The lives and times of James Galway

IT’S been a long day already for James Galway, his schedule filled with a host of media appearances and other duties in the run-up to a performance at the National Concert Hall.

The lives and times of James Galway

But the 73-year-old flautist is far from talked out. Full of laughter, he has an anecdote at the ready for any question, drawing on a store of memories from his working-class Protestant childhood in Belfast, to his globe-trotting career as a soloist.

Galway, who has lived in Switzerland since the 1970s, is in town to receive a lifetime achievement award at the National Concert Hall. “It’s a very moving thing, and a very special thing,” he says. “There’s only one honour like this conferred. It’s not like something a lot of people get. It’s special for me because it’s in the Republic: this is real Ireland. Well, the other bit is real Ireland too, but they won’t admit it,” he adds with a mischievous laugh.

That other Ireland, north of the Border, is the one that shaped Galway. As a musician, he has his roots in the flute-band tradition.

“My dad played the flute, my grandfather played the flute. I played the violin for a bit but it fell apart because it was full of woodworm. They must have been Catholic, chomping away on it as I played The Sash! It fell to bits. Then I started playing the flute. If my dad left the flute down, I’d pick it up and try to play it.”

We may be used to flute bands as instances of sectarianism, but Galway’s experiences wasn’t so simple. “Our flute band had a very funny experience” he says. “A guy called Kevin Murphy called up and asked if he could be in the band. My teacher at the time said okay, we practice at seven. And, at seven o’clock, in walked a priest. He says, ‘I’m Kevin Murphy’. They had a meeting on the spot and said, ‘Okay you’re in’. That effectively ruined our relationship with other flute bands, because you just didn’t do that, but we weren’t going to be told what to do by other people.”

So did he grow up in some rarified pluralist atmosphere?

“No. My dad was terrible. The first thing he’d ask a friend if I brought them home was ‘Are you a Catholic or Protestant?’ So, I had to take him aside and say, ‘Dad, will you stop asking those questions, it doesn’t matter. They’re Irish.’”

Galway’s sense of identity grew more complicated when he went to London as a teenager, having won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. Though he’d felt Irish his whole life, London was strangely familiar. “Here was all this stuff we were taught about at school: Nelson’s Column, the Houses of Parliament, it all fitted. Whereas when I came south of the Border, I couldn’t spell Deirdre or whatever, as a result of a hole in my education.”

Galway’s government-funded scholarship was a springboard to the Paris Conservatoire. From there, he began a career that saw him working with ensembles including the London Symphony Opera and the Royal Philharmonic Opera before, in 1969, he landed the coveted role of principal flute with the Berlin Philharmonic, then in its golden age, under the legendary Herbert Von Karajan.

The easiest thing is to put Galway’s success down to extraordinary talent. But his own view isn’t so simple. “I often wonder what talent is,” he says. “If you show someone something and they really want to work at it, then they will develop an affinity for it, and the problems involved.”

For many, the Berlin job would have been the pinnacle. But Galway wanted to be his own boss. “Well, I asked Herbie for a day off once. He said, ‘Well, on that day we’re doing a Schoenberg concerto and a Bartók concerto. And I had actually asked him to do this Bartók concerto. I had this mini tour of England going on, so I had to cancel that. But when it came to the day, he said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to learn the score. We’re going to do the Mozart piano concerto in A major instead’. So I decided, I’m out of here.”

That same strong will has allowed Galway forge an incredibly successful career, selling over 30 million records. The lifetime achievement award is a reflection of this. But it’s hard for Galway, with his still-intimidating schedule of global performances, to step back and appreciate it all.

“You keep working away and doing what you do. Throughout my life I’ve done certain things, like opening the season for the New York Philharmonic, and you don’t get to do that sort of thing for nothing. But you are really so busy doing you don’t notice who you really are. You are taken up by this. You’re working on the next thing all the time. I don’t think anyone’s planning on me dying!”

A new venture for Galway is his First Flute series of online lessons.

For him, there’s a difference between intellectually understanding music and the craft of playing it. “I teach from a different perspective. I’ve done all these things — played millions of concertos all over the place. I can teach from another point of view. Can you imagine having the local teacher, and then having James Joyce teaching you? It’s a bit different.” So is he comparing himself to Joyce?

He considers this for a moment, then laughs again. “Of course. We’ve both lived in Paris!”

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