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  • Born

    17 May 1921

  • Born In

    London, England, United Kingdom

  • Died

    1 September 1957 (aged 36)

Dennis Brain (1921 – 1957) was a very distinguished British horn player and was largely responsible for popularizing the horn as a solo classical instrument with the public. He made what many consider the definitive recordings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's horn concerti.

A Family Tradition

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

His grandfather, Alfred Edwin Brain sr. (1860-02-04 - 1925-10-25), was considered one of the top horn soloists of his time.

His uncle, Alfred Edwin Brain jr. (1885-10-24 - 1966-03-29), 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 (1893-07-12 - 1955-09-21), 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 played.

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's niece), 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
Cover art for a biographical book written about Brain

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 latter 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 October 6 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 Lener 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 Royal Air Force Central Band. 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 and Horn for Peter Pears and Brain.

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. 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 1951, Brain switched to the German-style Alexander horn.

Under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, Brain performed the organ in a recording of the Easter hymn from Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana in July, 1954.

Brain made 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 hosepipes at a Gerard Hoffnung music festival in 1956.

A Horn Literature Renaissance

New Works

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

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
Brain's grave in London

On September 1, 1957, Brain was driving home to London after performing at the Edinburgh Festival with his wind quintet when he was killed in a car accident near Barnet in his Triumph sports car. Brain was a noted enthusiast of fast cars and was known for keeping Autocar magazine on his stand as he recited the Mozart concerti from memory during recording sessions. He was 36 years old at the time of his death. Brain was interred at Hampstead Cemetery in London.

External links

* The Legacy of Dennis Brain (
* Discography
* Photo


* Petitt, Stephen. Dennis Brain: A Biography. London: Robert Hale, 1976. ISBN 070915772X
* Meckna, Michael. The Legacy of Dennis Brain. The Horn Call, Vol. XXI, No. 2, April 1991.
*, Instruments of Mass Seduction II: The Horn; May 11, 2004
* Brain Genealogy

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