Six degrees of separation

In the week that marks the anniversary of legendary French horn player, Dennis Brain’s untimely death, Douglas from the Music Library remembers a celebrated musician and shares his remote connection.

“Many years ago I was a French Horn player, I still love to listen to horn music, concertos, concert pieces, sonatas, great orchestral works which feature French Horn sections.

I have favourite horn players as well, players, soloists whose recording I might seek out first. The finest of those, English horn player, Dennis Brain, a player whose ability, assuredness and virtuosity on the French horn had not been achieved before, eclipsing his family forebears and raising the standard for those that followed him.

Dennis Brain was born in 1921 to a line of French Horn players and musicians. His grandfather Alfred Brain was a well-known horn player and soloist. Dennis’ father Aubrey and Uncle Alfred were also horn players. Aubrey Brain remained in London leading the horn section of The BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Busch Chamber Players. Dennis’ mother was Marion Brain, a composer and teacher who wrote works for her husband. His uncle, Alfred Brain made his way mostly in America, his first job as a player was with the Scottish Orchestra the forerunner of the RSNO. He later emigrated to America, where he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and for the orchestra of 20th Century Fox, so he can be heard on the soundtracks of many of the movies from the 40s and 50s.

For a few short years just before the Second World War, Dennis quickly made a name for himself and became sought after as a chamber player, an orchestral musician and a soloist. War interrupted this rise but only for a short time, with Dennis managing to continue to play and record during his career with the Central band of the RAF and the RAF Symphony Orchestra. Towards the end of the war he came to prominence with an effortless recording of the Beethoven Horn Sonata, then Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for Dennis Brain and Peter Pears, the tenor. They gave the first performance of that work in 1943.

His fame continued to go before him and stories abound about the effortlessness of his ability. Whilst recording the Mozart Concertos with Herbert Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan stopped the orchestra and went to discuss a musical point with Dennis Brain. Karajan found that rather than having the score of the Mozart concertos on his music stand, Dennis Brain had a copy of Autocar, cars being his great love. Famously frosty, Karajan, also being a car lover found this very funny and gave the men another bond over and above their music.

Unfortunately, fast cars cost Dennis Brain his life when returning to London from a concert at the Edinburgh Festival on the morning of 1 September 1957. His Triumph TR2 aquaplaned off the wet road and hit a tree. Dennis Brain died at the age of 36.

Front cover of the Edinburgh International Festival programme, 1957

Now for the six degrees of separation, which is just one degree. Many years ago, I taught French horn and Brass in a few schools. Whilst returning to Edinburgh I was travelling in a car with the Headmistress of one of those schools. She being a musician, we were talking about music and musicians and out of the blue she said that she had been at Dennis Brain’s final concert in Edinburgh on 31 August 1957. She had chatted to him outside the Usher Hall and held the door of his car open as he climbed in. She did say, with that perfect hindsight which people acquire, that she and others had warned him about the weather and encouraged him to stay or take the train, but he loved to drive and that was what he wanted to do.”

Discover Dennis Brain’s timeless musical genius on Naxos, our free streaming and download service for classical music.


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Photograph of Gustavo Dudamel

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