose-pipe.


Appendix C Talking About the Horn




Talking About the Horn

Talking About the Instrument: No. 7, The Horn

Illustrated Talk by Dennis Brain

General Overseas Service

Pre-Recorded on March 19, 1956

Recorded Talks Reference Number: TOX 39218

Broadcast on Tuesday March 27, 1956, 06:30–07:00 GMT

The second radio talk was “No. 7, The Horn” in the series Talking About the Instrument for the

General Overseas Service.

The BBC correspondence files describe the stages of its planning. Brain received a contract for this broadcast on March 8, 1956. Rosemary Jellis, Overseas Talks department, wrote to Miss

Firth, Music Bookings that “At last we have nailed Dennis Brain down to record his programme in this series on Monday, 19 March . . .” It was broadcast on Tuesday March 27, 1956, at

06.30–07.00 Greenwich Mean Time and repeated the next day (Wednesday, March 28) at 02.30 a.m. GMT and Thursday, March 29, at 19.30 GMT. We do not know whether a recording has been preserved. Most likely, as with an enormous number of his BBC recorded programs, it had a shelf life and after that had expired, it would have been destroyed. The only evidence of it, therefore, is the entry in the “program as broadcast” file for General Overseas Service.1


Appendix D Articles





French Horn Playing

By Dennis Brain

The Conductor 3, issue 10 (October 1954): 3, 8.

The Quarterly Journal of the National Association of Brass Band Conductors1

Dennis Brain, at the age of thirty-three, stands at the head of his profession. French horn playing and his name are almost synonymous. Son of Aubrey Brain, also a famous horn player,

Dennis has been the principal soloist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra since 1946. He has played concertos in Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and U.S.A. and has recorded most major works for the horn. A number of works has been specially written for him, notably those by Benjamin Britten, Hindemith and Gordon Jacob. He has also been awarded the coveted Cobbett medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

Bandsmen will gratefully recall his wonderful playing at the concert following the “Daily

Herald” Contest at the Empress Hall in 1952 when he was accorded a tremendous ovation by the crowded audience.—Ed.

To write an article for a Brass Band Journal on an instrument which does not appear in a Brass


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