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Dennis Brain (17 May 1921, in London – 1 September 1957) was a British virtuoso horn player and was largely credited for popularizing the horn as a solo classical instrument with the post-war British public. With the collaboration of Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra, he produced what many still consider to be the definitive recordings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's horn concerti.


Family tradition


Dennis Brain was born in London to a family already well-known for producing fine horn players.

His grandfather, Alfred Edwin Brain Sr. (4 February 1860 – 25 October 1925), was considered one of the top horn soloists of his time.

His uncle, Alfred Edwin Brain Jr. (24 October 1885 – 29 March 1966), had a successful career playing horn in the United States with the New York Symphony Society and later as a soloist in Hollywood.

His father, Aubrey Brain (12 July 1893 – 21 September 1955), held the principal horn position in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was also a teacher. Aubrey Brain produced the first Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart horn concerto recording in 1927.

His mother, Marion Brain, was a composer and wrote cadenzas to the first and third Mozart horn concerti which her husband then performed.

His brother, Leonard Brain, (1915–1975), was an oboist and performed with Dennis in a wind quintet that Dennis formed. Tina Brain, one of Leonard's children (Dennis' niece), also became a professional horn player.

Brain married Yvonne Brain and had two children: Anthony Paul Brain and Sally Brain.

Musical career


Early years

Cover art for a biographical book written about Brain (this is his original Raoux horn)
Brain's Alexander single Bb horn, damaged in the crash and restored by Paxman, on display at the Royal Academy of Music

At an early age, Brain was allowed to blow a few notes on his father's horn every Saturday morning. Aubrey Brain held the belief that students should not study the horn seriously until the later teenage years, when the teeth and embouchure became fully developed. During these years, Brain studied piano and organ. It was not until the age of 15 that Dennis was to transfer from St Paul's School to the Royal Academy of Music to study horn, under his father's tutelage. While there, he continued his piano studies under Max Pirani and organ under G.D. Cunningham. He played on a French-style Raoux horn.

Brain debuted in performance on 6 October 1938, playing second horn under his father with the Busch Chamber Players at the Queen's Hall. They performed Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Brain's first recording was of Mozart's Divertimento in D Major K. 334 in February, 1939 with the Léner Quartet. Again, he played second under his father.

At the age of 21, Brain was appointed to the first horn position in the National Symphony Orchestra. This tenure did not last long as he was soon conscripted into the armed forces with his brother in World War II. Both brothers joined the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. When the Royal Air Force Symphony Orchestra was formed Brain joined it. That ensemble went on a goodwill tour of the United States. During the tour, a number of orchestral conductors invited Brain to join their groups after the war, including Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In 1943, Brain's solo career truly began when Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for Peter Pears and Brain.

Brain originally played a French instrument, a Raoux piston-valve horn, similar to that used by his father. This type of instrument has a particularly fluid tone and a fine legato, but a less robust sound than the German-made instruments which were becoming common. In 1951 he switched to an Alexander single Bb instrument, complaining that "they want me to play the right notes all of the time!" The Alexander had a custom lead pipe which was narrower than the usual, and offered a sound which, if not comparable to the Raoux, at least gave a nod in the direction of the lighter French instrument.

Later years

By 1945, Brain was the most sought-after horn player in England. He was 24 years old at the time. His father injured himself in a fall and lost much of his stamina to play. After the war, Walter Legge and Thomas Beecham founded the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, respectively. Brain filled the position as principal horn in both. Along with Jack Brymer (clarinet), Gwydion Brooke (bassoon), Richard Walton (trumpet), Terence MacDonagh (oboe), and Gerald Jackson (flute), he was a member of the "Royal Family" of wind instrumentalists of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Later, he found that he did not have enough time to fill both positions and resigned from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Expanding his interest in the neglected area of chamber music, Brain formed a wind quintet with his brother in 1946. This group eventually grew in size and toured in Germany, Italy and Austria. Brain also founded a trio with pianist Wilfrid Parry and violinist Jean Pougnet. The trio toured Scotland twice and made plans to tour Australia in the winter of 1957. Briefly, Brain put together a chamber ensemble consisting of his friends so that he could conduct music.

