Dennis Brain: A Life in Music

Dennis Brain: A Life in Music

Dennis Brain: A Life in Music

Dennis Brain: A Life in Music


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.


In November 2004, my memories of Dennis Brain were suddenly revived when I received an email from a Stephen Gamble. It read in part:

I am very interested to read that you received lessons from Dennis Brain at
the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1946, when Dennis was still
in the raf. I am co-writing [with William Lynch] a large biography of the
Brain family with a focus on Dennis Brain in particular….

That was the beginning of almost six years of observing and sometimes taking part in the progress of this book, which I believe strongly needed to be written.

In early January 1946, I, a nineteen-year-old American soldier, arrived at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. As wwii ended in Europe, I was transferred to the Army’s 1st Division band, after having served as an artilleryman in Germany. To keep us busy while we were waiting to be sent home, the Army had developed an extensive education program, ranging from instruction at the company level to studying at European universities and schools. I had been chosen for the latter—I was being sent to England to study horn.

At my first lesson, I presented myself to my new teacher. I had heard his name, but the significance hadn’t registered. He introduced himself and didn’t seem at all perturbed that I failed to recognize that I was talking to the most famous hornist in England—possibly in the world. Dennis Brain greeted me in a quiet, friendly manner with an easy smile. Before I began playing for him, we chatted about our instruments. He looked at my horn which, I believe, was an Army-issued Conn 6D. I looked at his—it was his Raoux single F horn with piston valves. We tried each other’s horns and commented on the difficulties we had playing the other’s instrument.

At the end of the term, with my study concluded, I returned to my Army unit in Germany. a few months later, I returned home to Boston, carrying with me a copy of Brain’s recording of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor . . .

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