Dennis Brain: A Life in Music

Dennis Brain: A Life in Music

by Stephen J. Gamble, William C. Lynch

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews


“Since a great deal of new material has been found by the authors, it is exciting for horn players to anticipate the publication of this book.”—William Scharnberg, Regents Professor of Horn, University of North Texas

— Scharnberg

From the Publisher

“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

“Since a great deal of new material has been found by the authors, it is exciting for horn players to anticipate the publication of this book.”--William Scharnberg, Regents Professor of Horn, University of North Texas

"Brain had a huge impact on horn playing and the perception of the horn as a solo instrument in the mid-20th century, and his tragic death at age 36 moved him immediately to icon status. . . . This book should be required reading for all hornists to understand the importance of Brain to our craft. Our heroes deserve at least this much, and this excellent book shows better than any other the depth and breadth of his impact on the musical world."--The Horn Call

"Even though the primary audience for this new biography is clearly horn players--both professional and amateur--it will also appeal to many classical music lovers and record colectors."--Cornucopia, a Publication of the New England Horn Society

"Composers such as Gordon Jacob, Malcolm Arnold, Matyas Seiber, York Bowen, Humphrey Searle, Benjamin Britten, and Paul Hindemith are some of the list of Brain admirers, writing horn concertos and chamber music for him. Francis Poulenc wrote 'Elegie" in memory of Dennis Brain. . . . This biography is an absolute must-read for anyone who loves the french horn."--Uijlenspieghel

Product Details

University of North Texas Press
Publication date:
North Texas Lives of Musician Series, #7
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

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Dennis Brain

A Life in Music

By Stephen Gamble, William C. Lynch

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Gamble and William C. Lynch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-307-6


The Early Years (1921–1939)

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.

Brain's parents met during the Denhof Opera Company's tour of 1913, and they were married in 1914. Dennis's brother, Leonard, who became an oboist, was born in 1915. Dennis was born in London on May 17, 1921. At that time, his father was third horn in the London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras.

One of the earliest photos of Brain, taken about 1924, is a charming picture that could not possibly show what a great musician he would be (Pl. 4). Next to him is Grandpa Basil Beeley, his mother's father, of whom we know only that his family included engineers who manufactured boilers at Stalybridge, Cheshire. Photographs from the 1920s show Brain on the beach with his family or in the shallows at Viking Bay, Broadstairs, Kent, a favorite holiday destination. (Pl. 5)

Roy Plomley, interviewing Brain in 1956, asked whether it was expected he would be a musician, to which Brain replied:

Yes, it seemed to be accepted in my family that, at a suitable age, I would take up the horn perhaps and become a horn player ... I started [piano] when I was about seven or eight; my mother was wise enough not to teach me the piano herself but sent me to the local piano teacher who was very good, and when I was about fourteen, my father thought, I suppose, that perhaps it was about time that I did something with the instrument and he tactfully came up to me one day and said, "I've found another instrument—would you like to see what you can do on it?" So I did and I've been going ever since.

Although a family anecdote tells of him picking up his father's horn and blowing a perfect note at the age of three, he didn't start playing the instrument seriously until (as he said) he was about fourteen. Aubrey believed that the horn should not be played until the permanent teeth had developed. As a treat, he allowed his son to blow his horn every Saturday morning so the boy's interest in the instrument would be sustained.

Early Education

From the age of seven, Brain received his education at Richmond Hill Preparatory School, where he also played the bugle in the school cadet band.

Violinist Sir Vivian Dunn, a colleague of Aubrey Brain in the BBC Symphony Orchestra who rode to rehearsals with him, recalled that, in about 1930, Aubrey would take his son to the rehearsals, which took place at a factory underneath old Waterloo Bridge. Dennis would have seen some of the world's greatest conductors with one of the world's most outstanding orchestras rehearsing the standard orchestral repertoire as well as many new works receiving first performances. What excellent training this must have been for him, observing his father leading the horn section!

After Richmond Hill, Brain attended St. Paul's School, London. He sang treble in the school choir (not as soloist) and took part in school concerts. His piano lessons were continued with the school's Director of Music, Henry Wilson, who also encouraged him to take up the organ. At one of the school's Music Society concerts on December 19, 1935, he performed the first movement of Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonata in G. Also at St. Paul's he became friends with his contemporary and later a composer, Peter Racine Fricker. The two maintained a long musical association throughout their careers. A photograph (Pl. 6) from his years at St. Paul's School shows Brain with his first horn in about 1936.

In the summer of 1936, after only three years at St. Paul's, Brain left the school and continued lessons with his father at home. He returned to St. Paul's for "old boy" concerts with his brother. For example, on December 21, 1937, with pianist Norman Tucker, Leonard and Dennis performed a trio for oboe, horn, and piano by Paul Rogers. On December 20, 1938, he visited again, but this time as an orchestral player in works by Boccherini, Bach, and Mozart. The second horn in the concert was Denis Mason, who was later to play third horn in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Academy Of Music

Brain studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where his father taught horn, from 1936 to 1939. In September 1936 he won a Stokes scholarship and began his studies in horn, piano, harmony, organ, composition, and conducting.

