Often called “the man with the golden flute,” James Galway earned his nickname. It applies not only to his incomparable warm tone but also to the fact that he plays a flute made literally of gold.
Galway feels that gold imports a warmer tone than is generally heard by a silver-colored instrument, and he does not stint in any way; he owns about 15 flutes of the precious metal, he says in a YouTube video of a ClassicalFM broadcast of a concert at Zoomer Hall.
He took up that instrument because “there was one in the house.”
It went far beyond that, however, as he went on to become a foremost virtuoso worldwide, still performing publicly as he nears his 81st birthday later this year (Dec. 8, 2020).
Winning prizes even as a child, he went on to study with prestigious trainers, including the famed Jean-Pierre Rampal. Before winning fame himself, however, he served a rigorous apprenticeship, playing as a member of noted symphony orchestras, including Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
After serving as principal flute in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Herbert von Karajan for seven years, he decided to embark on a solo career in 1975.
As he was born and raised in Belfast, it goes without saying that he plays Irish tunes, jigs, hornpipes, and such, with the utmost ease. But clearly, his years of work with classical music orchestras have enabled him to play works by the great classical composers, including Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach.
However, he also features contemporary music in his public performances and on his recordings (which have sold 30 million copies). Some such works commissioned by or for him include works by composers David Amram, Malcolm Arnold, William Bolcom, and others.
A particular song, “The Swiss Shepherd” (“Il Pastore Svizzero” by Francesco Morlacchi), dating from the 19th century, shows off many of Galway’s skills. Beginning as a plaintive melody that exhibits his lyrical gifts, it soars to display exhilarating pyrotechnics, making use of his consummate technique, his trills, his runs—the piece becomes downright explosive, going from lyrical to passionate and back again.
And always, there is the clarity of the perfectionist.
Among his many awards, arguably the most prestigious was being made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). He was knighted by the Queen of England in 2001, making him Sir James Galway. His wife, the American-born Jeanne Galway became accordingly Dame Jeanne Galway. An accomplished flutist herself, she and her husband often concertize together.
As to whether he prefers to be referred to as a flutist or the more formal flautist, his wife says in a video interview with her husband for Teen Kid News that he says he’s “just a flute player.”