Dennis Brain: A Life in Music. Through another website I came into contact with Stephen Gamble one of the authors of this fascinating book about Dennis Brain, the famous British horn player. I asked Stephen Gamble if he would be interested in writing a piece about his book for this website and he kindly agreed to do so. The following is written by him:
By Stephen Gamble and William Lynch
University of North Texas Press, April 2011
The authors embarked on this book as enthusiasts of the recordings, including film media, of British horn player, Dennis Brain (1921-1957), whose meteoric career, unrivalled as a horn virtuoso soloist in the sphere of classical music in his day, was cut short by a high-speed car crash on the Barnet bypass at Hatfield, in the early hours of 1 September 1957, driving back home in heavy rain and poor visibility from the Edinburgh Festival in his green Triumph TR2 sports car. No other car was involved. The crash was witnessed by a lady in a passing van, coming from the other direction. Brain’s car came fast round the bend by Wellfield road, mounted the grass verge, turned upside down and hit backwards into a tree. Bits of the car were strewn all over the place. The horn was squashed. He was only thirty-six years of age and seventeen miles from home. Waiting at their Hampstead home for his return at breakfast that day, were his wife, Yvonne, and two children, Tony, five years of age and Sally, only eighteen months. His death that morning tore a great hole, not only in his family, but in the world of music. He was irreplaceable.
I asked Bill Lynch if he would be interested in co-writing a book about Brain with me in the summer of 2001. We started work in earnest and our journey took us in all sorts of unexpected directions, visiting former colleagues at their homes, receiving many letters from musicians throughout the world who still had a high regard for this musician, nearly fifty years after his death. Mrs Brain was very helpful and so was Dennis’s sister-in-law, Mrs Audrey Brain, who also provided many of the sixty-nine black-and-white photographs and graphics that illustrate the book. After much editing and reduction to a manageable size, this attractive hard-back, with a striking dust-jacket design, has 384 paginated pages and an additional five blank leaves: one at the front and four at the back. There is a Foreword by one of Dennis Brain’s pupils, Edwin Glick, and a Preface by another pupil, James Diack. Following the Introduction by the authors, there are twelve chapters plotting Brain’s life and career from the earliest years until his death. A chronological order is not strictly adhered to because Brain was involved in several orchestras and ensembles that overlapped but we have been especially concerned to map his life and career right up to the final concerts in Edinburgh. Where possible, his letters (mostly unpublished until now) to colleagues and the BBC have been quoted. Not many personal letters have survived but they do reveal something about his character. However, readers seeking a personal biography with trivial details of the man’s life, will not find much of that in this book. Suffice to say that he had cats as pets, not dogs. He loved photography and used a Contessa. One of the photos in the book shows him with his camera pointed at a subject (some puppies in a wooden bucket) during the Royal Air Force Symphony Orchestra’s tour of the United States, late 1944, early 1945. He had many of the novels of Anthony Trollope in his house at the time of his death but it is not known whether he read them.
The book is unashamedly, a celebration of the working life of one of the busiest musicians who, from the age of 17 until 36, hardly had a day off from concerts, tours, recording sessions, or broadcasts. Accounts of colleagues and family are quoted extensively throughout and also quotation from newspapers and magazines of the day, reviewing his concerts as a soloist or touring as an orchestral player with the RAF Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestras. A detailed discography (pp.240-278) is divided into two main parts: Selected Discography and
After the Discography, the Appendices (pp.279-297) include the Dennis Brain Wind Quintet and Ensemble’s music library (A), The Early Horn lecture recital, 1955 (B), Talking About The Instrument for General Overseas Service in 1956 (C), his few published articles on the horn reproduced in their entirety (D), and a list of concerts and overseas broadcasts for the BBC, as well as a few references to television and radio scripts and other documents preserved at BBC Written Archives near Reading, Berkshire (E).
Brain inspired many composers to write concertos and other solo pieces for him which has substantially increased the repertoire for horn soloists. Quite a few of the concertos and solo works written for Brain continue to be performed by professionals as well as students on the road to professionalism. For example, the Gordon Jacob Concerto, Seiber Notturno, Hindemith Concerto and York Bowen Concerto. He set a standard that was hard to emulate but nevertheless an example for many horn players of his own day and subsequent generations to the present. Horn players all over the world hold him in high regard. Of course, there have been many great horn virtuosi in the twentieth century – Aubrey Brain, Dennis’s father, Barry Tuckwell, Hermann Baumann, Erich Penzel, Richard Watkins, to name just a few – but Brain is still widely regarded as the greatest horn player in living memory. Perhaps the single most important work written for him (and for tenor, Peter Pears) was Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings op.31. It is quite often played by horn soloists today, in spite of its difficulties. Without a virtuoso to play this piece, other players would not have a clear bench mark to aim for. Brain supplied that in his day and his recordings continue to inspire modern players. He recorded the Serenade twice commercially, in 1944 and 1953. Both recordings have been reissued on CD, including Pearl 9177 (1995) for the 1944 recording and Decca Eloquence 0289 476 847-0 (2006) for the 1953 recording.
Brain was not just a classical musician – he also took a lively interest in all sorts of music – including jazz and popular music. He was especially a fan of Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey and played horn with his colleague, Norman Del Mar, for Geraldo and his Orchestra on many occasions, and for another big band orchestra, Ted Heath and His Orchestra for a radio appearance on “Downbeat” in 1949. He played what was usually the trombone solo, “Sophisticated Lady”. A frequent broadcaster on radio, he also took part in quiz shows and variety programs for television and also gave lectures at the Royal Festival Hall, at public schools (Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland, George Watson School in Edinburgh, for example) and for the BBC. His motto was “game for anything”.
Author biographical details
Stephen Gamble is a British artist and art historian, born in India in 1963, where his parents were Baptist missionaries. Educated in England and Kenya, he was trained as a fine artist at St Martin’s School of Art, London (1982-3), and Sir John Cass School of Art, (1984) and thereafter specialised in art history, obtaining his BA in History of Drawing and Printmaking in Europe from the Renaissance to the Present Day at Camberwell College of Arts, London Institute (1992), and his PhD Tradition and Innovation in the Teaching and Practice of the Art of Landscape In England, 1760-1860 at Kent University, Canterbury (1997). After teacher-training, 1999-2001, he has taught watercolour painting to adults and between 1993 and the present has published articles about the Brain family of horn players for Horn Magazine and Horn Player, magazines of the British Horn Society.
William Lynch is an American semi-retired aerospace corporation executive with four U.S. patents to his name. An amateur horn player since the mid 1950s, he has avidly collected Dennis Brain’s recordings and, during the course of researching this book, discovered some rare and important recordings in archives collections around the world, including the complete Salzburg Festival concert of the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble, 30 July 1957 (Austrian Radio Archives), as well as the entire Western Sound Archive, now preserved at Stanford University, California, awaiting preservation.
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