Aubrey and Dennis Brain Online

Stephen Gamble, one of the authors of the new biography Dennis Brain: A Life in Music, recently passed along a link to a great website full of additional information on Brain’s father Aubrey.  Located here, the site is actually a part of dennisbrain.net, a compendium of various resources on Dennis Brain’s life and career.   John Ericson has posted a more detailed review at Horn Matters, which is of course recommended reading.  Dr. Gamble has put together some great stuff here, and it makes a nice companion to his new Dennis Brain biography.   Speaking of biographies, in our correspondence Dr. Gamble also mentioned a forthcoming project on Aubrey Brain – see his comment below, quoted from this blog comment.

I have an enormous amount of material about Aubrey Brain’s career that is not mentioned on those web pages, including original documents, most of which were actually once in his possession and given to me by a member of the family. I intend to publish a biography (possibly an ebook) some time in the future on Aubrey Brain but can’t give a date for that yet. There’s a lot more to learn about his career but it’s unlikely much personal information will come to light at this distance in time.

This promises to be a fantastic project as well, and I look forward to reading it.  Perusing this site got me thinking about other online resources for research on Dennis and Aubrey Brain, so I thought I’d put together a brief list, starting with the sites mentioned above.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  If you know of any other useful online resources on Dennis and Aubrey Brain feel free to comment below.

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Rare Dennis Brain Performance and Interview

It’s been awhile since I posted on classic LPs, but recently I came across a trove of rare and unusual records in our music library. I’m making my way through them slowly, but one that caught my eye right away was this 1979 Arabesque Records album called “Unreleased Performances of Dennis Brain” (AR 8071).  According to the record jacket, “All the music on this record is from the recital given by the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble at the Freemasons Hall on Aug. 24, 1957,” one of the last performances Brain gave before his tragic death.  Works on the album include La Basque by Marin Marais and Dialogue No. 4 for Wind Quintet by Gian F. Malipiero, as well as Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, Op. 16 and Villanelle by Paul Dukas.  In addition, the record includes interviews with Brain and various colleagues, and an excerpt from a lecture-recital featuring Brain and Neill Sanders.  To my knowledge, these recordings – and especially the interviews – have not been re-released, and are unique to this album.  If you can’t find this album at a used record store or online, don’t despair as there are numerous CD versions of other classic recordings by Brain, including this very nice box set.  This is a special year for Dennis Brain’s legacy, as the 43rd International Horn Symposium will be featuring several presentations related to his life and career.  Among these are a lecture recital by John Ericson titled “A Horn like Dennis Brain Played,” and a presentation by William Lynch, one of the authors of the recently published biography Dennis Brain: A Life in Music.  In closing I’ll leave you with two short snippets from the LP, which I’ve transferred over to digital format.  The first is Brain performing  La Basque by Marin Marais (his signature encore), with Wilfrid Parry on piano, and the second is Brain being interviewed by Roy Plomley on August 13, 1956 for the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs.

Recommended DVDs for the Horn Player, Part 1

Along with audio recordings, DVDs make great learning tools for horn players.  They provide the audio quality of CDs, but with several advantages.  With DVD recordings, students and teachers can observe embouchure, equipment, posture, stage presence, placement for the soloist, and many other important components of horn performance. In this two-part series, I’ll share my “short list” of recommended DVDs.  Most are fairly easy to order through online retailers, usually at very reasonable prices.  I’ll apologize in advance for the quality of the screenshots; they were taken with a digital camera.  It’s probably a good thing, but my screen capture software doesn’t work on commercial DVDs.

Dennis Brain and Denis Matthews play the Beethoven Sonata, op. 17

This historical recording has been recently re-released on DVD by Hans Pizka Edition, and is available in the U.S. from Pope Instrument Repair. In addition to the rare video footage of Dennis Brain, the DVD includes lots of extra content, including an introduction by Barry Tuckwell, and several “bonus” chapters with pictures, information, and a performance of the Weber Concertino by Hans Pizka.  Highly recommended! Clips of the video are also available on YouTube, and the footage of Dennis Brain (minus the extra content) can be downloaded for a small fee here.

The Essential Bach, 5 DVD Set

This fabulous set of DVDs has a number of important performances for horn players, and is available for a great price on Amazon.

Disc 1 contains all 6 of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, performed on period instruments by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (see screen image above).  For brass players, the 1st and 2nd concertos are of course especially important because of their significant horn and trumpet parts.

Disc 2 contains a complete performance of the Mass in B minor, BWV 232, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Georg Chrisoph Biller conducting.  The famous “Quonium” movement for solo bass and obbligato horn is performed here by (I’m assuming) a trumpet player on a corno da caccia.

Disc 5 features the German Brass in an all Bach program recorded at the Thomaskirche (one of Bach’s churches) in Leipzig. If you haven’t heard this group (see image above), you need to!  The playing is incredible, and the transcriptions are all first rate. They have  a number of CD recordings, but I particularly like this DVD because you can observe all of the instruments they use during the program. Check out the close up shot of horn player Wolfgang Gaag and his triple horn on the bottom.

Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin, 1998 (Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim)

This DVD contains some amazing performances, most notably Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück, op. 86 for four horns and orchestra. The soloists are Stefan Dohr, Dale Clevenger, Ignacio Garcia, and Georg Schreckenberger. The rest of the program includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, Franz Listz’s “Les Preludes,” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”  This DVD is pretty difficult to find in the U.S. but if you know someone who can order it for you from Amazon.uk, the shipping costs are definitely worth it.  If this isn’t a possibility, there are several clips from the DVD posted on YouTube.

The Cologne Music Triennale (Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado)

Stefan Dohr, Principal Horn of the Berlin Philharmonic, dazzles again in this live recording of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (Philip Langridge, tenor). In the image above, Dohr is playing the “Prologue” on a natural horn.  Check out Amazon for this DVD, as they have it for a great price.

Richard Strauss, Concerto No. 1 in E-flat for Horn and Orchestra (Marie-Luise Neunecker, horn Munich Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, Michael Helmrath)

Another great recording by a world class soloist. Although the recording is a few years old (check out the dress), the playing is impeccable. Other works on this all Strauss DVD include the Capriccio for String Sextet, Romance for Clarinet and Orchestra, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite. Although the new price on Amazon is a little high, look for used copies to get a better price.



New Blog and Dennis Brain’s Embouchure

One great brass resource I only recently became aware of is Wilktone, the blog of Dr. David Wilken.  According to his bio, “David Wilken is a trombonist, composer, and music educator living in western North Carolina.  He earned a B.M in Composition from Illinois Wesleyan University, a M.M. in Jazz Studies from DePaul University and a D.A. in Trombone Performance from Ball State University.  He has taught music at Indiana Wesleyan University, Adams State College, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville.  Dr. Wilken currently teaches music at Western Carolina University.”

Dr. Wilken’s blog is full of great essays and videos on brass playing, with a particular focus on embouchure function.   His most recent video is titled “Embouchure Misconceptions: Five Myths About Brass Embouchures,” and it has got some really intriguing points.  The entire video is definitely worth watching, but I was particularly interested in Misconception No. 5, “The best mouthpiece placement is centered on the lips, with more top lip inside the mouthpiece. You shouldn’t place the mouthpiece rim on the red of the upper lip.”  This particular part of the video begins at 6:06.  Dr. Wilken goes on to explain that although a good many brass players do play with more top than bottom lip in the mouthpiece, there are plenty of others who actually play better with more bottom lip inside the mouthpiece.  He backs this up with video footage of a number of famous brass players, among them Dennis Brain, who “seem to place the mouthpiece lower on the lips, some right on the red of the upper lip.”  While I don’t necessarily disagree completely with this statement, I think in the case of the horn, the tolerances in terms of mouthpiece placement are much smaller due to the small size of the mouthpiece and the length of the instrument.  It is true that the horn can be played – and played quite well – with more lower than upper lip in the mouthpiece, but I think for a majority of horn players (more so than the other brass instruments), more top lip in the mouthpiece is necessary.  That being said, I never encourage students to change mouthpiece placement if their current setup allows them to negotiate the full range of the instrument with characteristic tone and articulation.  Regardless of my own personal views, videos and studies such as these are wonderful teaching tools, and I thank Dr. Wilken for his hard work and scholarship in this area.

One thing this video did for me was raise the question of Dennis Brain’s embouchure and how it differs from the more often used setup of more upper than lower lip in the mouthpiece.  Looking at my own resources, one of the few descriptions of Brain’s embouchure in the literature that I could find is in Milan Yancich‘s An Orchestra Musician’s Odyssey. His autobiography is full of practical and anecdotal information, including this brief description of meeting Dennis Brain and exchanging horns for a few minutes.

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 (einsetzt embouchure) rather than the customary on the lip setting (annsetzt embouchure).  The rim of his mouthpiece was quite thin. He stated that the placement and setting of his 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. [p. 208]

Another great resource we have for studying Dennis Brain’s embouchure is the video footage of the Beethoven Sonata, Op. 17 with Denis Matthews, originally produced by Anvil Film in 1952.  This video has recently been converted to DVD format by Hans Pizka Edition, and is available in the U.S. from Pope Instrument Repair.  In the following still images from the video, you can see Dennis Brain’s embouchure while playing first a low c, then b’ in the staff, and then g” above the staff.  These images are all Copyright 2007 by Hans Pizka Edition, and are reproduced here for educational purposes under the auspices of Fair Use.

In the last image especially you can see that Brain’s embouchure is one in which the mouthpiece is set into the top lip (einsetzen), rather than against it (ansetzen).  It is difficult to tell exactly the proportion of upper to lower lip, but it does look like there is more lower lip in the mouthpiece.  Needless to say, this setup worked fabulously for Dennis Brain – but that is no guarantee that it would (or wouldn’t) work for someone else.

For students I think the main thing to take away from all this is that everyone’s embouchure is unique in terms of form and function.  There are definitely principles of embouchure formation and mouthpiece placement which need to be seriously considered, but when it comes down to it what really matters is the result.  The most beautiful-looking embouchure in the world doesn’t really mean that much if it can’t produce the characteristic sound and range required by the instrument.  Likewise, there are other less conventional setups out there which get the job done.