One of my all time trumpet heroes was and remains the great Maurice Murphy. This god of the trumpet world was as good as it was possible to be on the instrument. He could play anything. I always speak of his playing in the present tense because it still lives on in my memory. He is in that small upper echelon of trumpeters that have the rest of us gasping in awe. Some players have a sound that crackles and sizzles like electricity in the air. In fact, no recording ever does a sound like his true justice, compared to the tingle down the spine hearing it live in the concert hall does. Maurice fitted very comfortably into this category and like all such legends, he was also such a nice person, too.
Maurice Murphy was the famous trumpet sound on Star Wars, Superman and Raiders Of The Last Ark. John Williams, the composer on all these films, said all he had to do to write music for a hero was write a melody for Maurice to play and his spectacular musicianship did the rest.
The last time I heard him live in the London Symphony Orchestra was about fourteen years ago in the Barbican Centre, the LSO’s ‘spiritual’ home, in the City Of London. Bizarrely, I was booked as a soloist that day, to play the concerto by Leopold Mozart, in the Barbican. However, not with the LSO (I have never worked with them), but the London Soloists Chamber Orchestra. We were to rehearse in the morning, with a performance in the evening and the LSO would be sandwiched into the afternoon slot to rehearse Mahler Symphony no. 10 with Michael Tilson Thomas, for a performance the following day. This was a strange time because the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) was closed for refurbishment and they were performing adjacent to the concert hall, in the Barbican Theatre, normally the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company at that time, so their brass section was ‘milling’ around also. Perhaps the last thing I needed to play the Leopold Mozart that day was to have some of the world’s greatest brass players ‘gawping’! Well, you can’t worry about that sort of thing, you just concentrate on your own game and in fact those that listened to either my rehearsal or concert were kindly complimentary. Phew (what a relief)!
Well, I couldn’t think of a better way to chill out for the afternoon than sitting in the concert hall to hear the LSO rehearse Mahler ten. It was awesome! I can still remember the absolute thrill of listening to Maurice sailing around the upper registers on an ordinary B flat orchestra trumpet, with consumate ease and a bravura style that had goosebumps breaking out on me. I still remember that sweet sound and control, better than I remember the taste of the best food ever or the greatest wine…
I have listened to many recordings of Maurice after that, live radio broadcasts, CDs, television, film etc and loved them all. They are all amazing, but how lucky I am to have heard him live over many years, since I was a child: to be coached by him on several occasions and to have been given advice from time to time. I remember Alasdair Mackie, now Principal Trumpet with The Philharmonia Orchestra, and I, as young aspiring trumpeters, somehow ‘acquiring’ corporate sponsors’ tickets to drink free wine before listening to Maurice playing Mahler 5 live in the Barbican. Tilson Thomas was conducting and they had just returned from touring the work. It was incredible! He said afterwards that piece didn’t bother him. How inspiring for two young hopefuls. RLPO Principal Horn, Tim Jackson, tells a story; as a young horn player in London, he was waiting in the wings to go on stage at the Barbican. Alongside him was Maurice, about to take the stage to play Also Sprach Zarathustra. Tim felt the need to say something to this legend and said what an honour it was to hear him in the rehearsal. Maurice replied, “… You’ve heard nothing yet, lad!” and went on to play an absolute blinder.
I have recently unearthed some programmes of Maurice working as an extra with my own orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, when he was just starting out, in 1960. In those days, he was a young extra player learning his trade (if I may be so bold) to the equally great Alan Stringer, the famous Principal Trumpet of the RLPO for many years. Maurice Murphy inspired me as a youngster. I remember his friend, the brass band conductor Richard Evans, getting him as guest soloist in Preston Guild Hall. He played Facilita and the Haydn Trumpet Concerto; the first time I had heard either work. I also remember my father taking me along to a class Maurice was taking, for young players. I proudly thought that I had played ‘brilliantly’ and then I heard him demonstrate. Apart from having a broken heart at being so ‘out done’, I was cheeky enough to ask him how he had got to be so good. He replied very modestly (and undoubtedly honestly) that I should do as he did. Get my father to take me to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and listen to the best trumpeter in the world, Alan Stringer… sound advice, indeed. A young player never forgets things like that.
Maurice was well known for drawing ‘doodles’ on the First Trumpet parts. We are to perform Mahler Symphony no. 10 ourselves, shortly. Being the dutiful and studious players we are, we traiped down to the RLPO music library to see our Music Librarian, Tony McCormick (the longest serving music librarian in the UK currently) and sign out the music to study. Our brass section was a buzz when they all saw Maurice’s doodle on the back page of the first trumpet part. This time signed 2009, a few months before he died. Very poignant for us too…
Sometimes it is little things like that which make this job so special…
(I wonder who the conductor is? Some might say it bears a striking resemblance to Daniel Harding!)
Apparently Maurice Murphy entered Opportunity Knocks as a young man. Sadly, he came second to a Cockney Pearly King!