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Dennis Brain

A Life in Music

Stephen Gamble and William Lynch

Publication Year: 2011

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. “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

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Series: Lives of Musicians

Title Page

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pp. i-ii


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pp. iii

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pp. v-vi

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...

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pp. vii-viii

At the age of thirteen I was lucky enough to meet and have a number of lessons from Dennis Brain (my parents lived quite close to where he and his wife lived in London). At that age I was quite simply in awe of his technique, being unaware of the subtleties that make the difference between great and inspirational performers. As a young person, slow music was more boring ...

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pp. ix-x

Dennis Brain was one of the most celebrated musicians of the twentieth century. The number of websites paying tribute to Dennis Brain is a testament to his legacy. Tributes from colleagues demonstrate that his appeal was not just to horn players. And although people all over the world today who listen to classical music have never heard of him, others have not only heard of Brain’s name but have seen him live and heard him in recitals, on radio, and on commercial recordings...

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Chapter 1: The Early Years (1921–1939)

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pp. 1-14

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 ...

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Chapter 2: The RAF Years (1939–1946)

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pp. 15-34

Brain was in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II and a year afterwards. He continued studies at the Royal Academy of Music during the war and augmented playing in the RAF Symphony Orchestra with musical engagements in London and the provinces. RAF duties took Brain to RAF bases at home and abroad and to some extent restricted outside engagements...

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Chapter 3: The Brain Quintet and Ensemble

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pp. 35-54

Brain’s participation in new chamber music ensembles created during wartime may have given him the idea of starting his own ensemble before he was released from RAF duties. Still in uniform, he established the Dennis Brain Wind Quintet, which after demobilization in September 1946 became very busy, giving concerts in the British Isles and occasionally for broadcast. Brain returned from his month’s tour with the RAF Symphony Orchestra in Germany at the beginning of May 1946...

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Chapter 4: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

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pp. 55-74

Brain was principal horn in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra starting with its founding in 1946. His participation declined because of other obligations, particularly to the Philharmonia Orchestra, and in his last years was only sporadic ...

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Chapter 5: Philharmonia Orchestra

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pp. 75-95

Brain was the original principal horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra when Walter Legge formed the orchestra in 1945. It was to be an orchestra with “style” but not any particular style, comprising a body of hand-picked players of the highest caliber, and many distinguished conductors rather than one conductor molding the sound. This ensured that, under Legge’s direction, the ...

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Chapter 6: A Horn Virtuoso's Letters

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pp. 96-108

In his now famous Desert Island Discs appearance on the Home Service, August 13, 1956, Brain mentions that he is a bad correspondent and that he would choose to take a typewriter with him to his desert island to remind him every time he wakes up that he does not have to write a letter! Yet all his correspondence was handwritten. Some of his correspondence, perhaps, will ...

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Chapter 7: Teacher and Lecturer

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pp. 109-121

Brain was too busy performing to have much time to teach or to demonstrate and perform for lecture-recitals. Very early on, he had possibly his first experience of teaching when, as a student at the Royal Academy of Music, he gave horn lessons to the future founder of the National Youth Orchestra, Dame Ruth Railton. We do not know any details of these lessons. Many years later, ...

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Chapter 8: Reminiscences by Colleagues

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pp. 122-133

The memories of colleagues and friends abound with engaging and amusing anecdotes that help to compensate for the lack of personal letters (Chapter 6). One of the most striking aspects of these reminiscences is how vivid they are and how they help to paint something of a character The word “colleague” in this chapter includes musicians other than ...

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Chapter 9: The Legacy—Horn Players Look Back

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pp. 134-156

Horn players who have either known Brain or have been influenced by his example have offered tributes and recollections of him. Their words describe Brain’s many-faceted talents as a musician as well as a horn player. Over fifty years after his death, Brain has continued to influence new generations of horn players around the world,. In his lifetime, he was an international figure in the world of ...

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Chapter 10: Selected Performances

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pp. 157-188

No other wind player of modern times has received the recognition and acknowledgement for his proficiency and musical prowess in the form of The earliest work composed for Brain (at his request) is Benjamin Brit-ten’s Serenade. It is considered by many to be the greatest contribution to contemporary horn repertoire and continues to attract attention through performances ...

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Chapter 11: Horns, Mouthpieces, and Embouchures

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pp. 189-212

Dennis Brain owned and experimented with no fewer than eleven horns varying in form, functionality, and tonal characteristics, most of which he ultimately disposed of for one reason or another. He often visited the Alexander firm in Mainz, Germany, which built a number of horns for him to his specifications. In 1951, he adapted an Alexander single B-flat Model 90 that ...

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Chapter 12: New Directions

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pp. 213-233

In the last ten years of his life, Brain scheduled engagements well into the future with the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble and Chamber Orchestra, the Brain-Pougnet-Parry Trio, and as a soloist, as well as prospective opportunities to conduct, compose, and arrange. How might his career have developed, given an average lifespan ahead of him and taking into consideration his ...

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pp. 234-239

William Lynch and I (Stephen Gamble) had both been researching Dennis Brain independently for many years when we first came in contact in July 2001 because of an advertisement I had placed in The Horn Magazine offering some of my collection of Brain recordings for sale. We first discussed co-authoring a biography in November of the same year and started work ...

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pp. 240-278

The intent of this discography is to give as comprehensive a listing of Brain’s solo and chamber recordings as possible, together with a selection of orchestral recordings, and to reveal newly discovered recordings that have not been featured in any previously published discography. It includes quotations from The Gramophone, Monthly Musical Record, Radio Times, and other sources, but it is not a complete list of every recording that Brain is known to have made....

Appendix A: Brain Ensemble Music Library

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pp. 279-281

Appendix B: The Early Horn

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pp. 282-285

Appendix C: Talking About the Horn

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pp. 286-287

Appendix D: Articles

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pp. 288-296

Appendix E: Extended Bibliography

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pp. 297-320


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pp. 321-361

Works Consulted

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pp. 362-370

Biographical Index

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pp. 371-376

General Index

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pp. 377-384

E-ISBN-13: 9781574413519
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574413076

Page Count: 400
Illustrations: 51 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Lives of Musicians