Wonder Boy from Tacoma

— by Kim Davenport

Boy’s Birdlike Voice Amazing:
Robert Murray, 12 Years Old, Sings at Tiffany Musicale

So reads the headline from an article published in the New York Herald in January of 1922, which identified Murray as a boy soprano from Tacoma. A few weeks later, the young singer would perform at New York’s Hippodrome, at the time thought to be the largest music venue in the world with a seating capacity of 5,300. Advertising for that event promised that Murray “sings the highest note ever reached and the range of his voice is greater than that of any other in musical history.”

UntitledThe young Murray’s story seems to be a classic example of few themes that repeat throughout music history. First, there is the fascination with the child prodigy: that unique individual who possesses skills beyond their years as well as the composure to perform at such a young age. But more specifically, there is the fleeting nature of the voice of the boy soprano, so desired by audiences that it used to be considered acceptable to castrate the most talented young singers before they hit puberty and their voices inevitably changed.

Like many boy sopranos, Murray’s time in the spotlight seems to have been short. But while it lasted, his voice was celebrated by audiences, music teachers and scholars, and even doctors and scientists interested in studying the unique example he presented.

Born in Tacoma in 1909, Murray was adopted by Frederick and Phena Murray. Frederick Murray had come to Tacoma in 1889, as an attorney with Northern Pacific Railway. From 1892 to 1894 he served as the City Attorney for Tacoma, reportedly “filling the position with dignity and credit and well maintaining his reputation as a progressive man determined and destined to succeed.” In 1913 he was elected as the second president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association, and was enjoying a successful private practice when the young Robert began to display his unique vocal talents.

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Frances Alda

It is not clear exactly when their meeting took place, but Robert was “discovered” by the New Zealand-born Metropolitan Opera singer Frances Alda, likely during one of her several West Coast tours.

At her recommendation, Robert moved to New York to begin vocal studies. His father Frederick gave up his profitable law practice in Tacoma to move to New York, to oversee his son’s musical career. While the young Robert studied operatic repertoire in a variety of languages with world-class teachers, including the most famous of the day, Enrico Caruso, Frederick led the effort to promote the boy’s unique talents in the press.

Press accounts of Robert’s performances tend to weave together musical commentary with language bordering on scientific, as astonished audiences were eager to explain what could lead the young boy to sing so brilliantly. Again from the New York Herald article:

“He sang with greatest ease such selections as the made scene from Lucia and the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. All the high notes he took without the slightest effort. His range at best runs to the top (and indeed over it) of the eighty-eight noted pianoforte which exceeds 4,000 to 5,000 vibrations per second (VPS). In fact, his voices ranges from C 128 VPS below middle C, over five octaves to A 6827 VPS and as high as the Galton’s whistle, the tone tester, which is higher than any known singer’s record.

The boy sings arias in the original keys and language with difficult, intricate and original cadenzas running to G in the altissimo of the end octave of the piano. He sings twelve arpeggios from G to G in five seconds or with three times the rapidity of the usual coloratura soprano. He sings with remarkable clearness and a tonal pitch unusually accurate.

Dr. Frank E. Miller, who has given the boy’s throat some medical treatment and made an extensive scientific study of its structure, says he thinks the voice will last and that with reasonable certainty it will be a tenor. He says the factors making the voice phenomenal are vocal cords of unusual density, elasticity and flexibility of almost the size of those of an adult soprano.”

If the descriptions of Robert’s range are not exaggerated, they are remarkable indeed, and go a long way to explaining the attention that came so quickly to the young boy. Unfortunately, however, Dr. Miller proved incorrect about the lasting quality of the voice. When Robert hit puberty, not only did his range drop, as would be expected, but the quality of his voice declined as well, and his career came to an abrupt end.

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The Murray home at 402 North Sheridan in Tacoma, as it appeared in the 1920s.
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402 North Sheridan, as it appears today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The entire Murray family remained in New York, with Frederick returning to work as a practicing lawyer, and Robert eventually attending college and becoming, according to the 1940 U.S. Census, an “electro physicist.” Unlike his early years, which leave quite a trace across newspaper and magazine accounts of his musical triumphs, very little can be found about Robert’s later life.

Finally, it is intriguing that there do not seem to be any recordings of Robert’s young voice. By the early 1920s, when such attention was focused on his prowess and unique range as a singer, recording technology was well established. Especially given his connection to Enrico Caruso, who made hundreds of recordings himself, it is surprising that no effort seems to have been made to capture the boy soprano’s sound for posterity.

In lieu of being able to actually hear Murray sing, let’s at least experience a classically-trained boy soprano singing the quintessential high soprano aria, the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute:

 

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