A quick look at “A Horn like Dennis Brain Played”


At the upcoming international horn symposium I will be presenting a session titled “A Horn like Dennis Brain Played.” On it I will be using two different horns, an Alexander single B-flat described in this prior article (like he used at the end of his career) and also this horn, a hundred year old Hawkes piston valve horn generally similar to the horn he used earlier in his career.

The session description as submitted is as follows:

While all serious students of the horn have heard recordings by the legendary horn soloist Dennis Brain, most listeners have never heard horns very much like the horns he performed on live in a room. This session in a lecture-recital format will focus in on the equipment he used during his performing career.

The session involves performing (!) on both of the horns, with the Hawkes being the really unfamiliar looking (and sounding) instrument. Dating to around 1916, it belongs to Arizona State. I have a longer, general description of this horn here, where I note that

This horn takes crooks just like an orchestral natural horn and has crooks for E-flat, F, G, A-flat, and A with a short, 1/2 step coupler and short and long tuning slides. This is the type of valved horn used widely in England (and France) up until around W.W.II. It is in great shape. The bell and bore are very much like that found on the typical natural horn. The bell has a garland, and the tone is much more like that of the natural horn than that of a modern horn.

The keys I need to use it in are F and B-flat. Initially my feeling was that it played reasonably well in B-flat but not very well at all in F. The first photo is of the horn set up in F, which was the pitch length Brain used in his earliest recordings.

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Part of what makes this particular instrument play less than ideally in F is the valve slides are set up so that pushed in all the way they are the right length for B-flat and pulled out all the way they are the right length for E-flat. There are marks on the slides to tell you where to pull them for each key, as seen in the second photo. They are a little hard to spot in the photo but the horn really is tuned at the factory, the lines for F are pretty much right where they need to be.

Without straying too far into the weeds the essential down side is that the bore is very inconsistent on the F side. Dennis Brain did not play a horn that had these bore inconsistencies but I decided to see how well I could get this to play for demonstration purposes. Initially it felt incredibly stuffy on the F horn with any valve depressed and really was a “Devil to Play” as the song goes. On the crook that came with the horn it also had a terrible roll on the F on the top of the staff.

So I figured that I better go “all out” and I took it in to a local shop and had it ultrasonically cleaned and the valves scope aligned. In B-flat the horn really got going but in F it was still very stuffy. So I dug back into the available crooks and discovered that a Seraphinoff crook I had makes this horn work pretty well with the short coupler and the short tuning slide, and I have another option that may even play better. So I have it ready to go in F.

The third photo is how the horn looks in B-flat, with the short crook and the valve slides pushed in. Although it probably was a challenge to relearn his technique with new fingerings I can easily see why Brain moved to the B-flat crook, it plays a lot better with a clear, light sound and easy production into the high range. On the F crook the horn feels very much like a natural horn; in B-flat it feels more like a modern horn. Light as a feather!

On either crook I should add that the legato is superb in valve changes. Piston valves really have a different feel than rotary valves. But on the negative side I can’t play this horn for over a few minutes without a holding strap. With a strap I am OK but I really would not want to use this horn full time. The piston valves have an awkward direction of action that maybe would be OK if that was all you had ever played but coming to it from rotary valves it is not ideal.

But with that said it still has a surprisingly small sound and would not work for low horn playing well at all, especially so in B-flat. It would also stick out like a sore thumb in any modern orchestral situation and I would not personally want to play much outside of classical solo repertoire on this horn. The switch to the Alexander B-flat horn makes total sense; it was relatively speaking a sports car and must have opened up new worlds of works for Brain. Plus the sound is much more like that of the double horns most of us use.

I will have much more in the session in San Francisco. I am looking forward to the coming month of really practicing on these horns to prepare this session and I hope that many of you might be able to join me there.

UPDATE: For information on another element of his equipment, his mouthpiece, see this article.

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