Sir James Galway at seventy By Robert Bigio
The first thing to be said about Sir James Galway is that he is a musician of the very highest order. He can play very, very well. He would not have become first flute in the Berlin Philharmonic otherwise. The fact that he has that indefinable star quality so beloved of marketing people is in addition to, not in place of, his musical gifts. Sir James is one of that small group of soloists who can pack a concert hall anywhere in the world, and who can gain the respect of their fellow musicians at the same time. Get beyond the marketing hype that surrounds some of his crossover CDs and listen, for example, to his playing on Karl Böhm’s recording of Mozart’s Posthorn Serenade. Is it possible to ask for better music-making? The second thing to be said about Sir James is that he revolutionised flute playing. Ask any flute player now in middle age why he or she took up the flute and the answer will usually be because of Sir James Galway. Listen to flute players from before he came on the scene and listen to them now. The standard of playing has shot up, and Sir James set the standard. And what a standard! As a teenager in Canada I acquired a recording of wind quintets played by members of the Berlin Philharmonic and was staggered by the flute player’s clarity of sound, faultless intonation and breathtaking technique. Later, one of us got hold of a cassette tape of Sir James playing Gaubert’s Nocturne et allegro scherzando and Briccialdi’s Carnival of Venice variations. The playing was so much better than anything else we had heard before that we listened in stunned silence. A few years after that, at a Marcel Moyse masterclass in Switzerland, Sir James, on a day off from the Berlin Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival, spent an hour playing for a group of us students, in a performance that remains etched in my memory. No-one could play the flute like that. It was nothing short of astonishing. I wasn’t alone in my astonishment. A friend of mine, now one of the leading orchestral players in London, remembers Sir James playing at a Marcel Moyse masterclass in Canterbury in the 1960s. Sir James played a virtuoso study by Soussmann, so spectacularly that not even Moyse could think of anything to say other than, ‘Next,’ which usually meant he wanted the next student to play. Sir James stayed put, turned the page and played another study. ‘Next.’ He played a third. Moyse simply applauded. My friend describes Sir James’s playing as sensational, and this in front of an audience of flute players. The interesting question regarding Sir James’s career is this: how did he get from where he was to where he is? Without labouring the rags- to-riches aspect to his story, the fact is that he came from a tough, poor family from East Belfast, right by the docks. A contemporary of his says of people in the area that they had shoes on their feet, clothes on their back and some food on the table, but nothing much else. Sir James himself remembers, ‘If you don’t know what you haven’t got, you don’t miss it. If we just had turnips and butter or potatoes and scallions for dinner, that was just fine. In fact we loved it.’ Sir James’s father worked at the Harland and Wolff shipyard until the Second World War ended, at which time the demand for ships dropped and he was left without a job. He eventually worked the night shift, cleaning buses. Sir James’s mother was a winder in a flax-spinning mill. The young James and his brother George were basically street kids. It was a tough existence—often they saw their parents only at tea time, and then were back out on the streets, as Sir James now remembers it, ‘to see what mischief we could get up to.’ St. Paul’s Primary School, on the other hand, was ‘great’. Sir James went there at the age of six. He describes it as dirt poor, with no instruments, not even a recorder, but one inspirational teacher managed to make all the children sing, which played an important part in his education and later in his flute playing. Sir James later attended a secondary modern school. He was clearly a bright lad—he recently met his former English teacher, now a very old man, who told him that when he marked all the papers, the young James’s were always on top. The school could prepare pupils for university, but he did not want to go. ‘I would have had to buy a whole new set of garb, and the family just didn’t have the money. The university was on the other side of town, and we couldn’t even afford the bus fare.’ Northern Ireland’s powerful tradition of flute playing—there are countless flute bands of every description—and the fact that Sir James’s father, uncle, grandfather and many of their friends played the flute meant that there would be music in his life. He began playing a B flat flute (which is a bit bigger than a piccolo) in a marching band. ‘This is an excellent way to start the flute,’ he now says. ‘Some kids who begin on big flutes pull their embouchure to one side and never get it back.’ He had actually started on the violin, but the instrument he was given was, as he remembers it, ‘in the middle of dinner for about 3000 Irish woodworms’. So he got a flute—a Boosey & Hawkes Excelsior Class six-keyed instrument. He was taught by his uncle. After a while, he joined a flute band—the Onward. ‘That was a riot. It was a melody band—we just played one line, with a whole bunch of drums and cymbals and triangles.’ When he was twelve or thirteen, he got his first modern-style flute, a Selmer Gold Seal. ‘I tell you,’ he says, ‘it was the worst piece of junk that anybody ever sold me—if they had sold me a car in the same condition, it wouldn’t have even started, and if it did start it would have fallen to bits and rolled down the road! That’s how bad this flute was, and it wasn’t helped by my tinkering with it.’ But then his dad, through an old mate from the shipyard, found a flute for him and paid the princely sum of £21 for it. ‘That was a lot of money in those days because my dad earned just £4 a week. That flute took me through college until I got a Haynes.’ (The flute was by the Brussels maker E.J. Albert. It is now in the Muramatsu collection in Japan.) Changing from a simple-system band flute to a Boehm was not something the young James enjoyed. ‘I hated it! Because going from the six-keyed flute to the Boehm flute, I thought this guy Boehm was out of his mind—this was the worst fingering system I had come across. You know when you’re playing the Mozart D major concerto the F sharp on a six-keyed flute is with the first finger. I didn’t fancy using my ring finger on the Boehm flute!’ (It is unnecessary to say that he got used to it.) He wasn’t alone in making the change. Quite a few of his fellow bandsmen did the same, and his new band, the 39th Old Boys, used Boehm flutes. The 39th Old Boys flute band was run by Billy Dunwoody, a remarkable man who did much to inspire the young James Galway, and many other musicians besides. Young James left school at the age of fourteen. ‘I got a job in a piano shop, learning to tune pianos. We did a lot of repairing and cleaning them up so that the technicians could work on them. I worked there for two years, and then I went to London. I was dying to study with Geoffrey Gilbert, who had taught my first teacher, Muriel Dawn. Muriel was also a singer, very successful, then married Douglas Dawn, who came to be head of music for Northern Ireland schools. Douglas took me to concerts. I think I looked like the guy from Angela’s Ashes!’ Sir James says, ‘I owe more than I can ever repay to my beloved flute teacher Muriel Dawn’. Muriel had studied the flute both with Geoffrey Gilbert and with Robert Murchie, a player very much of the old British school. Muriel insisted young James must learn the French method as taught by Geoffrey Gilbert. ‘I used to practise Moyse’s De la sonorité like we used to say the Lord’s Prayer—we said it because we had to, but we didn’t know what it meant.’ (He learned later.) Sir James had also met John Francis, professor of flute at the Royal College of Music, who, like everyone else, was bowled over by his talent and wanted to teach him. Although Sir James wanted so badly to study with Geoffrey Gilbert at the Guildhall, he ended up with John Francis at the RCM. ‘John was offering me a house and a family, which for my parents, who were worried sick, was important.’ And so, he went to London to live with John Francis’s family in a grand house at 65 Marlborough Place, St. John’s Wood, in circumstances completely different from those in which he had been brought up—John Francis even drove a Rolls Royce. He was treated like a member of the family and would meet the Francises’ famous and distinguished neighbours in church. He says he learned a completely different way of living, and maintains the deepest gratitude for all the Francis family did for him. But, he did still want to study with Geoffrey Gilbert, and his relations with the Francises changed when he announced he was moving out. He transferred from the Royal College of Music to the Guildhall (something that was almost unheard of) and managed to get his study grant extended. In addition, from his second year at the RCM he was doing so many little gigs—extra in the London Symphony Orchestra, amateur operatic societies and the like—that he saved up enough money to buy himself his Haynes flute. Lessons with Geoffrey Gilbert proved to be a revelation. At his first lesson, after he had played a difficult study by Leonardo De Lorenzo, Gilbert took his flute from its case and rattled off the study at a great speed, faultlessly. ‘This showed me for the first time what the true standard of flute playing should be.’ He studied with Gilbert for a year, then got a French government scholarship to study in Paris, where he got a place at the Paris Conservatoire, not in the classe d’étrangers, but in fact got a place in the class for French people. His teacher was Gaston Crunelle, with whom he got on well. He didn’t say much in the first class of the week, which was for scales and studies, but was better in the second class, which was when the students played pieces. ‘In this class,’ remembers Sir James, ‘he was demonstrative and a very good teacher.’ One of the players who had been on the jury when Sir James had auditioned for the Conservatoire was Christian Lardé, who predicted that he would get his premier prix within a year, but he left before this could happen. Why? ‘Because I got a job in an opera company, second flute to Bill Bennett, my hero.’ Why was Wibb a hero? ‘Wibb was very outspoken about everybody—he didn’t really didn’t pull any punches about what he said, and he could back it up because he could play the flute real loud and real fast. This impressed me. I used to hang out with him all the time. He could rip through all these difficult studies, and I thought I’ve got to learn to do this. The thing I forgot was that he was three years older than me and had been studying with Geoffrey Gilbert for all that time, so you can imagine that sort of regimen.’ So, Sir James’s first full-time engagement was as second flute to William Bennett in the orchestra of Sadler’s Wells Opera. After a time, Wibb left and Sir James became first flute, a position he held for six years. After that he moved to the Covent Garden Opera orchestra—‘better job, better money, no touring’—but he didn’t like the orchestral manager and returned to Sadler’s Wells after one season, where he stayed another year. This was followed by a time as piccolo player in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, after which he was offered a job in the London Symphony Orchestra. He told the LSO’s manager, Ernest Fleischmann, that he had just signed a contract with the BBC, but Fleischmann said he would fix it, and he did. Unfortunately, Sir James says, he couldn’t stand the bickering and backbiting in the LSO, so the next season, when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra offered him a job at a huge salary, he took it. ‘They paid me £4000 a year—a lot of money in the 1960s, considering I bought a house for £3000.’ He stayed with the RPO for two years. Then, his life changed. The first flute job in the Berlin Philharmonic is perhaps the most sought-after position in the orchestral world, and it had become vacant. Sir James enjoys telling the story. He arrived a few minutes late for his audition, which was held at a museum in Munich, and was told not to bother by the orchestra’s manager, who told him that they had heard many great players and the position was settled. Sir James, furious at this, insisted on being heard, and eventually persuaded the manager to give him a chance. He was brought before the entire orchestra and played a Mozart concerto (after the pianist had refused to accompany him in the Ibert concerto). When he had finished, he thought, ‘It’s not so bad, or they would have thrown me out ages ago.’ Then, a voice from the crowd (probably that of the conductor, Herbert von Karajan) called out, ‘Play William Tell’. He did, from memory. Then, ‘Play L’Après-midi’, then more orchestral excerpts. Whatever he was asked, he played, from memory. When this was over, there was a break, during which he met the other candidates. After a time, they were all called onto the stage, where one after the other they had to play orchestral excerpts on demand. Sir James still can’t believe some of the other candidates had to step up to the music stand to play. He played everything from memory. Then the candidates were ushered out and told to wait. ‘I was ticked off. You can’t imagine it!’ After a time the manager reappeared and said, ‘Ah, Mr. Galway, you are now the solo flute of the Berlin Philharmonic. Congratulations. When can you start?’ He got a startling answer: ‘Well, listen, I don’t think I want to start, because since I got here nobody has said welcome or please or thank you. Now, do you think I want to play in an orchestra with people like that?’ The manager, astonished, told him that by law in Germany if you win an audition you have to take the job. Sir James replied, ‘Fine, but who’s German around here?’ And he left. Looking back on it, he says, ‘I think I must have been totally out of my mind. When I look back on that I wonder why they didn’t tell me to shove off anyway!’ A week or two later he received a letter from the manager pointing out that they would really like him to take the job. He wrote back to say that he wasn’t sure because he had a house in London and a good job, but he decided to say that he would try it for a month. ‘It was the most amazing experience of my life. I couldn’t believe an orchestra could play like this.’ He stayed in Berlin for six years, before shocking everyone by quitting in favour of a solo career. That was half his lifetime ago: he was still only thirty-five years old. It must be said that Sir James was an easy person to sell. As a soloist, the important matter is not simply one of being a great player (he was undoubtedly that), but of having a personality, too, and personality he had in spades. He became a media darling. We heard him on the radio and saw him on television, even on Top of the Pops. BBC Radio 4 used his recording of Gossec’s Tambourin as a theme tune for their deadly-serious morning news programme. This was a spectacular solo career—audiences loved him, and serious musicians, in some cases through gritted teeth because of envy, continued to admire his playing. Younger readers may not be aware of his popularity, but he was everywhere on the media: he was on the Val Doonican show, he was interviewed by Terry Wogan, he had his own programme on BBC Radio 3, and, in the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles, his was one of the few Northern Ireland voices we heard that was not that of a politician spouting or a relative grieving. And when he was involved in a catastrophic accident in Switzerland—a large motorcycle ran him over, leaving him with a broken arm and two broken legs—the story made the headlines in the news in Britain. (He recovered, mercifully.) Is Sir James still the boy from the Belfast streets? ‘Oh, yes,’ he insists. How have old friends’ lives changed? ‘Some,’ he says, ‘have had very successful careers—one is an inspector of bridges, one is an admiral in the navy. Well, a few of them went to jail and whatnot, but some did very good things and went to university. The ones who didn’t turned out to be fine people.’ On 8 December 2009 Sir James Galway turned seventy. At that age most flute players are putting their feet up, but he is not. He has bookings for the next two and a half years, and he has no plans to quit until, as he puts it, ‘Things start to crumble around the edges.’ He continues, ‘You can’t play like I do if you don’t work at it.’ I told him I was delighted to hear him say that, as some people think great virtuosos just are. I told him a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Jascha Heifetz: after a concert, a student said to him, ‘Mr. Heifetz, I would give everything to be able to play like you.’ Heifetz replied, ‘I did give everything to be able to play like me.’ Sir James said, ‘That’s it. That’s exactly right. I happen to believe I have a talent, God-given. If you believe in God, which I do, you have to think that every day you’re being watched—the spirit is watching you—and you have to live up to the mark and you have to do something about this talent that you’ve been given. Otherwise, you’re just going to fall by the wayside.’ Is he happy? ‘Yes,’ he says emphatically. ‘To be seventy years old, to be doing what you want to do and to be happy about it, that’s quite something.’ It is no exaggeration to say that Sir James Galway has transformed the flute world. Largely because of him there are now more flute players than ever before, and the existence of so many of us led to the formation of the British Flute Society, of which Sir James was the founding president. He and his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, are now honorary patrons of the society. One final thing: I asked Sir James why he, unlike some other talented players from his circle, chose to develop his talent with such hard work. I expected a long, philosophical answer. Instead, reverting to that delightful sing-song Belfast accent in which the words of one sentence cover a range of at least an octave, he answered, ‘I don’t think I had anything better to do!’ This article first appeared in Pan (now Flute, The Journal of the British Flute Society) in December 2009.
James Galway as a young boy Muriel Dawn, Sir James Galway’s beloved first teacher James Galway as a young man Robert Bigio Flute maker Robert Bigio Flute maker
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