Dennis Brain | Obituary (Gramophone, November 1957)
Friday, April 16, 2021
Since the days when he first became internationally known there was no voice to dispute that Dennis Brain had achieved unequalled pre-eminence in his art...
Music has suffered irreparable loss by the tragic death of Dennis Brain. He was, in the exact sense of the word, unique. Even among experts opinions differ on the respective and comparative merits of half a dozen conductors, singers, violinists and pianists, but since the days when he first became internationally known there was no voice to dispute that Dennis Brain had achieved unequalled pre-eminence in his art. In his warm and serene person all the essential qualities of the great interpretative artist were blended in perfect harmony.
He was innately musical in a way which defies description or analysis. He shaped phrases with an instinctive rightness that seemed inevitable. Technical problems did not exist for him. He had tamed the most notoriously intractable of all instruments to be his obedient servant and raised it again to sing the song the sirens sang. Over his instrument’s whole range he had a mastery of intonation, of legato, of staccato, of dynamic range and, above all, of expressiveness that no other horn player has matched. But neither the listing of his qualities nor their sum explains the essential quality of his magic. That all these attributes should be embodied in one young man was miracle enough. But there was a still greater magic – the personality of his tone. An unmistakable, immediately recognisable, personal tone is an attribute shared by the few great instrumentalists and singers of every generation. In Dennis Brain’s case its sunny radiance was the outward manifestation of a warm and serene nature. His sound was balm to the ears, to the mind and to the spirit. Its essential character did not change in all the twenty years I knew him.
‘He is irreplaceable, but his art and his influence have left their permanent mark upon horn playing’
Dennis was only sixteen when he first blew himself into my awareness. From a studio which I believed to be empty there came the most impudent imaginable utterance of the Till Eulenspiegel theme. In the studio I found a cherub-faced schoolboy standing alone with a horn in his hands. Unable to believe the evidence of ear and eye I asked him, ‘Was that you playing? ‘ He blushed and said, ‘Yes. Aubrey Brain is my Dad.’ He was there to record the Mozart D major Divertimento with his father and the Lener Quartet.
When his time for call-up came, Dennis went into the RAF Central Band at Uxbridge. All honour to Wing-Commander O’Donnell for the service he did to our post-war musical life. In wartime Germany and Italy music was a reserved occupation. It was otherwise here. But O’Donnell laid his net so that every exceptionally able young instrumentalist knew that a place would be found for him in the RAF Band. Dennis landed there, and acquired a nickname that stuck to him for ten years – ‘Dubbie’, to distinguish him from Denis (one ‘n’) Matthews. The goodwill tour of the RAF Band in America laid the foundation of Dennis’s American reputation and brought him an offer from Stokowski to go as his first horn to Philadelphia ‘when the war is over’.
During the war Dennis made several records, all of which have disappeared from the catalogues, through the advent of tape recording and long-playing records. For Columbia he made the fourth Mozart Horn Concerto with the Hallé Orchestra, and the Beethoven Horn Sonata with Denis Matthews. Decca recorded Britten’s Serenade, written for Dennis, Peter Pears and the Boyd Neel Orchestra, and Brahms’s Op. 17, Four Songs for Female Voices.
He was still officially an airman when I realised my long-laid plan of forming the Philharmonia Orchestra – the name retained from the Quartet I had formed in the early days of the war. Naturally, Dennis was first horn. The first time the orchestra met was to record the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Moiseiwitsch, Weldon conducting, in the Friends Meeting House. In the interval Dennis came to me and said, ‘This is going to be good. I didn’t think we should ever have an orchestra like this here.’ Many battles were to be fought and some years to pass before the orchestra began to sound as I had dreamed. But that is another story. In the late 1940s Dennis was first horn of the Philharmonia, soloist with orchestras, the most sought-after horn-player for chamber music and, when Sir Thomas Beecham first formed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, first horn there. Dennis formed his own Wind Quintet and toured it here and abroad. He seemed tireless, but always relaxed. The story is told that on one occasion he played two concertos, Mozart and Strauss, with a provincial orchestra, the two appearances separated by a classical symphony and the interval. During the interval Dennis was missing from the Artists’ Room. The conductor said jokingly, ‘He’s probably giving a half-hour recital at the BBC.’ Dennis was!
Neither the great fame he achieved nor the admiration and affection of the most eminent conductors altered Dennis’s nature. He remained, until the day of his death, the laughing, cherubic-faced schoolboy I had first met nearly twenty years ago, always arriving punctually at the last minute for a concert or a session, always racing out first to the canteen.
