David Murray, FT music critic and academic, 1937-2016

Wide-ranging writer and philosopher who sought to be constructive in his criticism

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Contrary to common perception, some critics never lose their enthusiasm or desire for discovery. David Murray, who has died aged 79, was a music critic for the Financial Times for 27 years and the epitome of the ever-questing intellect. No boundaries seemed to exist in his embrace of music past and present. No work was too obscure or too small to rouse his interest.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Murray spent his Canadian childhood with an omnivorous appetite for the arts. By his teens he was already excelling in multiple fields. As a pianist, he performed with success in piano competitions, his technique enabling him to master Ravel’s Piano Concerto In G, among others. As a composer, he wrote incidental music for radio plays. As a director, he worked in the theatre. As an actor, he performed in a Canadian radio series that was seen as a forerunner of the popular British radio series The Archers. In a lighter vein he was also an expert conjuror in his youth.

It cannot have come as a surprise when, at 19, he arrived as a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford. A postgraduate year in Paris followed, and he was never to forget hearing Messiaen practise as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité. Although he returned briefly to Canada to work in Edmonton, Alberta, it was a move to London that was to decide the future path of his career. This would be divided between two areas of expertise: philosophy and music.

Murray worked as a lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, into his 60s. In philosophy, as in music, he would easily become immersed in his subject. One student later recalled how they had met at his house and continued to talk even when the fire brigade arrived to put out a blaze in the apartment downstairs. His life as a pianist was cut short when he broke his little finger hauling his bag off a luggage carousel at an airport on an overseas reviewing assignment. In parallel to philosophy, though, his long and distinguished career as a music critic for the FT continued until his retirement at the age of 70 in 2007.

Perhaps because he started out as a performing musician, Murray always sought not be destructive in anything he wrote. He saw the critic’s job as being to suggest ways in which a performer might improve and, above all, to inspire his readership to discover the immensely wide and eclectic range of music that he himself knew and loved. He might enthuse about Xenakis one day, Fauré the next (the Nocturne No. 6 was a special favourite). Film, theatre and everything else in the arts continued to absorb him in his spare time.

Murray passed away at the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, north London, on Saturday. He leaves Dinah, his wife of nearly 46 years, three sons, a foster son and four grandchildren.

Letter in response to this obituary:

Your critic’s contribution to a dictionary of opera / From Andrew D Roberts

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