In November 1953, under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, and accompanied by The Philharmonia Orchestra, Brain recorded the Mozart Horn Concertos Nos. 1–4 for EMI. In July 1954, again conducted by Von Karajan, Brain performed the organ part in a recording of the Easter hymn from Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana.

He played with Karl Haas's London Baroque Ensemble, both on recordings (notably Dittersdorf's Partita in D, Dvorak's Serenade for Wind, op. 44 and Handel's Aria for two horns, oboes and bassoon)[1] and in concert.

Brain produced a radio program entitled The Early Horn in 1955. In it, he emphasized the importance of the player over the instrument in the production of the perfect tone.

Showing off his humorous style, Brain performed a Leopold Mozart horn concerto on rubber hose pipes at a Gerard Hoffnung music festival in 1956, trimming the hose to length with garden shears to achieve the correct tuning.

Brain was notoriously careless; his instrument for many years was a French-made piston valve horn with an impressive array of dents, and Britten autographed one score "For Dennis - in case he loses the other one". But Sir Thomas Beecham described Brain as a "prodigy"[2] and Noël Goodin characterised him as "the genius who tamed the horn"; his old-fashioned and ill-treated instrument was the same as can be heard in many classic recordings of the time. Badly damaged in his fatal crash, it has since been restored by Paxmans of London and is on public display in the Royal Academy of Music's free museum.

A horn literature renaissance

New works and commemorations

Composer-performer collaborations have often been successful vehicles in advancing music. Brain often asked prolific composers to write new works for him to perform. Many composers offered their services to Brain without even being asked. Among them were Benjamin Britten (Serenade for Tenor and Horn, Canticle III), Malcolm Arnold (Horn Concerto No. 2), Paul Hindemith (Concerto for Horn and Orchestra), York Bowen (Concerto for Horn, Strings and Timpani), Peter Racine Fricker (Horn Sonata), Gordon Jacob (Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra), Mátyás Seiber (Notturno for Horn and Strings), Humphrey Searle (Aubade for Horn and Strings), Ernest Tomlinson (Rhapsody and Rondo for Horn and Orchestra, Romance and Rondo for Horn and Orchestra), Lennox Berkeley (Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano) and Elisabeth Lutyens.

Francis Poulenc wrote Elegie for Horn and Piano to commemorate Brain's death. It was premiered on 1 September 1958, exactly one year after his death, by Neill Sanders and with Poulenc himself on piano.

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death a new work, Fanfare: a salute to Dennis Brain was commissioned from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and premiered in Nottingham on 15 March 2007 by Michael Thompson. Fifty horn players subscribed £50 each towards this commission, underwritten by Windblowers of Nottingham.

Literary resurrections

Brain collaborated with Karajan to produce recordings of the four Mozart horn concerti, works now considered to be the basis of the solo horn repertory. The concerti were originally written for Joseph Leutgeb, a Salzburg natural horn player. Evidence of Brain's skill at composition was shown when he composed the cadenzas for the first and third concerti for his recordings.

Brain also popularized the two Richard Strauss horn concerti. He was the second to perform the Horn Concerto No. 2 publicly in 1948.

In 1951, Brain became the first person to perform Joseph Haydn's Horn Concerto No. 1 in modern times.

A premature end

Brain's grave in London

On 1 September 1957, Brain was killed driving home to London after performing the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony No. 6 with the Philharmonia under Eugene Ormandy at the Edinburgh Festival.[3][4] He had driven his Triumph TR2 sports car off the road and into a tree near Barnet. He was scheduled for a recording session of StraussCapriccio scheduled for the next morning in London[5]. Brain was a noted enthusiast of fast cars and was known for keeping Autocar magazine on his stand as he played the Mozart concertos from memory during recording sessions. He was 36 years old at the time of his death. Brain was interred at Hampstead Cemetery in London.

