Dennis Brain: British Horn Player May 01 2021

The middle decades of the twentieth century saw some tragic premature losses to Dennis Brain - British Horn PlayerBritish music-making: contralto Kathleen Ferrier at only 41, flautist Laurie Kennedy at just 24, and perhaps the most famous of French horn soloists, Dennis Brain.


The Family

Dennis Brain was born into a dynasty of French horn players - his grandfather, Alfred Edwin, was one of "God's Own Quartet" (known as such because of their extraordinary blend) in the original horn section lineup of the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he was a founding member in 1904. Known as "George IV", as he preferred to play fourth horn, Alfred had been born in Chiswick in West London in 1860, and had joined the Scots Guards at the age of 12, learning his trade in the band. During his career, he held seats in the Queen's Hall Orchestra, the Philharmonic Society, and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, not to mention playing at many of the early Promenade concerts, under Sir Henry Wood.

He had seven children, two of whom would go on to become great horn players in their own right - Alfred, and Aubrey.

Alfred Jr. studied at the Royal Academy of Music with another of God's Own Quartet, Adolf Borsdorf, and he went on to play in the Scottish Orchestra after graduation. Later, he was principal horn in the Queen's Hall Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra. Decorated in World War I for bravery, he played under Beecham in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and inadvertently stopped his brother Aubrey getting jobs when he returned from the war later. He emigrated to the US, taking horn positions in the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in later life, recording a great deal for the silver screen, including for 20th Century Fox.

Aubrey Brain on the other hand went to the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, taking a seat as principal horn of the New Symphony Orchestra whilst still studying, and touring the US the year after graduating with the LSO under Nikisch. On his return, he joined the orchestra of Beecham's opera company. Also a student of Borsdorf, he succeeded his teacher as professor of horn at the Royal Academy of Music in 1923.

His son, Dennis, was one of his students.


Dennis Brain the player

Born in 1921 in London, Dennis didn't just have an impressive pedigree of horn players in the family - his mother, Marion Beeley, was a noted contralto, appearing in Ring Cycles at the Bristol Festival in 1912, in the roles of First Norn, Flosshilde, and Waltraute. Elgar himself was so taken with her singing that he wrote "Hail Immemorial Ind!" in his opera The Crown of India for her. 

From a very early age, Dennis was allowed by his father to blow a few notes on his horn every Saturday morning. He believed that brass instruments should be left until the mid to late teens at least, when teeth and embouchure are fully formed. Educated at St. Paul's School, Dennis transferred to the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 15 to study the horn with his father. He also studied the piano under Max Pirani, and the organ under G. D. Cunningham - he was such a proficient player, he would also occasionally perform professional in public on these.

Brain's professional debut was playing second horn to his father in the Queen's Hall with the Busch Chamber Players in October 1938. The program included Bach's first Brandenburg Concerto. He made his first recording the following year, Mozart's Divertimento in D Major K. 334, again playing second horn to his father.

Dennis Brain autograph

When war broke out in 1939, the Brain brothers - Dennis, and oboist Leonard - joined the Royal Air Force. At that point, Brain was first horn in the National Symphony Orchestra. He and his brother both joined the RAF Central Band, and on the formation of the RAF Symphony Orchestra, Brain joined this too, going on a goodwill tour of the United States. Perhaps inevitably, attempts were made to headhunt Dennis for various ensembles for after the war, including by Leopold Stokowski for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

His solo career was truly set in motion in 1943 through the composition of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, written for Brain, and for Britten's partner, Peter Pears. Britten had been inspired by the player's abilities on one of the An American in England broadcasts to the US, for which he had been the composer.

After the war, Dennis Brain rapidly became the most sought-after horn player in England, something which coincided with his father suffering a fall and taking semi-retirement due to losing most of his stamina as a player. Brain played in Beecham and Walter Legge's new Philharmonia orchestra, and also the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, later resigning his position in the latter due to overcommitting himself. Throughout the war, Legge had kept his keen ear on who the best players were - Brain and his RAF colleagues had participated in Dame Myra Hess's National Gallery Concerts, and the same players were cropping up in ensembles such as Karl Hass's London Baroque ensemble, and the New London Orchestra. Most of the wind players in the Philharmonia were ex-services. When Karajan rehearsed the Philharmonia, and experienced Brain's playing, he apparently put his baton down and murmured "thank God".

