Dennis Brain
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Dennis Brain (1921-1957)

From Horn Call April, 1991 Vol. XXI No.2 by Michael Meckna

The horn players who picked up where Giovanni Punto left off 150 years previously, restored the four Mozart and two Strauss concertos to the repertory, inspired Hindemith, Britten, and others to write for his instrument, and set the standard for twentieth-century horn soloists accomplished his life work by age thirty-six. We can only speculate about what Dennis Brain might have accomplished had he lived the Biblical allotment of four score and ten years. However, his sterling example is immortal, and a look at this legacy is most appropriate in what would have been the 70th year of his life.

Dennis Brain was born on May 17, 1921, into a London horn-playing family. Both his father, Aubrey Brain, and uncle, Alfred, Jr., played professionally, as did their father, Alfred, Sr. However, it was not inevitable that young Dennis would take up the horn. His older brother, Leonard, eventually became an oboist after beginning a career in chemistry. Dennis showed an interest in his father's instrument from the age of three, but was allowed to play a few notes only on Saturday mornings as a treat. Aubrey believed that students should not take up the horn seriously until their teen years, when teeth and embouchure were fully developed.

Therefore, Dennis's first formal music study was on the piano and later on the organ. In 1936 he left St. Paul's School for the Royal Academy of Music where he studied with his father. Any hint of nepotism must have been erased by Dennis's having won the prestigious Stokes scholarship in open competition. The young hornist also earnestly continued his keyboard studies, piano with Max Pirani, and organ with the renowed G.D. Cunningham. Dennis made his debut on October 6, 1938, when he and his fahter played the First Brandenburg Concerto with the Busch Chamber Players in Queen's Hall. The event caused much favorable comment, including the following from the Daily Telegraph: "The famous family keeps up its traditions in the representative of the new generation. Son seconded father with a smoothness and certainty worthy of his name."

During World War II, Brain joined the Royal Air Force Central Band as principal horn. In his smart blue uniform he played concertos throughout Britain, winning immediate success and popularity. A goodwill tour of America brought him an invitation from Stokowski to join the Philadelphia Orchestra after the war, but this was just one of many invitations Brain received when that event took place. Although he eventually took the job of principal horn of the Royal Philharmonic and later principal of the elite Philharmonia Orchestra, he was the most sought-after hornist for chamber music and soloist with orchestra everywhere. He began making a series of now classic recordings of concertos by Mozart, Strauss and Hindemith, as well as numerous chamber works and recital pieces. Seeking new challenges, he began giving concerts in which he both played and conducted, and he founded a wind quintet which quickly won fame. This quintet performed at the Edinburgh Festival on September 1, 1957, and just after, while driving back to London, Brain was killed in a car accident.

Benjamin Britten has written of that fateful night that " has robbed us of an artist with the unique combination of superb technical command of his instrument, gerat musicianship, a lively and intelligent interest in music of all sorts, and a fine performing temperament, coupled with charming personality." Nevertheless, we do have a legacy of solo recordings, even if it is a slender one. There are the Mozart, Strauss, and Hindemith concertos, the Britten Serenade, and a handful of recital pieces. (Columbia was to have Brain record the Haydn Concertos and the Brahms Trio during the winter of 1957-58.) The parts he contributed to chamber and orchestral works complete the picture, along with a film of him and Denis Matthews playing the Beethoven Horn Sonata, op. 17.

Brain approaches Beethoven's classic work with his usual firm, round tone,delicacy of execution, and subtle phrasing. By the modern standards of Hermann Baumann, Alan Civil, and Barry Tuckwell, Brain seems almost too delicate, until one bears in mind that Beethoven intended the work as a sonata for horn and piano. That is to say, the two instruments should be equal partners, and Brain must have aimed for this effect. His sound is smaller than Baumann's, less agressive than Civil's, and suaver than Tuckwell's, and he never dominates the piano. (In fairness it must be said that the alternate interpretation is also valid, portraying the horn as a solitary outsider, a hunter from the woods, who has only just bathed and shaved and begun to learn the sort of conversation-among-equals which the sonatas of Beethoven's early period generally reflect.)

Brain's Mozart concertos show a similar style. There is the same blend of assurance and taste that has made him inimitable, and even though recorded during pre-stereo days, the sound is full and rich. Barry Tuckwell's interpretation may have more coloratura style, and Alan Civil's may sound more dashing, but no one has ever matched Brain's smooth tone, clean articulation, and distinctive phrasing. Brain also had a fine talent for composition, as evidenced by the cadenzas to the fist movements of the third and fourth concertos.

Not the least of Brain's achievements was to have inspired additions to the horn literature. Along with Britten and Hindemith, Malcom Arnold, York Bowen, G. Bryan, Peter Racine Fricker, Gordon Jacob, Elisabeth Lutyens, and others wrote music for this musician who seemed to be able to play anything. Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings (1943), a composition which did much to establish both musician's fame, is a splendid example of the kind of composer-performer collaboration which continually animates music. Britten once recalled that Brain's help was invaluable in writing the work and that some of his "happiest musical experiences were conducting [it] for him and Peter Pears-a succession of wonderful performances progressing from the youthful exuberances and brilliance of the early days to the maturity and deep understanding of the last few years." Indeed, so successful was the Serenade that ten years later Britten wrote a second piece for Brain, again with tenor but this time with piano accompaniment. This is the elegiac Canticle, written to a tragic poem by Edith Sitwell, and Brain set the standard for its performance with his playing of the dark opening, slithering chromatic scales, and thunderous low notes. On final work, now a classic, can be added to this distingished list: Poulenc's Elegy. Dedicated to Brain's memory, the piece was premiered exactly a year after his death by Neill Scanders with the composer at the piano.

