Baroque to the Beatles
John Wilbraham, who has died aged 53, was the outstanding classical trumpeter of his generation – reaching the height of his profession in his early twenties. He appeared with most of the major London orchestras and held the post of principal trumpet with the New Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestras between the 1960s and 1980s.
As a soloist, he was renowned for his recordings of the Baroque solo trumpet repertoire, and was one of the country’s first and leading exponents of the piccolo trumpet. The first of his many solo recordings with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the English Chamber Orchestra was made when he was 23, in 1967, the same year that he played as a session musician on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. He performed on film, radio and television scores, and played the Brideshead Revisited theme tune.
But his greatest legacy is perhaps the one he left through his pupils, for whom he became a guru figure. He was professor of trumpet at the Royal Academy of Music, the Birmingham School of Music, the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall and at Wells Cathedral School. He gave master classes to young people throughout the country and had that rare gift of being a performer of the highest calibre who could also communicate the essence of his skills in an immediately approachable manner.
Most brass players have their favourite anecdote about John. He was larger-than-life, a personality who loved to tell stories, and about whom stories are told. He was a man of great stature – artistically and physically – and an extremely sensitive and thoughtful being. Among his friends he was affectionately known as Jumbo – although he intensely disliked strangers to assume this familiarity.
John Wilbraham was born in Bournemouth and educated at Raynes Park Grammar School. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music between 1962 and 1965, where he won the Aubrey Brain Prize, the Frank James Prize and the Silver Medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
John’s approach to teaching was highly personal and at its heart were the basic principles of technique, how to blow a trumpet and the importance of a lyrical trumpet sound. He could not only inspire pupils to try to match his own gloriously rich trumpet tones, but also give them the skills to do it. The technique, once mastered, enabled the Wilbraham student to achieve his or her full potential, and to be self-healing if problems arise later on in their career. He prepared his pupils to be physically equipped as players and mentally equipped as musicians to handle life in the music profession.
In 1991 he left London for Wells, Somerset, in the hope of starting a new life. But two years later kidney failure and septicaemia brought him close to death. Dogged by ill-health and diabetes, he was never again to reach the professional heights of his earlier years.
I encouraged him to commit his principles of trumpet-playing to paper, with a view to publishing his definitive trumpet tutor, and during his last few months Matthew Booth, who had formulated the basis of the Wilbraham teaching philosophy for his master’s dissertation, and John worked in a master/apprentice fashion to refine that text. The resulting book, to be published later this year, will be dedicated to his memory.
John always knew where he was going, and how he was going to get there, and was usually one of the first to arrive at rehearsals. He recalled an occasion when he had been booked to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in York. After a long train journey from London, he arrived at the venue laden with his luggage to find he was not just a little too early. He had arrived a year too soon.
A story was told about him and the back-desk viola player. One day at rehearsal the viola player turned to Wilbraham behind him and snarled, “Can’t you play a bit quieter, you’re giving me a headache?”
“If only you had practised more,” observed the trumpeter, “you would be sitting a bit nearer the front.”
From early in his career, John Wilbraham was at the front, but he has departed this world too soon. His death is a huge loss to the British musical world.
His marriage ended in divorce.