When Vernon Murgatroyd fractured his collarbone and couldn’t use his left hand, he didn’t take a break from composing music at the piano.
The indomitable 74-year-old embraced the challenge by writing a piano piece for the right hand.
“The piece would never have existed had I not had a fall,” said Murgatroyd, with a flash of his characteristic optimism.
As one of his friends joked, “at least something good came out of it!”
More than 150 original works are, so far, listed in his catalogue of published chamber, choral, vocal and piano pieces. And never once, through all the years of figuring out new music at the piano, has he experienced writer’s block or any impediment to his creative flow.
The Red Deer composer who, unconventionally, comes up with the harmonies first, then adds the melodies, doesn’t understand how anyone could be stymied when “so many notes are available to us all. …
“You don’t have to invent them from scratch,” he maintains, “All you have to do is arrange the ones that already exist.”
The music teacher has been writing original compositions since he was a boy growing up on an Innisfail-area farm. His parents played the organ and led the church choir. As their only child, Murgatroyd immersed himself in the family business, so to speak.
“I would line up notes on paper to make the sounds I wanted to make. They didn’t always make sense,” he admitted, but as a fast learner, he soon figured out how to achieve some interesting harmonies.
Murgatroyd moved to Red Deer with his parents in 1956, when much of West Park was a cow pasture and his father got the organist job at Gaetz Memorial United Church. Their farm house was moved onto a city lot at the time — and the composer still lives in the same, later expanded, vintage residence.
As a student at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School, he came to appreciate many composers, but became a particular fan of Alexander Borodin.
Like the Russian composer and chemist, he initially thought he could take pharmacy studies in university and continue to devote himself to music. But he soon learned “I was no Borodin.”
After only a few months, he switched to the University of Alberta’s music program, majoring in piano, clarinet and composition. This is when Murgatroyd’s composing took a more serious turn, based on encouragement from Canadian composer and teacher Violet Archer, who became his mentor and lifetime friend.
He attained a bachelor’s degree in 1965 and continued composing, even while continuing with independent studies.
Murgatroyd would also make time for writing original music between teaching private piano and clarinet lessons in Bonnyville, and later Red Deer. He returned to this city in 1968 and taught school band classes in the 1970s.
His inspiration came from many sources, including the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the Central Alberta countryside.
The camping enthusiast recalled being stirred by the sight of rising mist one early morning. This image sparked his Alberta Nocturne for Woodwind Quintet and Strings, which he wrote in honour of this province’s 75th anniversary.
This growing city also inspired Murgatroyd to write two Red Deer Overtures. The second, more dynamic overture was played in 1984 by a Lindsay Thurber band, The Perfect Fifth.
And in 2013, his four-verse choral selection, Tribute to Red Deer on its 100th Birthday, was performed at Sunnybrook United Church. The work was requested by Sadie Braun for her Red Deer Chamber Singers.
Some of his creative spark came from less lofty sources. The everyday antics of a friend’s pet gerbil and yellow cat prompted the ditties Ode to Tiffany and Beatles-esque titled Simon in the Sun With Roses. Like the furry creatures that inspired them, he said, “they are active pieces, with some quiet parts.”
His works range from a few minutes long to a momentous 10 movements (for a lengthy piece commemorating Lacombe’s centenary in 1995), and have been played by the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra, Red Deer Royals, the Red Deer College Symphonic Winds, local high school bands and many Central Alberta community orchestras.
Murgatroyd recalled his rousing piece Entrance Festive was toured by late Red Deer conductor Keith Mann and his Royals all over Europe.
About a quarter of his compositions have been performed, which Murgatroyd feels is a respectable number for any composer.
Many solo and chamber pieces were written for various musicians who have impressed him over the years. Some were students he met while acting as accompanist at the Red Deer Festival of the Performing Arts (formerly Kiwanis Music Festival). Two years ago, Murgatroyd was honoured by the festival for a half-century of service.
His other recognitions are a Provincial Crowsnest Pass Music Award for Composition (1981), Red Deer and District Allied Arts Council Celebration of the Arts Award (1983), and the Red Deer, Alberta Centennial Award (1967).
Although Murgatroyd takes his composing seriously, his works are often slyly playful.
A friend once presented him with a free ticket to a piano concert that would have cost $26 for admission. He returned the favour by composing a piece of music that was as long as it would take to pay back the cost of admission at 50 cents for every bar of music written.
“It’s called Fifty Cents a Bar, Plus a Dime, because I thought at least I could write a piece for him that’s worth 50 cents a bar,” said Murgatroyd, with a grin.
The composer, who was married briefly and has a daughter who is a lawyer, has also never been afraid of experimentation.
For instance, his short work Cloud 11, which was performed by the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra, is based on palindrome. The notes in the first half are played in exactly the reverse order in the second. It’s written for an unusual grouping of instruments, including glockenspiel, chimes and gong.
Murgatroyd once wrote a duet for the unusual pairing of a tuba and flute — because why shouldn’t a tuba perform with a flute?
Parting ways with convention, he feels, is par for the course for any Canadian composer.
Like the diverse makeup of this country’s population, “Canadian music will never be any one thing. It will be many things.”