Alan Civil was larger than life, both as a horn player and as a personality. He was known for spectacular playing ("beautifully focused"), huge horn choir arrangements, and quick wit and bonhomie. He wasn't afraid to express his less-than-respectful opinions of conductors. He was perhaps most famous for his high obbligato solo on the Beatles song "For No One."
Alan was born in 1929 in Northampton, England to a family of brass instrument players. He started playing horn at age nine; on leaving school during wartime, he joined the Royal Artillery Band. During this time, showing the kind of initiative that characterized his career, he persuaded Aubrey Brain to give him lessons, which required a 120-mile round-trip journey. Later he traveled to Hamburg, Germany to study with Willy von Stemm.
After his military service, in 1953 Alan joined Dennis Brain in the Royal Philharmonic as second horn and took over as principal when Dennis moved to the Philharmonia. In 1955, Alan joined the Philharmonia on tour and then stayed on as co-principal to Dennis. When Dennis died in 1957, Alan took over as principal. In 1964, he was the first non-German to be approached by the Berlin Philharmonic, but he decided to stay with the Philharmonia, which was reorganizing as a self-governing entity. In 1966, he left to join the BBC Symphony Orchestra, where he stayed until retirement in 1988. During this time, he also became a professor at the Royal College of Music, played with several chamber ensembles (including the Alan Civil Trio), and toured as a soloist.
He played an Alexander double horn for orchestral work, an Alexander single B-flat horn for solos, and had a collection of natural horns for early music (a special interest).
Alan's compositions include a symphony for brass and percussion, a wind quintet and octet, a horn trio, a suite for two horns, and innumerable arrangements and transcriptions for horn ensembles (some now lost). Many horn players have thrilled to his transcription of Beethoven's Egmont Overture at horn workshops.
Alan recorded most of the major horn works, including three recordings of the Mozart concertos: Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The last recording, with a lighter orchestra and brighter tempos, shows off a variety of tone, attacks, and phrasing and Alan's own cadenzas. His recording of the Britten Serenade with tenor Robert Tear and the Northern Sinfonia is particularly well-regarded.
Known for his quick wit, Civil once metaphorically quipped that you "really have to be sitting on the edge of your seat for pretty well all your life, otherwise you won't be able to play the horn." He had many stories to tell, and was the subject of many more. He enjoyed good food and wine and pubs, radio dance bands and comedy shows. He often tried to dissuade students from making a career of the horn, telling them about the nitty-gritty of the profession.
Alan was a frequent artist at horn workshops. He served on the IHS Advisory Council (1974-81) and as first president of the British Horn Society from 1979. He was awarded an OBE in 1985 and elected an IHS Honorary Member in 1989.
Tributes to Alan appear in the October 1989 issue of The Horn Call and a retrospective in the April 1992 issue.