His piano studies were under the guidance of Max Pirani and harmony under Montague Phillips. Another student in 1936 was Douglas Moore, who had had the honor of playing the opening phrase of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel for the composer at the Royal Academy, shortly before Moore went to the BBC Symphony Orchestra as seventh horn. Aubrey told Moore, "I hope Dennis doesn't follow me into the BBC." He wanted his sons "distributed in other orchestras."

Brain played principal horn in 1937 in the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra (not an Academy orchestra), conducted by Ernest Read, a champion of music-making among young people. Clarinetist Jack Brymer recalled his first meeting with Brain during the interval of one of their evening concerts. Leonard Brain introduced them:

As we entered the band room, the fresh-faced lad with the shock of hair falling over his brow was amusing his friends by playing the first Strauss Horn Concerto finale at double speed. It was perfectly obvious that there was nothing he couldn't do with the horn, and that here was the world's greatest player of the next generation. He joined the orchestra the next week, and it was as if he had done it all before, so perfectly did he master the quite complicated works he had to sight-read.

King George VI was crowned in 1937. On May 21, the Academy's First Orchestra performed a special "Coronation Concert" at Queen's Hall. The personnel included the professors, leading their respective sections. The horn section comprised Aubrey and Dennis Brain, William Grant, James Kirby, and Douglas Moore.

Lessons With Aubrey Brain

At the Academy, Aubrey (Pl. 7) was determined to treat his son the same as other students. Flutist Gareth Morris later recalled Brain waiting for his regular lesson:

I should tell you that when Dennis was a student in the Academy, his father was his own professor, you see, and this was a very serious thing. Aubrey Brain considered his son to be just one of the students and that was it. He behaved as toughly as he would to anybody else. Not that it was necessary with Dennis because he wanted to play the horn more than anything. I remember often sitting with Dennis perhaps in the canteen and he'd keep looking at his watch, "It's my lesson, I mustn't be late." "Oh, must go." Up he'd go to his lesson.

Brain's actual horn lessons with his father during the Academy years may have taken place at home. Brain told Edwin Glick that his lessons at school consisted primarily of taking tea since his father gave him his lessons at home.

The precise details of these lessons are not known, although we can gather from the way Aubrey taught other students at the Academy that they would almost certainly have followed the same pattern. He used Oscar Franz's treatise, Grosse theoretisch-praktische Waldhorn-Schule (1880), which Douglas Moore remembered preparing from cover to cover. Aubrey also demonstrated horn technique, phrasing, and so on, in lessons. One student, Aileen Hunter (née Way), remembered that he would demonstrate the Mozart concertos and Strauss Concerto No. 1. In the Franz treatise, he was fond of the Gallay study on page 62, which, Aileen recalls, he played pianissimo and straight through in one breath—his breath control was legendary.

Moore recalled that Aubrey had a fantastic ability to demonstrate a piece. He would then listen to the student perform the work, such as the Strauss Concerto No. 1, all the way through without interruption. Finally, he would ask the student to play it again and comment on phrasing, intonation, and so on.

Donald Froud, a student in Aubrey's later years, recalled how Aubrey fought to preserve the "English" style of horn playing and inspired his pupils to prefer it to the prevalent "German" sound that was gaining popularity in British orchestras. Aubrey was more of a coach than a teacher, as he explained:

If you took some piece into a lesson, you came out of that lesson playing it better. He never attempted to teach technique. He used to say, "If you know in your head how you want this to sound and you strive to play it that way, the technique will follow, but you can practise technique all day long and yet never become a musician."

Aubrey's Academy students included many of the distinguished horn players who emerged as soloists or orchestral players in later years. Their success is testimony to the quality of his teaching. Froud remembered some of Aubrey's dictums, such as "You are the only person in the world who hears every note you play, so therefore you must be your own sternest critic." Going through the score of the Strauss Concerto No. 1 with Froud, Aubrey asked, "What is the most important note in this piece?" Donald pointed to the first high b-flat." Aubrey shook his head, "No—the most important note is always the one you are about to play next!"

Another student, Christopher Hortin, found Aubrey's teaching at the Academy inspiring and related the following account:

In lessons with Aubrey, I was always in such awe of him.... To get me to play phrases he would make up little ditties to the music, something that I found very useful when in course of time I had pupils of my own. He would sing the opening fanfare of the Strauss First Concerto to "Hark to me, I'm the horn...." He often said, "Look after the little notes, the big ones can look after themselves."

John Burden, another horn student, looked back on his Academy days and meeting Dennis Brain. They soon became friends, and Burden later recalled one particular weekend when Brain visited Tiverton in Devon, where Burden's father was vicar of one of the local parish churches. "It was good fun," he recalled, "but I shall never forget the interminable long notes!" Morris remembered Brain mentioning this visit while they were students at the Academy. Brain had found the atmosphere there with prayers at mealtimes austere. Although Burden's father wanted his son to be a clergyman, he recognized his talent for the horn and arranged for him to see the leading professor at that time, Aubrey Brain. Burden remembered playing Mendelssohn's Nocturne from A Midsummer Night's Dream at his first meeting with Aubrey at the Academy. He was accepted. Burden recalled Dennis's swift progress on the horn there:

He had only started playing for about one year so initially we were on the same level, but he soon shot ahead, though we did share the first horn seat at rehearsals and concerts. Sir Henry Wood [known as Timber] was the orchestral conductor and trainer. Dennis and I both did the conductor's course where Timber was the chief instructor with Ernest Read doing most of the course.

