Bain Murray, Composer, 1926–1993


Bain Murray followed the lead of his mentor, Herbert Elwell. Both pursued careers as composers, teachers and critics. Both disregarded trends of the time, preferring to write music in a romantic vein.

Although Murray incorporated a few experimental techniques into his compositions, he was basically a melodist, who loved the human voice and appreciated English-language poetry. His finest songs are settings of words by Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale and Robert Frost. During the Persian Gulf War, he wrote an anti-war piece based on poems by Vietnam veterans.

Among Cleveland singers who performed his music were sopranos Janet Alcorn, Daisy Newman and Noriko Fujii and baritone Andrew White. Murray also wrote choral, instrumental and solo piano works. He completed two operas and started a third before his death in 1993.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1926, Murray studied with Elwell at Oberlin College and with Walter Piston at Harvard University. After earning a master's degree, he traveled to Europe on a Fulbright fellowship and studied with Nadia Boulanger. He launched his teaching career at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1955. Four years later, he began teaching in Cleveland, first at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, then at Cleveland State University, where he was a faculty member for 23 years. He wrote reviews for The Plain Dealer, contributed articles to numerous music journals and served as longtime music critic for the Heights Sun Press.

In 1969, Murray received a faculty research grant that took him to Poland, where he discovered a community of talented Soviet-era composers whose works were unknown in the West. He subsequently returned as a guest of the International Warsaw Autumn Festival, and he helped bring composers Witold Lutoslawski, Augustyn Bloch, Zygmunt Krauze and Marta Ptaszynska to Cleveland for lectures, performances and residencies. The influence of the Polish avant-garde was reflected in Murray's Let the Hills Hear Thy Voice, a choral piece that integrates aleatoric techniques. He wrote an unpublished book about the development of Polish music after World War II, and he received the Medal of Honorary Distinction from the Union of Polish Composers.

A lifelong interest in Native American music stemmed from Murray's student years when he worked on an undergraduate research project with ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes. The documenting of indigenous songs provided themes for instrumental pieces and led to the development of the composer's first opera, The Legend.

Based on a novel by Murray's distant relative Janet Lewis, the libretto tells the true story of an Irish-American fur trader and his marriage to an Ojibway maiden who helped stop a massacre of her people during the War of 1812. Murray called the work an opera-oratorio “with some of the qualities of a pageant.” Although the musical style is predominantly lyrical, the score incorporates tone clusters, indeterminacy and synthesized sounds. Plain Dealer music critic Robert Finn described it as “a skillful mixture of seemingly unrelated styles.” The work was premiered in 1987 at Cleveland State University. Conductor Edwin London led the Cleveland Chamber Symphony and a large cast of singers and dancers in the semi-staged production.

Murray's second opera, Mary Stuart: A Queen Betrayed, is based on Antonia Fraser's biography of the complex Scottish monarch and her relationship with Queen Elizabeth I. Cleveland poet Leonard Trawick wrote the libretto in collaboration with the composer, whose heritage was Scottish-English. Murray completed the orchestration while recuperating from a life-threatening illness and resting on park benches during restorative walks around the Shaker Lakes with his wife Laurie.

The work's premiere in 1991 was the first opera presented in Cleveland State University's Music and Communications Building. London again conducted the Cleveland Chamber Symphony and a large cast of soloists and choral singers. The music “flows through, underlines and illuminates the action expertly,” wrote Finn. “There are touches of local color (mainly Scottish) in the music, and at dramatic climaxes it rises to real lyrical eloquence.”

Murray was respected at home and abroad not only as a skillful composer and supportive colleague, but also as an outstanding teacher. “His was highly melodic music, very straightforward,” said Cleveland composer Donald Erb. "As a teacher, he was a major force.”

—Wilma Salisbury

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