Aubrey Brain (1893-1955), Master of his Instrument


In recent correspondence I was pointed toward a great online resource on Aubrey Brain, father of the virtuoso hornist Dennis Brain. It is by Stephen Gamble, a co-author of the new book Dennis Brain: A Life in Music. I have a brief review of a portion of this book here.

The Aubrey Brain website is “tucked away in a corner” so to speak in the website An enthusiasm for Dennis Brain; the Aubrey Brain portion of the content is a hidden gem, in effect an independent site within the larger site. For a taste of what you can find there on Aubrey Brain, this quote gives a brief introduction to his career and recordings.

Aubrey Brain’s professional career began at the age of eighteen when he was appointed by Sir Landon Ronald principal horn of the New Symphony Orchestra, in 1911. For over thirty years, he contributed his distinctive brand of horn-playing to numerous orchestral recordings and a handful of solo and chamber recordings that remain as bench marks of achievement for future horn-players to aspire to and to emulate. One of the orchestral recordings has Aubrey Brain’s name mentioned on the label: Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Dr Adrian Boult – a clear indication of his reputation as a virtuoso and popularity as a musician with the public. That this reputation was gained as much from performance as in recordings cannot be doubted for he was much in demand for concert engagements with the various London orchestras. It is regrettable that he did not record more of the solo repertoire but we must be grateful for those that he did – notably two complete recordings of the Brahms Horn Trio and a third (incomplete) recently issued by Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd in 2007. Apart from a handful of chamber music recordings, and an abridged recording of Mozart’s Second Concerto (see Solo and Chamber section), there is also Mozart’s Third Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr Adrian Boult. This was still available in ’78 form as late as 1955.

Another interesting element in this site is the full text of a talk by Aubrey Brain that was published in the January, 1928 issue of Music and Youth Magazine, “The Horn of Many Colors.” In it Aubrey Brain noted, “The F. Horn may be said to be full of bad notes, and the player must know his instrument’s peculiarities intimately, and correct its faults instinctively” and later in the article related that

The horn is so much like a child, a living creature. It is true that, because of these difficulties, players of even thirty years ago used to think they had done quite well if they had played properly two notes out of every three. That, however, is all changed; the horn-player of today is expected to be absolute master of his instrument. I, for one, claim that it is a most fascinating – almost lovable – instrument, and not least attractive because of its almost human imperfections.

Aubrey Brain closed his 1928 article with these tips, words for any hornist to live by today.

One or two other hints occur to me. Here they are:
(1) Begin and end your notes cleanly. Attack and release are vital points.
(2) Avoid the common fault of finishing a note with a jerk. The release must be clean, but not explosive.
(3) Do not force. If you are not playing easily you are playing wrongly.
(4) Get good advice in buying a horn. It is not an expensive instrument, but a sound opinion on the merits of any particular instrument is worth-while.

His 1931 article comparing the horns of France and England to those used in Germany is also a great read. If you are enthusiastic about horn history and playing in general or Dennis Brain specifically do be sure to check out this site, it has solid content but seems to have been visited little, having been online since 2002. Thank you Stephen Gamble for putting together this information on Aubrey Brain and do check out the new book on Dennis Brain as well.

UPDATE: Thanks to Stephen Gamble I was able to add this photo to Horn Matters of Aubrey Brain in the late 1930s, originally published in Meet The Orchestra! (Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd. London) by Stephen Moore. A great view of this master player. There are many more vintage photos of Dennis Brain and family to be found on Facebook at (you have to be logged into Facebook to see them) and be watching there as well, as he has even more materials at the ready on the Brain family.

University of Horn Matters