At the beginning of his career Brain played on a Raoux French horn, a twin of his father's, but in 1951 he changed to a German Alexander to get a more robust sound. This switch from a French to a German horn was a sign of the times. Also a sign of the times was that a brass instrumentalist in general and a horn player in particular could take a place in the solo spotlight. While Aubrey Brain demonstrated that a horn need not make a sound plagued with bubbles and cracks, his son showed that it could be an unforgettably beautiful solo instrument. He established performance standards by which players are still measured. Eugene Ormandy spoke for countless admirers when he said,"Dennis Brain had no peer."


  • Britten, Benjamin. "Dennis Brain (1921-1957)." Tempo 46 (Winter 1958, pp. 5-6.)
  • Del Mar, Norman. "Dennis Brain." Gramophone Record Review 60 (1958), pp. 951-3 [with discography by Clough and Cuming].
  • Hernon, Michael. French Horn Discography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.
  • Pettitt, Stephen. Dennis Brain: a Biography. London: Robert Hale, 1976.
  • Rutland, harold."[Dennis Brain Obituary]." The Musical Times 98 (October 1957), p. 571.


A Seventieth-Birthday Tribute

From Horn Call October, 1991, Vol. XXII No. 1. by John C. Dressler

I. Dennis as a hornist

  • no one has ever played more sensitively and with such musical phrasing and melancholy
  • the embodiment of correct horn-playing and fundamentally
  • no matter what brand of horn he played, it sounded great
  • his use of air, phrasing and overall musical integrity made him without equal
  • there were and are many technically great horn players, but his taste gave him an edge
  • he was superb; no one has ever surpassed him; everything he played seemed to be easy
  • one of the extraordinary hornists of our time; his technique was the finest and cleanest of anyone of his era.
  • I heard Dennis live only one: Thomas Beecham was conducting an early 1950's U.S. tour' Dennis sounded a bit like across between a fine cornet and a trombone, but incredibly accurate
  • no one could make a better soft high entrance

II. Dennis as a recording artist

  • Dennis was the first horn soloist to have a significant body of works commercially available in the U.S. facilitating the study of major literature by other hornists as a style, phrasing and other pararmeters of his flawless technique; I wish the recording industry at that time had advanced further in terms of accurately recording and reproducing live sound
  • after listening to at least two dozen recordings of the Mozart concerti, I always turn to the Dennis Brain recordings as the eptiome of the very highest of Mozart and Strauss concerti albums, and I wanted my horn to sound just like his.
  • a legendary artist who has had the greatest effect in the musical world since Giovanni Punto; a very meticulous musician
  • those who knew his playing through his recordings were constantly trying to attain his perfection; may those almost 40-year old recordings be reissued forever
  • as a student, I was so taken by his Villanelle recording; as a teacher, I have observed that many young players may own only one horn recording, but it is a Dennis Brain recording
  • all of my students are required to hear Brain's Mozart recordings; this is the greatest example of what horn playing is all about
  • although his recordings have been around so long, my appreciation for them is renewed every time I see the delight of a young student who has just discovered him; I still feel the thrill of discovering orchestral recordings such as the little solo at the end of the second of Strauss's Four Last Songs
  • the first solo horn recording I ever heard was a Columbia 10-inch LP (catalog number ML 2088 recorded in 1950) of Dennis with Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia performing Mozart's second horn concerto and Dennis with the Hall?Orchestra performing Mozart's fourth horn concerto; I had just taken up the horn after switching from cornet, and that recording inspired me to practice

III. Dennis as a person

  • dignified
  • mannerly
  • happy and congenial
  • humorous
  • humble about his talents
  • well-dressed
  • articulate
  • fine gentleman without pretension
  • friendly to all
  • respectful of other people, their ideas and their preformance styles even if they were contrary to his own

IV. Dennis as a colleague

  • he brought our entire profession up several notches until we all were (and continue to be) very proud of our profession
  • Dennis was truly a colleague of the horn world and the music world in general; he was one of the very best ambassadors for our profession; when he toured with the London Symphony he always took time to visit with other hornists and musicians

V. Dennis as a role model

  • he is why I wanted to play the horn; he is still my role model
  • the horn playing of Dennis Brain became the standard against which the efforts of everyone else who followed (both great and not so great) has been judged; like with Mozart, everyone speculates "what would he have done if he lived another 36 years?"; all we do know is he will always be an inspiration to horn players
  • we feel fortunate to have had Alfred Brain (Dennis's uncle here in Los Angeles; he was first horn in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and first horn at Twentieth Century Fox studios; much of his influence filtered down through his students and then to my generations; it is through Alfred that I also feel a special affinity to Dennis
  • to me, Dennis is the perfect role model for the Classic literature of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; his style and accuracy blended with woodwinds without destroying them; everything about his horn playing was to be admired and copied
  • it's hard to imagine what our repertoire would like if Dennis Brain had never been, and I'd like to think that we pay tribute to his great contribution to the art every time we perform one of the many works written for or dedicated to him
  • we all tried but never quite succeeded in emulating his technique, musicianship and remarkable accuracy


An Enthusiasm for Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain Discography

A Postcard from Dennis Brain

Biography at IHS

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