His headstone is engraved with a passage from Hindemith's Declamation section from his horn concerto [6]:

My call transforms
The hall to autumn-
       tinted groves
What is into what
Has been....


The beauty of Brain's music and the tragedy of his death captured the public imagination like no British horn player before or since. Horn players in general do not have the profile of the great violinists although the principal horn is generally paid second only to the leader of an orchestra, the horn being notoriously difficult to play. Giovanni Punto inspired Beethoven to write for horn, Brain inspired Britten, Arnold and Tippett. He popularised the classical horn repertoire and his brief career coincided with a renaissance of English classical performance and composition; like his contemporary James Galway he made the transition from orchestra to soloist, and his death further boosted his status as a musical legend. Recordings from the 1950s are still available and many still consider the Brain / Karajan recordings of the Mozart horn concerti as definitive.

Brain was both a great horn player and a figure in popular culture, from his recordings of the Mozart concerti to his ridiculous playing of the hosepipe (perfectly in pitch) in one of Gerard Hoffnung's surreal musical extravaganzas. His Mozart recordings inspired Flanders and Swann's Ill Wind and his classical playing inspired a generation and more of horn players.

External links


Simple English

Dennis Brain (born 17 May 1921; died London, 1 September 1957) was a British horn player. During his short life he became world-famous. Many people thought of him as the greatest horn player ever. He made the horn very popular among classical music lovers in Britain. His recordings include the four horn concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart which he recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan.



Early years

Dennis Brain was born in London on 17 May 1921. Several of his family were horn players, including his father Aubrey, his grandfather Alfred Edwin Brain Sr and his uncle Alfred Edwin Brain Jr. His mother Marion was a singer who had sung at Covent Garden. He had a brother Leonard who was 6 years older and who was to become an excellent oboe player.

Dennis started to learn the piano. He also played bugle in the school cadet band at Richmond Hill Preparatory School. From there he was sent to St Paul’s School in Kensington where he sang in the choir and played piano solos at concerts. In 1936 he left school and got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he learned the horn with his father as well as the piano and, from 1938, the organ. He learned a lot from his organ teacher G.D.Cunningham who had taught his uncle Alfred the piano some 40 years before.

Dennis’s first professional concert was at the Queen’s Hall in 1938 when he played Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no 1 together with his father (there are important solo parts for two horns in this music). Soon he was playing in other concerts and making gramophone recordings.

The war years

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 interrupted his last year of studies. All theatre halls and concert-halls were closed. He managed to get a job as principal horn with the RAF Central Band which were in Uxbridge in north-west London. Dennis was always a very friendly person who got on well with everybody. The older players in the band might not have liked a 17 year-old boy to have a principal’s job, but everybody realized he had exceptional skills. He played in concerts whenever possible. There were lunch-hour concerts in the National Gallery during the war, and he often played in these. He started to become famous. He met Benjamin Britten and he persuaded him to compose his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. He performed it in 1943 with the tenor Peter Pears and they recorded it for Decca in 1944. He toured the USA with the RAF Orchestra. Several conductors heard him and wanted Brain to join their orchestra.

After the war

By 1945, Brain was the most famous horn player in England. He was still only 24. His father hurt himself in a fall and could not play much. Dennis took over some of his work. After the war two new orchestras were formed in London: the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Brain was made principal horn player in both. Later, he left the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra because he did not have time.

Brain played a lot of chamber music, forming a wind quintet with his brother in 1946. This group got bigger and toured to Germany, Italy and Austria. Brain also started a trio with the pianist Wilfrid Parry and violinist Jean Pougnet. The trio toured Scotland twice and there were plans to tour Australia in the winter of 1957.

In November 1953 Brain recorded the Mozart Horn Concertos Nos. 1–4 for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra with Karajan conducting. He kept up his organ playing (his teacher had hoped he would become an organist) and in July 1954, again conducted by Karajan, Brain performed the organ part in a recording of the Easter hymn from Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana.

In 1955 Brain became known to millions of people when he presented a radio program called The Early Horn.

