Ronald Manning On Rafael Mendez And Dennis Brain,
Containing A Brief Bio-Segment Of Ronald
(wav files of Rafael)
(the paragraph divisions are exactly those of Ronald Manning--Carol Beck)
14 August 1995
....Dennis Brain is the finest horn player I've ever heard and was considered the best in the world by his contemporaries. He was killed at the age of 30 in a headon collision on Hwy 101 near San Clemente, California in the late 50's.
The French Horn is seldom treated as a solo instrument by composers. And because of its broad usable range and chameleonlike tone it is equally at home blending with strings or blaring with brass. Even a non-musical person can usually distinguish the sound of a French Horn---it is unique.
Brain has an uncharacteristic horn sound. Whereas the traditional application of a horn is that of accompaniment, backup or special effect, and seldom is used as a featured or solo instrument, Brain brings an aggressive, full sound to his performances. He possessed unusual tone, power and flexibility. I think you will find his sound pleasing.
Rafael Mendez, quite simply, was the best there ever was. As an individual and as an artist I've never known anyone like him.
Let me digress.
My early life was primarily musical. I studied piano from the age of six; took up trumpet at the age of nine and stayed with it through my 20's. When I was 13 I moved to Culver City, California (Swimmin' pools, movie stars) which is, even today, the home of MGM, Hal Roach Studios, RKO Pathe and Desilu Studios (the latter three no longer exist). It was a marvelous experience. My high school science teacher was one of the original "Our Gang" members and my music teacher played alto sax with the Tommy Dorsey band. And in my class were twins by the name of Ralph and Robert Mendez. Their father was Rafael Mendez of whom I had never heard. I became close friends with Robert and I often went to his home to practice and play duets. And once in awhile HE would be home between appearances and concert tours and I would receive impromptu coaching from HIM.
(An item, lest I forget: Rafael was born on March 26, 1906 and the poet I admire most (Frost) was born March 26, 1874; I was born January 22, 1938 and Joseph Wambaugh (mentioned in the poetry column by Griffin) was born January 22, 1937. I thought these coincidences to be interesting).
My entire high school career was involved primarily with music; I had a dance band which I fronted; a Dixieland band; a trumpet quartet with Ralph and Robert; a Barbershop quartet; I played dates around town with my horn when I got calls from other local dance bands; I taught trumpet on the side; I wrote arrangements for my dance band. I also received C's, D's, and F's in all my other high school subjects that were not involved with music.
Back to Rafael.
He was born in Mexico (the state of Zacatecas, I believe) to a family of ten. Papa Mendez had his own orchestra made up of his family members. Rafael began playing trumpet when he was six. In 1912 Pancho Villa stopped in the village where the Mendez clan lived and demanded musical entertainment which the Mendez family was forced to provide. He liked them so much that he decided to take them with him. The story (probably apocryphal) goes that little Rafael balked and said that he wanted to play in the band of the opposition (whoever that may have been) because they were better. Villa stood him against a wall and threatened to shoot him (joking, I'm sure) if he didn't change his mind. He did change his mind, of course.
Rafael never attended a formal school. As soon as he was old enough and good enough he left home and played in a circus band (rough duty, believe me).
In the early 30's he slipped into the U.S. and moved in with a cousin in Gary, Indiana where he tried to get work in the steel mills and auto factories. Not easy for Rafael--he was 5'6" and about 120 pounds. He was able to get work finally playing guitar parttime in a speakeasy.
As the story goes, he was in a park one sunday listening to the Buick factory band playing a concert. He asked if he could borrow a trumpet to play a solo. His request was granted as a joke. "As soon as the last note faded in the warm summer air, etc..." he was an employed musician and was never out of work again.
Before Rafael the trumpet repertory of performance music consisted of musical cliche~s and tricks comprising trickfingering, double- and triple-tonguing and sustained notes showing off breath control and other spectacular devices to "wow" the rubes. Rafael changed all of that. He brought originality, diversity and credibility to the trumpet as a solo instrument. His adaptations are taken from all areas of classical and popular music as well as the ethnic music of Mexico and Spain. The numbers I've included on the tape are meant to be a comprehensive, selective sampling of some of his unique interpretations.
Cara Nome (the first selection) is my favorite. I think it to be his most lyrical and expressive. Technically, the best he has ever recorded is Mendelssohn Concerto (violin) which was recorded in 1948. It is flawlessly performed. I've listened to it hundreds of times and have not been able to detect a mistake or hesitation. It is perfection. Flight of the Bumblebee is performed with a cup mute. This is the only recording on which he has used a mute. His tone, though clear and bright, is also light and does not stand up well with the use of mutes since a mute, curiously enough, tends to draw attention to, and even amplify, performance mistakes. He uses it here simply for effect. Rafael's expertise is in legitimate execution. He does one thing and one thing only: He plays the finest classical trumpet the world has ever heard. He died in 1981 from complications of emphysema.
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