Listening to Britten – In memoriam Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

In memoriam Dennis Brain for four horns, tubular bells and string orchestra (ca January 1958, orchestrated by Colin Matthews. Britten aged 44)

1 Introduction
2 Allegro

Dedication Dennis Brain
Duration 4’30”


Excerpts from the piece can be found at the NMC website.

Background and Critical Reception

Dennis Brain is acknowledged today as one of the greatest horn players to have ever lived, perhaps even the greatest. In an obituary for Gramophone magazine in 1957 Walter Legge described his legacy: ‘He restored to the repertoire Mozart’s four horn concertos and established Strauss’s two concertos. He inspired contemporary composers (among them Hindemith and Britten) to write works for the horn. And he has proved and established as a tradition that the horn at the lips of a devoted artist is one of the noblest and most expressive of instruments. We shall never hear his like again, but the standard of horn playing throughout the world has been inestimably improved by his example.’

The inspiration of contemporary composers was key. Britten had already formed a friendship with Brain that began musically with some elaborate solos written into Britten in Wartime and culminated in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and Canticle III: Still falls the rain.

Yet tragedy struck as Brain was driving back to London on September 1, 1957, and his car hit a tree. He was killed instantly, just 36 years old.

Poulenc dedicated the haunting ElĂ©gie for horn and piano to his memory, while Britten began a work for four horns and orchestra. It was designed for performance at the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival, but in the event other works marked Brain’s passing, and the sketches were not completed. However the beginnings of two movements were completed by Colin Matthews.


This is an uncomfortable piece, particularly as its essence is the Dirge from the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, written for Pears and Brain himself. Britten takes the haunting motif sung by the tenor and scores it for solo horn at the opening, before the piece is disturbed by the full horn ensemble.

The Allegro has a sullen mood, the horn fanfares complementing each other but notable for their emptiness. The accompanying strings reinforce the mood, though when they finish with the melody from the Dirge that accompanies the words ‘and Christ receive thy soul’, there is an uncomfortable shiver.

Not surprisingly this piece is troubled and resentful, rather like Poulenc’s harrowing response, but the lack of a fully formed structure is equally troubling. Of all the works realised from Britten’s fragments this feels like one of the least complete, and the feeling remains the composer would have wanted to say so much more about a friend whose passing was a great shock, professionally and personally.

Recordings used

Michael Thompson, Richard Watkins, Peter Francomb and Chris Griffiths (horns), Northern Sinfonia / Thomas Zehetmair (NMC)

Extremely well played and recorded, this performance is part of the excellent NMC collection Unknown Britten.


The Unknown Britten album can be found here, with In memoriam Dennis Brain beginning at track 16.

Also written in 1958: Feldman – Two instruments (for horn and cello)

Next up: How blest are shepherds

This entry was posted in Listening to Britten, Orchestral, Soloist with orchestra, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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