Brain had a good sense of humour. Among the many concerts he played in was a music festival in 1956 which celebrated the life of Gerard Hoffung, the artist who had drawn many cartoons about music. Dennis played a Leopold Mozart horn concerto by blowing through rubber hose pipes. He cut the hose to the length he needed with garden shears so that it was perfectly in tune.

Brain was known for being careless. The horn he played for many years had lots of dents in it because he kept knocking it or dropping it. Benjamin Britten gave him a second copy of music for a new work he had written. Inside he wrote: "For Dennis - in case he loses the other one". His Alexander horn was badly damaged in his fatal crash. Normally it would have been thrown away, but it was saved and was restored by Paxmans of London and can be seen in the Royal Academy of Music's free museum.

New works

Brain often asked composers to write new works for him to perform. Many composers wrote for him without even being asked. Among them were Benjamin Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Canticle III, Malcolm Arnold Horn Concerto No. 2, Paul Hindemith Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, York Bowen Concerto for Horn, Strings and Timpani, Peter Racine Fricker Horn Sonata (Dennis was at school with Peter), Gordon Jacob Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra, Mátyás Seiber Notturno for Horn and Strings, Humphrey Searle Aubade for Horn and Strings, Ernest Tomlinson Rhapsody and Rondo for Horn and Orchestra, Romance and Rondo for Horn and Orchestra, Lennox Berkeley Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano and Elisabeth Lutyens.

Brain also made the two horn concertos by Richard Strauss very popular. He was the second to perform the Horn Concerto No. 2 in public in 1948.

His hobby: motoring

Apart from horns Dennis had one big passion: he loved cars. At orchestral rehearsals he often had a car magazine on the music stand instead of his music (he knew the music from memory anyway). His first car was an open Morris 8 with two seats. He shared it during the war with his brother to motor from Uxbridge into London. Later he had several cars. Whenever a car did not work he bought another instead of repairing it. He loved to drive and would often drive all the way home after a concert even it was 100s of miles. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf let him drive her huge Hudson saloon car over the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland when it was officially closed because of heavy snow. On another occasion Herbert von Karajan let him drive his Mercedes 300SL. Once he bought a very rare 1939 12-cylinder Lagonda, but he soon crashed it and it could not be repaired. Other cars included a Citroen and a green TR2 sports car.

His death

[[File:|thumb|right|Brain's grave in London]] On 31 August 1957 Dennis was at the Edinburgh Festival playing a concert in the Usher Hall. The Philharmonia Orchestra were playing Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, Pathetique with the conductor Eugene Ormandy. Unusually that day he seemed tired and Ormandy told him he should get more rest. But Dennis had a recording session the next morning in London, so after the concert he got into his car (his TR2), put his horn on the back seat and set off on the 380-mile journey back home.

It was about 6.00am the next morning when he was near London. It was raining heavily and he was on the A1 at the Barnet by-pass. According to witnesses he was travelling very fast when he came to a bend, the car left the road, turned over and crashed into a tree. The car was a complete wreck. Dennis was dead. He was 36 years old. He was buried at Hampstead Cemetery in London.

His fame and playing

Whenever Dennis played his horn is sounded easy and effortless. It had an extraordinary lyrical beauty and was always incredibly musical. He was a very sensitive player who listened very carefully to the other players and blended in with them. At first he played a French instrument, a Raoux piston-valve horn, similar to that used by his father. This type of instrument has a lovely smooth tone, but was less powerful than the German-made instruments which had become popular since the 1920s. In 1951 he changed to single B instrument made by Alexander, which was not quite as wide as the usual German instruments, still keeping the lighter sound of French horns.

Dennis had made the horn very popular as an instrument, not just through his concerts and recordings but also through the radio. He played difficult music that other horn players could not play. His Mozart recordings inspired Flanders and Swann's Ill Wind and his classical playing. His sudden death added to the musical legend.


  • Oxford Music Online retrieved 21.11.2010
  • Pettitt, Stephen. Dennis Brain: A Biography. London: Robert Hale, 1976. ISBN 0-7091-5772-X


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