John Brennan (1911-2010)

Obituary by Duncan Honeybourne

John Brennan, pianist, was born in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, on May 1911. He died in Newcastle-under-Lyme on 19th April, 2010, aged 98.

For forty years John Brennan was one of the most frequently broadcast pianists on the BBC Midland and Northern regional wavelengths. For much of his long career he combined a strong performing profile with a post as Director of Music at Cotton College, the former Roman Catholic independent school in Oakamoor, Staffordshire. He was a familiar soloist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and throughout Britain, and appeared as a duo partner with many of the leading artists of his day.

John Brennan was born in Tunstall, in the Staffordshire Potteries, in May 1911, the son of a tile presser and grandson of Irish immigrants; his grandfather, a furnace labourer, had settled in Staffordshire in the 1850s. A child prodigy, Brennan made his first public appearance at the age of eleven in Tunstall Town Hall, where he was presented with a bound edition of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words by the manager of Goldendale Iron Works. At thirteen he was sent to London, boarding at St Aloysius College, Highgate and studying piano at Trinity College of Music. In 1927 he enrolled at the Royal Manchester College of Music where he studied for six years with Lucy Pierce, pupil of the legendary Egon Petri and doyenne of Manchester pedagogues. He held the Halle Memorial Scholarship from 1930-33 and in 1933 was awarded the prestigious Dayas Gold Medal, awarded triennially to the College’s most outstanding pianist.

Brennan made his professional debut at Birmingham Town Hall in 1934, playing the Delius Piano Concerto with the City of Birmingham Orchestra (now the CBSO) conducted by Leslie Heward. He gave frequent concerto performances with the CBO, and in Manchester with the Halle Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent. His duo partners included the violinists Arthur Catterall, Antonio Brosa, Charles Taylor and Ivry Gitlis, and the singers Maggie Teyte and Heddle Nash.

In 1932 he began a forty-year career as a regular broadcaster from the Birmingham and Manchester studios of the BBC, appearing frequently as a recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber musician. The wide range of repertoire in his broadcast recitals ranged from Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas to works by Busoni, Delius and Grainger. Always alive to his responsibilities towards British composers of his own day, he championed the Arnold Cooke Sonata for Two Pianos and was a persuasive advocate of the Gordon Jacob Concerto for Piano and Strings, earning warm praise from the musical and national press.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was sent to work on a Cheshire farm, but shortly thereafter was recalled to give the first Manchester Midday Concert of the war years, followed by many further recitals and broadcasts during this remarkably fertile artistic period. In 1940 Brennan was appointed Assistant Music Master at Denstone College, near Uttoxeter, moving to Cotton College part-time in 1941 and full-time the following year. He retired in 1978 and was created a Papal Knight in the same year, being invested with the Order of Knighthood of Pope St Sylvester.

John Brennan’s playing is preserved in a few surviving BBC recordings. These reveal an artist of sensitivity and distinction, possessed of a strong technique and a clear sense of structure and musical line. His last years were spent at a nursing home in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where he died peacefully on Monday 19th April 2010, a few weeks short of his 99th birthday.