‘Deeply though I grieve his death, as a friend, as an artist, and as a matchless jewel in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s crown, I cannot recall his art without smiling’
His only interests in life, apart from music, were his family and motor-cars. I do not believe he ever played a rehearsal or recording session or even a concert session without having the latest copy of The Autocar or The Motor open on his music-stand. The day of the Philharmonia’s first concert in Zurich my wife bought a second-hand Hudson saloon, a huge vehicle that was afterwards nicknamed the Atlantic Liner. We invited Dennis to drive with us down to the next concerts in Turin and Milan. I drove. We planned to drive back to Zurich through the night after the second Milan concert. As we were about to leave Toscanini summoned my wife and me to his home to tell us that he would come to London to conduct the Philharmonia. By the time we got back to the hotel it was well into the night and I was much too happy and excited to trust myself at the wheel, so I asked Dennis to drive. At dawn we were at the foot of the Gotthard Pass. Although the road was not officially open to traffic, Dennis insisted that we should drive over it rather than wait for the first train to take us through the tunnel. The whole road was hard, polished ice, with snow piled up nine or ten feet high on one side, and often sheer drops of several hundred feet on the other. Dennis handled that unmanageable brute of a car on a Serpentine skating-rink surface with a cool mastery that I have never seen equalled. To this day I blush to think of having driven in the presence of such a master. Curiously enough, it was only when he was driving that Dennis shed his endearing, irresponsible boyishness. It is terrible that his only relaxation should have cost him his life.
Their passion for cars forged an extramusical link between Dennis and Karajan. They both knew by heart the specifications, advertised and actual performances, structural details, advantages and disadvantages of every fast car, and never tired of discussing them. When Karajan told Dennis that he was giving up cars in favour of flying Dennis looked at him in hurt astonishment, then smiled and said, ‘Yes, but you’ll need a car to get to and from the aerodrome.’ One of his happiest hours was when Karajan let him drive his Mercedes 300SL in Lucerne.
For an artist of his greatness Dennis has left a slender legacy of records. The fault lies in the repertoire rather than with the recording companies. As a soloist we have on Columbia the four Mozart Concertos with the Philharmonia conducted by von Karajan and now, posthumously published, the two Strauss Horn Concertos with the Philharmonia conducted by Sawallisch. Decca has the Britten Serenade, a work which did much to make Dennis famous. Still unpublished is Hindemith’s Horn Concerto conducted by the composer, recorded early this year by Columbia, who had planned for him to record all the Haydn Concertos and the Brahms Trio this winter. But in the short history of the long-playing record his unmistakable voice is to be heard in nearly every major work in the orchestral repertoire and, in an impressive way, of opera. There is still much to come. The four Brahms Symphonies conducted by Klemperer, Mozart’s B flat Divertimento with Karajan which, when he played it in America, prompted a critic to describe Dennis as ‘the only man who has the right to blow his own horn’. And Der Rosenkavalier the horn-player’s opera par excellence! I doubt if anyone told Dennis that Strauss was depicting an orgasm at three bars before figure five in the Prelude, but Dennis played it.
There is no knowing how Dennis would have developed. One of his unfulfilled ambitions was to play the Ring with a great conductor. His other ambition was to conduct, an activity he had already begun.
Deeply though I grieve his death, as a friend, as an artist, and as a matchless jewel in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s crown, I cannot recall his art without smiling. Smiling at the impudent confidence of his mastery of his instrument, with anticipatory pleasure at the unconcerned and seraphic ease with which we knew beforehand he would play the notorious deathtraps in the whole symphonic literature, smiling in admiration and in gratitude for the joy of hearing such playing.
It was my privilege to have Dennis Brain as first horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra from the first day the Orchestra was assembled for our first rehearsal to the last day of his life. He is irreplaceable, but his art and his influence have left their permanent mark upon horn playing. His father, Aubrey Brain, had already effectively demonstrated that the bubbles and cracks which were the rule rather than the exception in horn playing thirty years ago were the faults of the players: there was nothing wrong with the instruments. Dennis has done still more. He restored to the repertoire Mozart’s four horn concertos and established Strauss’s two concertos. He inspired contemporary composers (among them Hindemith and Britten) to write works for the horn. And he has proved and established as a tradition that the horn at the lips of a devoted artist is one of the noblest and most expressive of instruments. We shall never hear his like again, but the standard of horn playing throughout the world has been inestimably improved by his example.
This article originally appeared in the November 1957 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today