Dennis Brain – the Siegfried of the Horn

Dennis Brain, the much-loved horn player who died tragically in a motor accident 60 years ago on the morning of 1 September 1957, was a shining example of a quiet, unassuming but supremely gifted musician in a field populated by colourful characters many of whom lacked his modesty, reserve and gentle wit. In his all too brief career, he popularised the horn as a solo instrument to an adoring public, he had composers queuing up to write pieces to cater for his extraordinary talents and he left behind a series of recordings, many of which are considered benchmark performances.

Dennis Brain was born into a musical family on 17 May 1921 in London. His father Aubrey was a noted teacher and horn player (later principal horn with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), his mother a contralto who sang at Covent Garden. The musical talents extended to his grandfather and his uncle (also successful horn players) and his older brother Leonard who played the oboe and cor-anglais.

Showing his talents from an early age, Brain won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in 1936 where he studied horn (with his father), piano, harmony, organ, composition, and conducting. His rapid progress was such that he made his first professional appearance in 1938 playing second horn under his father for a performance of Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto with the Busch Chamber Players. His first recordings were made in the following year including one with his father and the Léner Quartet playing Mozart’s Divertimento in D for two horns and string quartet.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Brain enlisted with the Royal Air Force along with his brother Leonard and for several years they played with the RAF Central Band and the RAF Symphony Orchestra, making a two-week goodwill tour of the United States in 1944. His duties allowed him to play with other ensembles such as the London Wind Players and the National Symphony Orchestra and he was a frequent performer at Myra Hess’s lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery.

Following the end of the war, and with his career taking off, he was appointed principal horn of two newly formed orchestras – the Philharmonia Orchestra the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – positions he held simultaneously. He ran a hectic schedule; along with the numerous performances and recordings with the two orchestras and solo appearances, he found time to tour at home and abroad with the wind quintet had had formed with his brother. And at the time of his death, he was not only the most sought-after horn player in the world but one of the best-known through his radio broadcasts.

Dennis Brain

Was anything like such horn-playing known a generation ago?” wrote one reviewer of his playing in 1946. For Thomas Beecham, Brain was simply ‘The Siegfried of the Horn’, to the legendary producer Walter Legge his playing was “balm to the ears, to the mind and to the spirit”.

By any yardstick, Brain’s technique was exceptional; with an unparalleled mastery of phrasing, intonation, range he could navigate technical difficulties with a disarming serenity and grace. So faultless was his playing that when he did once fluff a note during a recording session, Herbert von Karajan is reported to have lowered his baton and said “Thank God!”

Brain’s matchless playing inspired composers to write new works for the instrument. Britten’s sublime Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) resulted from Brain’s playing in the RAF Central Band for which Britten was writing incidental music for a number of radio documentaries. “His help was invaluable in writing the work; but he was always most cautious in advising any alterations … such was his respect for a composer’s ideas”, wrote Britten, “Some of my happiest musical experiences were conducting this work for him and Peter Pears”. Ten years later, Britten followed up with the elegiac Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain for tenor, horn and piano. Other notable works written for Brain include horn concertos by Malcom Arnold, Paul Hindemith, York Bowen and Gordon Jacob as well as works by Lennox Berkeley, Peter Racine Fricker, Elisabeth Lutyens and Mátyás Seiber.

Brain had a passion for motoring; his music stand frequently held the latest copies of his favourite motoring magazines and he much preferred driving to taking public transport. He shared this passion with the conductor Herbert von Karajan and they would discuss at great length the details and specifications of every fast car. On one occasion Karajan even let him drive his Mercedes 300SL while in Lucerne, much to his delight.

With his boundless energy, Brain would think nothing of driving long distances home following a concert but this would eventually be his undoing. Following an all-Tchaikovsky programme at the Usher Hall in Edinbugh on the evening at August 31 1957, Brain offered another horn player, Alan Civil, a lift to London in his beloved green TR2 sports car “You’ll be in before the train”, he said. Civil declined his offer, preferring the prospect of a pint of “heavy” and a sleep-over on the train but Brain nevertheless set off in good spirits. Several hours later at around 6 am on the Barnet bypass outside London, his car skidded off the road in poor visibility and crashed into a tree, killing him instantly. Britten wrote that his death “robbed us of an artist with the unique combination of 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 charming personality. It has robbed us of a man of rare generosity, simplicity and charm.”

Brain’s distinctive playing can be heard in the numerous recordings he made as an orchestral player. Many of those made as a soloist are regarded as classics, including the Britten Serenade, the four Mozart Horn Concertos and the two irrepressible Horn Concertos by Richard Strauss which Brain did much to popularise. Brain’s humorous side can also be heard in a live recording from the first Hoffnung Festival Concert in November 1956 where he played a movement from an alphorn concerto of Leopold Mozart on a hosepipe; the result is a delight, showing Brain’s mastery and aplomb even with this somewhat unusual musical instrument.


Kevin Painting

Published 1 September 2017 on primephonic.