John Murdie was born on the 11th May 1880 in the village of Donacloney, Co. Down. His uncle William John Watson was one of the first graduates of the British Army School of Music at Kneller Hall. It seems young John inherited his musical gift from his uncle William John, for at the early age of seven years he played at the 12th July demonstration to the lambeg drum on a fife made for him by his father.
John Murdie’s career in bands began at nine years when he joined the local Donacloney Flute Band. Later when the family moved to Belfast, he joined the famous St. Mary’s Flute Band, becoming their solo 1st Bb player. At the age of fifteen John was conducting the Victoria and Lord Kitchener Flute Bands, and when he was seventeen, the late Tom McMillen invited him to take over the baton of Argyle Temperance Flute Band, which under his leadership became world famous.
John Murdie’s Conductor Baton
In 1907 Murdie inserted, at his own expense, an advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph newspaper inviting bands to attend a meeting to discuss the formation of an association. The result was the inception of the North of Ireland Flute Band Association. Murdie became the first secretary of this association which was the forerunner of the North of Ireland Bands Association.
Murdie was a musician away ahead of his time. Realising the limitations and imperfection of the simple system flutes, he was instrumental in persuading the ‘Argyles’ to purchase the first set of Boehm System flutes in Ireland. With the assistance of the greatest flute makers of the time Rudall Carte & Co. he developed the Db Bass flute, which became another stepping stone on the way to our present instrumentation.
Ulster Amateur Flute Band at the International Contest for Flute Bands in Manchester 1911.
In 1911 saw what was one of his greatest achievement when he was asked by the Ulster Amateur Flute Band to conduct them at the International Contest for Flute Bands, in Manchester. Nineteen of the finest flute bands from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland competed, including the O’Connell Flute Band from Dublin. Everyone regarded Murdie’s chance of success almost negligible, but the ‘Amateurs’ returned to Belfast having won not only the premier award but every prize awarded in the presentation of the test piece. John continued to add to his musical knowledge, when he studied privately under Dr Sawyers of Trinity College.
As a conductor, John Murdie was one of the best of his day, taking the ‘Argyles’ to success in many contests. He had his first success in 1904 when the ‘Argyles’ won the championship of Ulster. In 1910 the band won the All-Ireland Championship – a performance that was considered sensational, as they beat St. Mary’s the leading band of the period (the band won again in 1913 at the Dublin Feis Cecoil).
Over the years many other victories came his way. In 1958 when he was in his 79th years John won his last World Championship with Argyle Temperance Flute Band, breaking a run of nine consecutive years by Ravenhill Temperance Flute Band (which was also conducted by Murdie at one time).
Original recording of Echoes of the 12th Part 1 arranged by John Murdie.
When the ‘Argyles’ went to the Decca Recording Company in London in 1932, the visit was a complete success. In the studio in Chelsea the bandsmen spent two days and made fifteen gramophone records, playing thirty items. So accurate did John Murdie make the arrangements, there were only two repeats needed. At the conclusion of the perfermance, the eingineer Mr J Pinder congratulated the bandsmen for their smart work. During this recording session, someone asked about the famous party tunes played on the Twelfth of July and the possibility of the band including that as an item. Mr Murdie thereupon set to arranging the lines from memory and the result was another record called ‘Echoes of the Twelfth’ – this was a great success.
Mr Murdie did not confine his activities to conducting alone, but was involved in coaching, arranging and composing. His arrangements of test pieces for contests were highly praised by adjudicators. On one occasion, with part of his body strapped up as a result of an accident and on doctors orders only permitted to write 15 minutes each day, he completed his arrangement of a test piece despite the handicap.
In every way a gentleman, and always willing to help, John’s advice was sought and give to bandsmen all over these Isles. For many years he was also the agent in Ireland for Rudall Carte & Co. Ltd.
John Murdie’s wooden Concert Flute made by Rudall Carte & Co. Ltd (London) now in the Fifers’ Cave Collection.
John Murdie was indeed the grand old man of Ulster Bands – a master musician. He truly left his mark on Ulster Bands and at the ripe old age of 91 finished his ‘March’.
John Murdie also wrote Flute Band Marches, Concert Pieces or rearrange Test Pieces including:-
Burgoyne ,Johnny Cope, Rolling Home, Echoes of the Twelfth No. 1, Echoes of the Twelfth No. 2, Triumphant, Beauties of Ireland (Irish Fantasia), Gems of Welsh Melody
Note: John Murdie also conducted Ballyeaston Flute Band, Carrickfergus Amateur Flute Band, Lisburn Conservative Flute Band.