Having a keen interest in chamber music, he formed a wind quintet with his brother in 1946. The core of the group expanded to become the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble to explore repertoire, and toured Europe. He also joined the flautist Geoffrey Gilbert's Wigmore Ensemble in 1948. His other chamber trio, with pianist Wilfred Parry and violinist Jean Pougnet, was due to tour Australia in late 1957. It wasn't to be.

Brain also formed a chamber ensemble of his friends and colleagues so that he could explore repertoire as a conductor as well as an instrumentalist. Towards the end of his life, it appeared that this was the direction that his musical ambitions would take him, and that he would play the horn less.


Dennis Brain the teacher

Dennis was - as his father, uncle and grandfather had been -

Dennis Brain horn on exhibit at the Royal Academy of Music

very particular about what he played upon. In his early career, he played a Raoux single-F horn, moving to an Alexander single-B flat horn later on. He also experimented with other instruments including a five-valve horn.

He developed a series of lectures and demonstrations on subjects such as "Talking about the Instrument: The Horn", and "The Early Horn" for the BBC, and also published articles on "French Horn Playing" and "About the French Horn" in various journals.

Shown here is Dennis Brain´s horn, on exhibit at the Royal Academy of Music.

As a teacher, Dennis Brain was a natural player. This tended to mean that his tuition was along the "copy what I do" lines rather than having technical insight into how to solve students' playing problems, or being able to explain exactly how he did things.



During August 1957, Dennis Brain was engaged for some concerts at the Edinburgh Festival, including as a soloist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and for a chamber concert with the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble (although the main event that year could be argued to have been Callas starring in Sonnambula).

Brain kept an extremely busy schedule (so much so that he once famously popped out in the interval of a concert in which he was the soloist to give a half hour recital for the BBC!), and loved cars - so much so that he was well-known for keeping copies of car magazines on his music stand during rehearsals, even when he was the soloist.

He shared his love of cars with Karajan, and was once delighted that the conductor allowed him to drive his Mercedes 300SL.

He would often drive himself from one engagement to another. On his way back to London from Edinburgh in the early hours of Sunday 1st September 1957, he crashed his car and was killed just outside Hatfield, just north of London. His TR2 skidded off the road and hit an oak. The inquest was inconclusive - a combination of heavy rain, reduced visibility, lack of sleep and Brain's addiction to driving just a little too fast were no doubt a lethal combination. He left a wife, Yvonne, and two children.

His horn, a single-B flat Alexander 103, was badly damaged. Retrieved from the wreckage of the car, it was restored by Paxmans, and for many years stood in the window of their Covent Garden shop.


The repertoire, the recordings, and the legacy

In addition to Britten's Serenade, Brain's artistry inspired many composers to

Dennis Brain - A Recording

write for him. Malcolm Arnold wrote his second Horn Concerto for him, and concertos were also forthcoming from Hindemith, York Bowen (a work for horn, strings and timpani), Gordon Jacob (Concerto for Horn and String orchestra), and other chamber works from Peter Racine Fricker, Matyas Seiber, Humphrey Searle, Ernest Tomlinson, Lennox Berkeley, and Elisabeth Lutyens.

He was also responsible for the revival in popularity of existing repertoire. His collaboration with Karajan on the four Mozart horn concerti has never been out of print, and his additional skills as a composer are in evidence from the cadenzas. He was also responsible for establishing the Strauss horn concerti in the popular repertoire, being the second player to perform the Horn Concerto No. 2 in public in 1948. He was also the first player in the modern era to perform Haydn's Horn Concerto No.1, in 1951.

Perhaps his most bizarre impact on popular culture was performing a Leopold Mozart concerto on rubber hosepipe at a Hoffnung music festival in 1956. He was also the inspiration for Flanders & Swann's popular song Ill Wind.

There are, of course, many orchestral recordings with Brain playing principal horn, not least the premiere recording of Strauss' Vier letzte lieder, with Flagstad at the Royal Albert Hall on 22nd May 1950, with the Philharmonia under Furtwangler. The performance was recorded on acetate discs.

Described by Beecham as "the Siegfried of the horn", Brain's playing of the hero's horn-call can be heard on an HMV 1947 recording demonstrating the instruments of the orchestra. In the 1950's, Brain got to 'play the hero' for real, in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden's Ring Cycle over three successive seasons.

Finally, the Brain family legacy didn't end with Dennis; his niece, Tina, studied the horn with Derek Taylor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who had himself studied with Tina's grandfather, Aubrey. Since moving to Australia in 2001, she has played with orchestras including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, and various ensembles around the Sydney area. She currently teaches.

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