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Dennis Brain: the British virtuoso who brought the French horn to prominence as a solo instrument

Dennis Brain inspired a generation of musicians and music fans alike. Andrew Green traces the meteoric rise and tragic end of the French horn virtuoso

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Dennis Brain dies instantly at 6am on Sunday 1 September, when his Triumph TR2 sports car leaves the road in wet weather, close to the de Havilland aircraft factory at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Brain had driven through the night after playing first horn with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival. His wife, Yvonne, and their three children were waiting for him at their Hampstead home.

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Why start this story at its tragic end? Because newspaper reaction indicated the extraordinary stature Brain had gained by the age of 36 through his playing of an instrument rarely associated (at the time) with anything near virtuosity, let alone his particular brand of astonishing musicianship. He was variously described as a ‘prodigy’, ‘world-famous’, ‘incomparable’ and a ‘priceless talent’. Brain’s obituary in The Times recalled that ‘…no technical difficulties appeared to cause him the slightest apprehension.’

Music-lover Alan Godfrey, who lives close to the crash site, remembers ‘the great shock of the news, but also my sense of the loss to the music world. I’d played the cornet in my youth and always identified Dennis Brain as the brass player par excellence. I worked on a building site, using my earnings to buy the “Decalian 88” record player on which I played his recordings, like the Richard Strauss concertos. He was the master.’

Myriad anecdotes bear out the effusions; none better than one involving Herbert von Karajan and his many appearances with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Brain’s technical perfection from the first horn desk so nonplussed the legendary maestro that when he finally heard a fluffed note in a rehearsal, he uttered a heartfelt ‘Thank God!’. Brain was human after all.

Brain’s famed recordings of the four Mozart horn concertos didn’t remain in the best-seller lists for two decades on the basis of dazzling dexterity alone. David Pyatt, the 1988 BBC Young Musician of the Year and now principal horn with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, increasingly returns to these and other Brain recordings for more than that. ‘I find the fluidity of his phrasing and the nuances more inspirational than ever,’ he says.

Dennis Brain’s early years

Dennis Brain was born in May 1921, into something of a horn-playing dynasty. His grandfather (Alfred Edwin), uncle (Alfred) and father (Aubrey) were all prominent exponents – Aubrey especially so. However, there was no rush to introduce the young Dennis to the instrument. His father insisted lips, teeth and facial muscles should first be well developed. Dennis’s mother (who as Marion Beeley enjoyed a short, promising career as a mezzo-soprano) arranged for him to have piano lessons at around the age of seven. His pianistic talent, which was immediately obvious, was carried to a high level of study at the Royal Academy of Music, where he also excelled as an organist and conductor. By then, though, Brain was majoring on the horn, having been accepted by the Royal Academy of Music at 15 (to study with his father). A remarkable achievement, given how recently he had started playing the instrument.

‘When I was about 14,’ he related on BBC radio’s Desert Island Discs, ‘my father very tactfully came up to me one day and said “I’ve found an old instrument. Would you like to see what you can do on it?” And so I did and I’ve been going ever since.’ Breezing through his studies, Brain made his professional orchestral debut at the age of 17, engaged to play second horn to his father’s first in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 under the distinguished conductor Adolf Busch. (Aubrey Brain had been brazen enough to put forward his son).

Brain’s extraordinary talent was quickly recognised. The clarinettist Jack Brymer recalled coming across this ‘fresh-faced lad’ in an orchestra changing room ‘amusing his friends by playing the [rapid-fire] first Strauss Horn Concerto finale at double speed. It was perfectly obvious that here was the world’s greatest player of the next generation.’ Soon, Brain was broadcasting in both chamber, orchestral and concerto works. An early BBC outing had him playing part of a Mozart concerto ‘with staggering technique and style’ according to the flautist Gerald Jackson, who was playing on that occasion.

The coming of the Second World War might have stalled this blossoming career. In fact, it opened the gateway to national recognition. On joining the RAF, Brain was soon attached to its Central Band, whose conductor was determined to make serious music (played by professionals) a morale-boosting offer for service and civilian audiences nationwide. As part of that project, the RAF Symphony Orchestra was founded, with Brain as principal horn.

Dennis Brain’s great recordings and performances

Practice and performing schedules allowed free time for the musicians to take on outside engagements, offers regularly coming through on the phone to Beryl, proprietress of a restaurant favoured by players. Brain appeared no fewer than 26 times at Myra Hess’s famous National Gallery concerts. There were plentiful broadcasts and commercial recordings on offer; even opportunities to play his beloved jazz.

Listen to the enchanting June 1943 Columbia recording of Beethoven’s Sonata for Horn and Piano, which Brain and Denis Matthews recorded in uniform. Matthews noted his partner effortlessly embraced the particular demands of chamber music. ‘Somehow he had that rare instinctive musicianship and flexibility of phrase, which always adapted to the musical environment of the moment.’

