To celebrate, to commemorate: Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain, perhaps the greatest horn player of the 20thcentury, would have celebrated his 100th birthday back in May. Sadly and tragically, he died in a car accident on 1st September 1957 at the age of only 36 travelling back from a concert in Edinburgh. Benjamin Britten, in his tribute to Brain published in Tempo writes of “a musical gap which can never be filled. [The accident] has robbed us of an artist with the unique combination of a superb technical command of his instrument, great musicianship, a lively and intelligent interest in music of all sorts, and a fine performing temperament, coupled with a charming personality.”

Brain came from a family of distinguished horn players. His grandfather, two uncles and his father Aubrey were all eminent exponents on the instrument and came to be known affectionately in the profession as the “Brain Trust” (ho, ho): it was perhaps inevitable that Dennis Brain should continue the family tradition. Let’s begin our little tribute with Brain in full flight with one of the showpieces of the horn repertoire, the Villanelle by Paul Dukas. Pacing, phrasing, perfect intonation and sheer panache right up to that final insouciant flourish are all on display.

So what is it about the horn that makes it – allegedly – such a potentially fickle mistress? It’s all about the relationship between the harmonic series, the part within it in which the horn is generally played (usually at the higher end, where the notes are perilously close together) and the embouchure of the player.

The what?  

The embouchure – the way in which the lips are pursed to produce the sound combined with the overall shape of the mouth.  The higher the note, the greater the finesse required in the embouchure to avoid hitting entirely the wrong note. Dennis Brain, the horn fraternity agrees, had the perfect embouchure, which gave him such mastery over what can be a demanding instrument. Couple that with his legendary breath control and it is probably fair to say that it was Brain who showed the musical world that – with the right technique – all those frightening orchestral horn solos were nothing of the kind and so set the standard for the future. Split notes in that terrifying opening to the Brahms Second Piano Concerto? Pah, nonsense…

One of the most striking demonstrations of just what can be done on the instrument is Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings which was written for Brain and Peter Pears. The famous opening solo passage uses only the notes of the harmonic series and thus might, to the unsuspecting at early performances, have sounded “out of tune”. Indeed, Britten had to make it clear that that was what he intended! Brain and Britten met during the war when Brain was a member of the RAF Central Band and its sister Symphony Orchestra. In 1942, Britten had been commissioned to compose incidental music to accompany a series of commentaries on life in Britain which were to be broadcast to America. The music was played by the RAF Orchestra conducted by the composer. Here is Brain with Pears in the Serenade, which was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 15 October 1943, but with Walter Goehr, rather than Britten himself, conducting:

Britten was not the only composer to respond to Brain’s obvious musicianship and command of his instrument. Malcolm ArnoldPaul HindemithYork Bowen and Gordon Jacob all wrote concertos for him. 

With his reputation firmly established, after the War Brain became Principal Horn in both the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia, juggling these posts with any number of solo and chamber engagements and often with his own wind quintet and piano trio. A busy life led at breakneck pace.

No tribute to Brain could be complete without reference to Mozart, so here he is with Karajan in the second of the Concertos. Listen to the assurance, fluidity and deep sensitivity with which Brain plays, each phrase delicately shaped and thought through. I wonder what Mozart would have thought though – the sound so very different from the natural horn which he had to write for. 

Schubert did his bit for the horn as well and the performance of Auf dem Strom Brain took part in at a concert in April 1954 once again displayed his gifts in what Stephen Pettit, in his biography of Brian, describes as his “unique and inspired musicianship”.  The concert was a replica of Schubert’s only public appearance from 26 March 1828. In this performance it was the tenor Richard Lewis accompanied by Ernest Lush with Brain. Enjoy!

And of course another “must-have” in any self-respecting horn player’s repertoire were the two Strauss concertos. A world away from Mozart of course, but even more demanding of the instrument, putting it and the player thoroughly through their paces. Here is Strauss no. 1 with the Philharmonia from 1947. Once again Brain excels, his lyricism and perfect phrasing is overwhelming, the rapid passages at the end of the work note-perfect. And, of course, Strauss knew a thing or two about horn playing, his father Franz was principal horn in the Court Opera at Munich.

Cars were a passion of Brain’s (he would often sit reading a motoring magazine during orchestral rehearsals…) and many attest to his skill and seriousness behind the wheel. Tragically, it was this passion which proved his undoing as he was killed driving back from a performance in Edinburgh. An immeasurable loss to the profession at far too young an age, but what a wonderful legacy he has left in his recordings. Water Legge (founder of the Philharmonia Orchestra) encapsulated the essence of his playing in his heartfelt obituary published in the Gramophone of November 1957:

He was innately musical in a way which defies description or analysis. He shaped phrases with an instinctive rightness that seemed inevitable. Technical problems did not exist for him. He had tamed the most notoriously intractable of all instruments to be his obedient servant and raised it again to sing the song the sirens sang. Over his instrument’s whole range he had a mastery of intonation, of legato, of staccato, of dynamic range and, above all, of expressiveness that no other horn player has matched. But neither the listing of his qualities nor their sum explains the essential quality of his magic. That all these attributes should be embodied in one young man was miracle enough. But there was a still greater magic – the personality of his tone. An unmistakable, immediately recognisable, personal tone is an attribute shared by the few great instrumentalists and singers of every generation. In Dennis Brain’s case its sunny radiance was the outward manifestation of a warm and serene nature. His sound was balm to the ears, to the mind and to the spirit. 

…Deeply though I grieve his death, as a friend, as an artist, and as a matchless jewel in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s crown, I cannot recall his art without smiling. Smiling at the impudent confidence of his mastery of his instrument, with anticipatory pleasure at the unconcerned and seraphic ease with which we knew beforehand he would play the notorious deathtraps in the whole symphonic literature, smiling in admiration and in gratitude for the joy of hearing such playing.

Let’s end with Brain’s favourite little encore: Marin Marais’ “Le Basque” from his 1717 Pièces de viole, Livre IV (No.39) – not of course, originally written for the instrument. And who can blame him for wanting to show off a little! Delightful, and if you aren’t smiling by the end I’d like to know why.


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