Other Academy Classes and Ensembles

Brain took the conductor's class with Ernest Read in December 1938. In addition to lessons with his father and (from September 1938) organ with G. D. Cunningham, Brain participated in chamber music with various combinations of other students. Concerts of chamber music at the Academy were under the supervision of Herbert Withers and, in addition to the traditional repertoire, students could perform their own compositions. One by Douglas Moore, Adagio in C minor for three horns and piano (manuscript lost) was given its first performance on May 3, 1937, and was mentioned briefly in Musical Times. Moore (Pl. 8) recalled many years later that when he suggested Brain play first horn, he replied "No, it's your composition!" William Grant played second and Brain played third—he was quite happy not to take the limelight.

The Academy had several student orchestras, including the First Orchestra, with various conductors, including Sir Henry Wood. Brain was usually the principal. The professors, including Aubrey Brain, watched the concerts and sometimes joined the students. Concerts took place in Duke's Hall or Queen's Hall.

The Academy staged an opera each year. In 1938, it was The Marriage of Figaro with Brain on first horn and Burden on second. Meanwhile, Burden had decided to develop his own conducting skills by forming a small chamber orchestra, the Burden Chamber Orchestra, mainly from students at the Academy. It started with only strings, but soon wind players were added to perform all twenty movements of Handel's Water Music and Bach's Suite in B minor. Brain was the organ soloist in one of Handel's concertos. Burden recalls that the orchestra personnel included Brain, principal horn, Burden, second, and Andrew McGavin, third. Leonard Brain was principal oboe, Gareth Morris principal flute, and Marjorie Lavers led the violin section. At the end of 1938, Brain had several musical awards to his credit, including the E. F. James Prize and the Ross Scholarship for wind players.

A flutist who was to become one of Brain's closest friends and colleagues, Gareth Morris, enrolled as a student in September 1938. Morris remembers Brain being pointed out to him in the student canteen and his being impressed to hear that this person was the son of the famous horn player. Morris had heard Brain's father in broadcasts of wind quintet music.

Dennis and Morris met when they played in a rehearsal of the Grieg Piano Concerto with Sir Henry Wood conducting the Academy's First Orchestra. A charming little flute solo in the concerto is echoed by the horn; a little later this exchange is repeated. The first time he played it, Morris was surprised to hear the horn imitate every nuance of his phrasing precisely. Intrigued, he subtly changed his phrasing of the solo on its next appearance. Again, the horn's mimicry was perfect. After the rehearsal, Morris went up to the platform where Brain was sitting with the horn players and said, "Hello! I think we've made friends!" Brain replied with a smile, "Yes, I think we have!" They were close friends from that day onwards.

Morris remembered Aubrey's character at this time, "I found him charming, a little shy, and not nearly as much fun as Dennis." He recalled the first days and weeks at the Academy, with a dictation teacher who played the rhythms incorrectly and thought his students incompetent when they wrote precisely what he played:

It was like a university—you made what you chose to make of it. I remember an amusing aural training class. Dennis and I were in it together. There was an old chap who did the aural classes and we had to write the dictation. He would say, "Now you boys, I am going to play this and you write it down. Now then, come along!" So Dennis and I wrote absolutely accurately, triple dots, and he said "Now then you boys are never going to get on if you don't learn to do things properly!"

Asked how he would characterize Brain's qualities as a horn player and musician, Morris commented:

There is something supremely beautiful about his playing—touching and also an aristocratic style which most of the others lack—if not all. I don't think he said, "I will play in this style." He chose an instrument upon which he could do his way of playing.

Brain's public debut with the Busch Chamber Players took place on October 6, 1938, at Queen's Hall. Brain's father had been asked to find a suitable second horn (Pl. 9) because his usual second, Francis Bradley, was not available. Aubrey took the risk of engaging his son. Lady Barbirolli, then Evelyn Rothwell, played the principal oboe part in the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and vividly recalled that concert. The Busch Chamber Players were "like a family," she said. Dennis played impeccably as second horn, as did Aubrey on first. Burden, who was in the audience, recalled, "It was great stuff!" The Daily Telegraph critic wrote:

In the F major concerto Aubrey Brain was in his accustomed place as first horn but he had a new partner, his 17-year old son, Dennis, whose first appearance this was—a Queen's Hall event of no little interest. 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.


Excerpted from Dennis Brain by Stephen Gamble, William C. Lynch. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Gamble and William C. Lynch. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

STEPHEN GAMBLE and WILLIAM LYNCH are both independent researchers who have been fascinated with Dennis Brain for decades. Lynch, an amateur horn player himself, is a semi-retired aerospace corporation executive with four U.S. patents to his name. Stephen Gamble is a British artist who started playing the horn in 2003.

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