James Galway

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Sir James Galway is well known among flutists and non-flutists alike. His music is popular throughout the world across a diverse population, whether they consider themselves classical music lovers or not. He has achieved such high status in the fine arts arena that he has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and received numerous public awards including Grammy and Billboard. His music has also touched many who may not even know it, such as moviegoers who have enjoyed his Irish flute playing in the movie trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.” Most performing musicians would consider success in music to be the achievement of worldwide recognition, high record sales, extensive solo tours along with fulfillment in their personal life. Galway has achieved success in all of these areas with raw talent and hard work.

James Galway was born in Belfast, Ireland on December 8, 1939 (Wikipedia). He grew up on a small street in a “Protestant ghetto”, living a happy life of limited means. When the house in which he was born was destroyed by a World War II bomb meant for the nearby shipyard, his family moved up the street ( Galway 10). Little “Jimmy”, as his friends knew him, was raised in a musical household, with his mother playing the piano and both his father and grandfather playing the flute. Jimmy himself began his musical life on a tin penny-whistle, playing what and when he felt, avoiding fundamental music instruction ( Galway 24). When he finally began a serious study of the flute after vainly attempting to learn the violin, he found his true voice. He says “From the beginning, there was something about flute music that grabbed me…There was no other way in which I could so express myself” ( Galway 27).

Though Jimmy had always impressed his friends and neighbors with his natural abilities on the flute, when he entered the Irish Flute Championships at age ten, people around him suddenly realized he was on his way to something great. There were two separate age categories as well as one open category listed in the contest and little Jimmy audaciously entered all three. Younger than the majority of the contestants and completely inexperienced at competition, he became bored and wandered aimlessly around while other contestants experienced extreme nervousness when it came time to announce the winners. In light of this, it was a breathtaking shock when Jimmy won first prize in all three categories (Galway 57-59).

Galway went on to receive the core of his musical education from the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and, for a short period, from the Paris Conservatory (Superflute). The most influential flute teachers in his life were John Francis and Geoffrey Gilbert. The former coached him in the life of a musician while the latter honed his flute playing technique (Galway 96).

Among the numerous orchestras and ensembles with which Galway performed and soloed was the world famous London Symphony Orchestra. He left the LSO in 1969 after he was forced to share his principal position with William Bennett due to limited orchestral funding. Bennett and Galway were friends but the natural competition generated by a forced sharing of the spotlight was dissatisfying and Galway eventually decided to leave ( Galway 130).

After spending some time making the proper connections, Galway received an invitation to audition with the Berlin Philharmonic in January 1969. He arrived to audition, as instructed in the letter, at 12:00 noon and was perplexed to find no audition occurring. He then discovered that he was supposed to have received a telegram moving the audition time to 9:00 am. and in fact they had already chosen a flutist to fill the open position. After much fuss and chaos, Galway was eventually allowed to enter a room in front of the entire Philharmonic and proceed with an audition. His prepared audition piece was thrown out and he was asked to play another. Orchestral excerpts were then tossed randomly at him with Galway having to perform each excerpt by memory. After a tense wait outside the room following this unusual audition, Galway was brought back in with four other flutists and they had to take turns performing more excerpts. In the end, Galway was declared the winner, at which point he rebuked their rudeness and flew home unconvinced that he even wanted the job ( Galway 142-146). He did accept it however and it launched his career to new heights. During his stint with the Berlin Philharmonic Galway’s first marriage dissolved and he went on to meet his second wife, Annie, whom he married in 1972 (Salvation Army, “In Tune…”).

James Galway joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 1969 at age thirty-two and remained until 1975 (Wikipedia “James Galway”). Eight years after the Berlin Wall was built, this period was likely the most explosive in the growth of name recognition for the Berlin Philharmonic. These musicians had taken it upon themselves to become ambassadors for Berlin. Their tours took at least four months of the year. The conductor at that time, Herbert von Karajan, made it a priority to expand their tours and “the name Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra became synonymous with the highest musical culture worldwide” (Atteln “Karajan”).

Herbert von Karajan was a strong-willed conductor with a heavy-handed air and a vigorous demand for respect. He was short tempered and easily exploded if, for example, the orchestra members were to continue playing when he motioned for them to stop (Atteln “Karajan”). Karajan was often seen as unapproachable and had few friends but he loved his musicians and whenever one retired he would be at the farewell party with genuine tears in his eyes. As one orchestra member laughingly puts it however, “Mind you, that didn’t stop him exploding half an hour later if things didn’t go the way he wanted them to.” (Atteln “Karajan”). James Galway had conflicts with this man and although their relationship was at first one “as father to son” (Galway 4), Galway grew restless and spent increasing amounts of time away from the orchestra, developing his solo career. This frustrated Von Karajan and when Galway mentioned that he might want to leave the orchestra soon, Karajan wasted no time in cutting Galway loose. The final parting was a rather uncomfortable one, with Karajan sending a note to him at the end of rehearsal saying he should not accompany them on their next tour ( Galway 1).

This sudden parting of ways floored Galway for a short while and he took a ski vacation with his wife to sort out his thoughts and plans. While he had been yearning for a solo career, he understood what a great institution he had left behind and was in a slight panic about losing his monthly salary ( Galway 5). He quickly rebounded however and within one year he had performed 120 concerts, including performances with all of the London orchestras (Superflute).

James Galway’s solo career proved to be wildly successful. Not only did he tour extensively performing classical concertos and concerts across the globe, but he also achieved popular status in more mainstream music. When his life was interrupted in 1978 by a motorcycle hitting him and sending him into traction and a long rehabilitation, Galway relied heavily on his wife and decided to express his gratitude with a recording of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” The recording soared to the top of the charts and won appreciation for Galway’s possibilities as a pop star as well as a classical artist (Galway 175-180).

In his personal life, Galway struggled to find true happiness. He divorced his second wife soon after recording the popular “Annie’s Song” for her and remarried yet again, only to reach his third divorce very quickly (Salvation Army “In Tune…”). Finally he met Jeanne, a fellow flutist and has remained married to her for twenty-three years. They have released several recordings together and they perform duets often. James also eventually found God with Jeanne’s help and grew in his Christianity, letting its inspiration lead him to reconciliation with his daughters, from whom he had been estranged since divorcing their mother, Annie (Salvation Army “In Tune…”).

With Galway’s increased personal happiness and feeling of spiritual fulfillment came an even greater rise in public success. He has released over fifty albums with RCA Victor, collaborated with many other famous musicians such as the Chieftains and Henry Mancini, and received several notable awards. Among those are the Musician Of the Year from Musical America in 1997, Record of the Year awards from Billboard and the Grand Prix du Disque for his recordings of the famous Mozart Flute Concertos (Superflute). Perhaps most famous is his recognition by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001 with a bestowal of Knighthood. Galway has also seen published many of his own editions of flute music as well as a book on how to play the flute (Superflute).

James Galway has achieved soaring success across the globe with audiences young and old, classical enthusiasts and pop listeners alike and has touched several generations with his performances. He still performs, tours and records regularly. Recent heart surgery temporarily slowed him and he chose to relax his previously stressful life (Flute Stories “James Galway”) but his playing remains as strong as ever.


Works Cited

  • Galway, James. An Autobiography: James Galway, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979.
  • Sinclair, ed. Flute Stories. Malibu: Windplayer Productions. 2003.


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