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Friday, 8 June 2018

An unsung hero of Star Wars: Maurice Murphy

The London Symphony Orchestra recording
the music for Star Wars

A trivia question for you: Who did exactly the same job throughout the Star Wars original trilogy and prequels?

You might well think of John Williams (composer-conductor), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Kenny Baker (R2-D2). You might even recall music editor Ken Wannberg, and we could have an argument about Ben Burtt (who created the sound effects for all the films, but wasn’t the credited sound editor on the original in 1977).

But there’s another name that should be on the list, even though it’s missing from the films' credits. It’s Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet player with the London Symphony Orchestra.

He played the unforgettable trumpet parts on all the LSO’s Star Wars soundtracks. And what’s more, when he first played that famous main title, it was his first day on the job. 

How the London Symphony Orchestra came to play Star Wars

Maurice Murphy played the trumpet
on the first six Star Wars films

Maurice Murphy’s presence on all six of the UK-recorded Star Wars soundtracks is part of the wider story of how the LSO came to play on the film.

According to this blog post on the orchestra’s website, it all started during a tour of the US, when principal conductor Andre Previn and chairman Anthony Camden were talking business. Camden wanted Previn to write a film score for the orchestra to record, but Previn was too busy and suggested other composers.

Camden recalled: “His favourite was John Williams, so I asked Andre to ring him immediately in Los Angeles. 

"John answered the call,and Andrew passed the phone over to me. He told me that he had just started writing the music for a film, but that it wouldn’t interest the LSO because it was all ‘up in the universe’. In fact, he said, they were thinking of calling it Star Wars.”

Recording had to start within a month, and would require 18 sessions with the orchestra. (It amazes me that musicians had not been booked in the States for this.) But Camden, conducting negotiations from a payphone in the Midwest, arranged for it all to happen in March 1977. 

Maurice Murphy and the trumpet parts in Star Wars

John Williams at the time of Star Wars

Maurice Murphy happened to join the LSO on March 5th, 1977. The LSO’s blog post (which is in turn quoting a book, Orchestra: The LSO: A Century of Triumph and Turbulence, by Richard Morrison) has him saying: “They had sent a work schedule for that month, and I could see a large block of time covered by something called Star Wars. I thought: What on Earth is that? I soon found out.”

A podcast recorded in 2007 to mark Murphy’s retirement reveals the high regard in which everyone held him. Murphy, who came to refer to John Williams as “the guv’nor”, says: “My first day on contract was at Denham studios and the first take was the opening credits of Star Wars.”

Did he bring something to Star Wars that another trumpet player might not have? According to John Williams himself, the answer is definitely yes. As Williams tells the interviewer: “It was an amazing moment, that blast of brass that opens the film.

“It was the first sound I heard from Maurice, really. It probably would have been the first piece we played that morning and it was electrifying. 

"It was certainly unique and I think everyone felt it and I think people around the world, whenever they hear that piece now, there’s a kin of instant reaction that I think really was elicited in its initial spirit by Maurice’s sound, just that heraldic spirit that lies within everything he plays.

“I think of his playing, or the effect of it, as having created the voice of the hero and it’s made him the ideal trumpeter especially for me in the film projects that we’ve done together.”

He added: “Everyone remembers it and Maurice made such an impact and put his imprint on that for audiences around the world and I think it’ll be there for decades yet to come.

“I love what we call here, or think of, as the British school of brass playing. It’s a different sound to the European brass I think and certainly from our American brass playing, all of which is wonderful in their particular ways, but I love the British approach and tradition and style and Maurice led the way for me with those films.”

The Star Wars soundtrack double-LP

Maurice Murphy died in 2010, aged 75. The obituaries make him sound like someone you'd like to know – a down to Earth northern Englishman with no time for pretension, but heaps of talent and supportive words for everyone. 

There was much more to his career than Star Wars, of course. But thanks to John Williams, he is one of those rare performers whose work is enjoyed many times across the world every single day. 

It was the best possible first day on the job.

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