The Church Times Article

13th January 2006.

Early-music pioneer

SOMEWHERE out in deepest space will be strange alien life-forms enjoying the polyphonic music of the Renaissance, courtesy of David Munrow and the Voyager space mission. In The Archive Hour: Mr Munrow, his study (Radio 4, last Saturday) we heard Munrow’s colleagues and admirers talk about this uniquely energetic musician and broadcaster, who introduced British audiences to the alien world of "early music".

Influenced initially by the sounds and instruments of South America, Munrow explored a breadth of repertory that few ensembles would dare to tackle today, in an era of increased specialisation. Munrow and his players dabbled in folk, jazz, and contemporary music, and in his daily children’s show for Radio 3, The Pied Piper, he was as comfortable discussing Richard Strauss operas as he was demonstrating the crumhorn. All his projects had a sense of haphazard energy, which concealed the conscientious planning that went into them.

But he could not keep it up. This year mark the 30th anniversary of Munrow’s suicide. With the benefit of hindsight, Munrow’s frenetic activity had a distinctly unhealthy side to it. But it is as hard to imagine Munrow alive and working as part of today’s early-music scene as it is to imagine a scene without his pioneering work.

This edition of The Archive Hour took as its starting-point the recent purchase of Munrow’s archive of letters, music, and recordings by the Royal Academy of Music. It would have been interesting to hear more about those papers — what sort of materials was Munrow working from, and how did he come to make the performing decisions he did?

Certainly Munrow was not inhibited by mere notes on the page. As the musicologist David Fallows explained, a simple line of melody from an ancient manuscript was turned by Munrow’s ensemble into a five-minute virtuoso symphony. The singer James Bowman recalls how one such song — known affectionately as "The Turkish Nightclub Piece" — got longer and longer each night of a US tour, as the embellishments became more indulgent. And this, ultimately, was the attraction of Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London: classical music-making that was intimate, spontaneous, and joyful, the perfect antidote to a culture of orchestral stiffness and an atrophied repertory.

Since the 1970s, Radio 3 has tried a number of formats for presenting "early music" (a term that now can mean anything from before about 1800). The most recent has now bedded down nicely: The Early Music Show (Radio 3, Saturdays and Sundays). Catherine Bott, a distinguished soprano in her own right, is appropriately informal and yet authoritative as presenter, just as the show itself appeals to the casual and the well-informed listener.

Last Saturday’s edition would have delighted Munrow: it featured a variety of early horns, played with enormous daring by Roger Montgomery. There is something of the blood sport about watching a brass player trying to get anything out of those early wind instruments. But by demonstrating how to play Bach on little more than a stretch of copper pipe, Montgomery satisfied in his audience both nerd and sadist. 

© Church Times 2006


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