‘The Siegfried of the horn’ is how Sir Thomas Beecham affectionately dubbed Dennis Brain, the brilliant horn player whose career ended with such cruel suddenness when the car in which he was driving home overnight from the 1957 Edinburgh Festival crashed into a tree on the outskirts of London. Beecham’s graceful description derives from the hero’s horn-call in Wagner’s opera, music that had come to be particularly associated with Brain: he had played it to illustrate the horn’s capabilities in HMV’s 1947 recording Instruments of the Orchestra, and in the 1950s, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, had called him in for three successive seasons to play the taxing horn passages in the company’s Ring cycles.
Dennis Brain was born on 17 May 1921 into a prodigiously gifted musical family. His grandfather, father and two uncles were all horn players, while Leonard, his older brother by six years, played the oboe and cor anglais. His father, Aubrey, principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from its inception in 1930, first encouraged and then taught his youngest son, who made his professional debut in October 1938 while still a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
When war came a year later, both Brain brothers joined the Royal Air Force. Fortunately, band duties allowed time to pursue other musical opportunities. Myra Hess’s National Gallery Concerts were in full swing and, in 1942, the conductor Sidney Beer founded an ensemble that later became the National Symphony Orchestra. Dennis Brain and his RAF colleagues were its principals, as they were in Karl Haas’s London Baroque Ensemble and in the New London Orchestra. At this time Brain also began to record as a soloist for EMI’s Columbia label at the invitation of the producer Walter Legge. All through the war Walter Legge had kept his finger on the musical pulse, so that he knew exactly who and where the best players were. When war ended he moved to implement a scheme that had long been in his mind: the founding of the Philharmonia Orchestra. At its public debut in October 1945 many of the players were from the services and Dennis Brain, of course, was first horn. Beecham, who conducted, immediately declared that the new orchestra would suit his own post-war needs splendidly, but Legge had his own ambitions for his brainchild and Beecham went off to found the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra instead. This resulted in a tussle for the services of Brain as principal horn in both orchestras. Launching his new RPO, Beecham declared: ‘The horn quartet will be the finest in Europe. First horn, Dennis Brain, is a prodigy’. Alan Civil recalled the delight that often registered on Sir Thomas’s face during important horn solos (especially in Delius), while for Brain to ‘split’ a note was almost unheard of: on the first occasion it happened when Herbert von Karajan was rehearsing the Philharmonia, the conductor put down his baton and murmured: ‘Thank God’.
Brain played in both orchestras from 1946 to 1954 (except for 1949, when Beecham tried to force the issue and lost him for a whole year). After he parted company finally with the RPO he remained faithful to the Philharmonia for the remaining three years of his life. He was by then one of the most sought-after players in the world, and many composers, including Malcolm Arnold, Benjamin Britten, Humphrey Searle and Mátyás Seiber, delighted in writing new works for him. On all sides his horn playing was acknowledged as matchless, with a phenomenally reliable technique allied to natural musicianship of the greatest sensitivity. These were qualities that instantly commended him to all the great musicians with whom he worked.
Text courtesy of Warner