Dennis Brain in Chicago, November 25-26, 1950; Some Notes from Dennis Brain: A Life in Music

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A massive new biography of the great British horn virtuoso Dennis Brain was just published this month by UNT press, Dennis Brain: A Life in Music. While I anticipate I will have a more formal review of this publication soon I would offer some initial notes and also look at two interesting quotations related to his time in Chicago on tour as a member and soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

This book is well over 350 pages long and contains a variety of information on Dennis Brain. The strongest chapters are full of quotations and read something like an oral history. One chapter is on his time in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and looks in depth at their US tour in 1950. One stop was Chicago, and memories of two different Chicago horn players are cited.

The first is Philip Farkas. He recalled in 1991 that he

… went to the concert in which Dennis Brain played the Mozart No. 2. During it he scratched one little note and afterwards some of the players in the orchestra told me “We don’t know what happened to Dennis. This is the seventh performance he’s played in America and he never did that before!” So, this was a pretty good start—seven without a scratch!”

It is a good story, but one that I read and go HMMMM. Farkas was told this by “some of the players in the orchestra.” I will grant that it could have actually been the first note he missed on tour as a soloist (several others cited in the book speak of his very high level of accuracy), but it does also sound a bit like the sort of idle chat that orchestral players have always made, mixed with a bit of British humor.

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In any event Milan Yancich also recalled his interaction with Brain, in a passage quoted from his own great book, An Orchestra Musician’s Odyssey.

I had an absorbing and delightful visit with Dennis Brain at Geyer’s workshop. He was a man of simple charm and blessed with an attractive and winning personality. I played on his Raoux horn which had been rebuilt from a single F horn into a double horn with a C alto attachment.

Actually, Yancich is slightly confusing on this point, as really it had been rebuilt into single B-flat generally similar to the horn in this photo (described more fully here) and was later rebuilt with a rotary ascending valve added for C alto; sources indicate that it did not have that valve added until after the 1950 tour. But to get to visit with Dennis Brain at the workshop of the famous horn maker Carl Geyer? Wow, what horn player would not want to be a fly on that wall. Jumping ahead just a bit,

Unlike the modern day French horn with rotary valve action, his horn had piston valves like the trumpet. It responded and had the feel of a mellophone. When I first held his horn in my hands it was of feather weight compared to my own Geyer horn. The horn was very easy to play, it responded quickly and the high register was superb in its response. When Brain played on my Geyer, he struggled to attain the high C. He had an embouchure where he set his mouthpiece into the lip (einsetzen embouchure) rather than the customary on the lip setting (ansetzen embouchure). The rim of his mouthpiece was quite thin. He stated that the placement and setting of the embouchure was almost the exact opposite of his father’s and that when he articulated it was different from the customary technique of most horn players.

This quote is most interesting. Breaking it down further,

  • The B-flat piston horn responded and had the feel of a mellophone. A mellophone! By this he of course means a classic, concert mellophone, not a marching mellophone. But the comparison is very apt and honest, especially having put in now a good bit of time on a very similar horn and also owning classic mellophone. For sure it would have had some of that same tone color and the piston valves have a very different feel. If you are not familiar with the concert mellophone referenced by Yancich, see this article for more.
  • There are many other quotes in the book relating to American players having trouble producing a note at all on his piston valve horn but actually Yancich found it “very easy to play” with a superb high register. Most of the other players seem to have been trying it at parties late at night after a few stout drinks, which was probably part of their problem getting notes out of it.
  • Brain struggled with a conventional type double horn such as most of us use. I believe that it must have felt heavy and unresponsive to him, after a lifetime of performance on very light and responsive single horns.
  • His embouchure was not what is usually taught, set in the red using a very thin rim mouthpiece. My second embouchure (I have changed my embouchure twice) was actually similar. (Which makes me wonder, what would have happened if he had changed his embouchure to a more conventional approach? What if I had stuck with the approach similar to his? We will never know.)
  • And finally, Brain was aware also that his tonguing method was also not what was normally taught. It is very easy to hear in his playing, he makes much use of a controlled, light “tut-tut” articulation. It is central to his sound and approach and certainly against the rules in the Farkas book. I also know that I use a similar tonguing method. More on this here and here.

The new book on the whole is full of information such as this on topics related to Dennis Brain pulled from a wide variety of sources. In the specific quotes cited here I could have used a bit more discussion, but still authors Stephen J. Gamble and William C. Lynch have developed a great new resource that all fans of Brain should own. More information on the book itself may be found here.

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