In late 1944, the RAF Symphony Orchestra travelled to the US for a demanding tour. Brain’s playing constantly caught the ear. At a Los Angeles party, proficient local horn players lined up to try to get a note out of his favoured early 19th-century instrument, without success. Brain then tossed off Rimsky-Korsakov’s fiendishly helter-skelter Flight of the Bumblebee as if it were ‘Happy Birthday’.

Unquestionably, the great artistic outcome of the war for Brain was the masterpiece written for him and Peter Pears by Benjamin Britten: the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. This abundantly reflects Britten’s determination to learn and showcase all the facets of Brain’s prodigious ability. The haunting 1944 Brain/Pears/Britten recording of the work should be listened to knowing that, as with all Brain’s recordings, re-takes for reasons of technical failings on his part would have been all but unimaginable.

Given that dizzying schedule of wartime music-making, it was a wonder Brain found pause enough to marry Yvonne, a talented pianist. Family life was to prove the bedrock to his even more frantic peacetime career. How on earth to do it justice in a few words? Firstly, huge amounts of orchestral work, most notably with the new, elite Philharmonia Orchestra and Thomas Beecham’s fledgling Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Part of the fun of tracing Brain’s recording career is to home in on repertoire in which he makes significant contributions from within an orchestra. Here, the haunting end to Berlioz’s Royal Hunt and Storm music from The Trojans; there, the ravishing horn embellishments to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Per pietà from Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

We named Così fan tutte as one of Mozart’s greatest ever operas

Concerto engagements took Brain around the UK and abroad. Trombonist Denis Wick recalls being in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1950s on one such occasion: ‘Dennis’s performance was simply perfection – everything about it. The audience gave him an ovation – there was a curiosity value about him as a virtuoso horn-player, given that the standard of much orchestral playing on the instrument was very poor.’

There was a substantial amount of wind ensemble work at home and occasionally abroad, notably involving the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble, plus the mountain of broadcasts and regular commercial recordings. And not forgetting his cameo appearance in one of the famous comic concerts wizarded up by Gerard Hoffnung, in which Brain played a hosepipe with dead-pan aplomb. A conducting career also flourished.

The legacy of Dennis Brain

For horn players of today, the Brain legacy is enshrined firstly in his recordings. Leading horn virtuoso Frank Lloyd grew up with them. ‘I still recall how he played certain passages and try to emulate them in my own performances.’ Equally, horn players will forever remain grateful for the new repertoire Brain both inspired and commissioned. ‘Without Dennis,’ observes Pyatt, ‘there would be no Britten Serenade, no concertos by Paul Hindemith, Malcolm Arnold, Elisabeth Lutyens, Gordon Jacob, York Bowen… the list goes on and on.’

Dennis Brain’s love of sports cars

Brain’s passion away from the concert platform was cars. Fast cars. Conductors became used to the idea that during rehearsals he could be engrossed in the motoring magazine on his music stand yet ready for any horn entry. He owned a range of sporty numbers over the years and shared the interest with Herbert von Karajan, who duly allowed Brain to drive his flashy Mercedes 300SL.

The drive south through the night after that Edinburgh Festival concert was something that Brain did all the time. In the Desert Island Discs broadcast he mentioned that motoring back from engagements was ‘usually quicker and more practical than public transport’. And so the worst happened. Wick heard about Brain’s death during an orchestral rehearsal. ‘Everyone was absolutely horrified. It gave you a strange sense that the world had crumbled a bit.’

How did Dennis Brain die?

The cause of Dennis Brain’s fatal car accident was never decisively established. At the inquest, Brain’s oboist brother Leonard reiterated the view of many that Dennis was an immensely gifted driver, and not one to take risks. Brain’s 1950s German-made horn, a relic from the crash site, is on display at the Royal Academy of Music, having been restored after suffering severe damage. In Hatfield, a street – Brain Close, near Old French Horn Lane – is the great virtuoso’s memorial.

Dennis Brain’s influence on French horn players

Dennis Brain re-set the bench-marks for the instrument, says horn player Frank Lloyd. ‘His clarity and pureness of sound, together with innate musicianship and virtuosity made him the true master he was, revered the world over.’

‘What remain rare are players for whom technique is not a means in itself, but a way of expressing music,’ adds Pyatt; ‘Dennis played rather as he spoke: with humour, gentle authority and, above all, modesty.’

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The Brain family horn-playing tradition has been sustained by Dennis’s niece, Tina Brain. She, too, studied at the Royal Academy of Music, going on to play for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, followed by various orchestras in Australia, where she now lives. These days ‘teaching 60 students to be passionate about their horn playing’ is at the heart of her professional life. ‘All of them listen to Dennis’s recordings,’ she says. ‘They’re still the ones to go to. Impeccable phrasing and superb musicality.