David Munrow: Tragic genius who brought early music to the masses


The short but brilliant life of David Munrow blazed a trail for his passion, says Ivan Hewett.

Maestro: in all, Munrow had command of 43 musical instruments
Maestro: in all, Munrow had command of 43 musical instruments  Photo: G MacDomnic/Lebrecht Music & Arts/
For most of history, the territory of what people called music didn’t extend very far. It consisted, by and large, of the sounds and styles they grew up with. Anything else was a barbaric noise.
Now, the territory seems endless. It stretches outwards to “ethnic” non-Western instruments and beyond them to electronic sound. And part of the reason we can stroll round this infinity with such insouciance is that a handful of explorers got there first. They mapped the territory, captured the sounds, and made them available to armchair explorers back home.
One of these intrepid souls was David Munrow. His particular unknown territory was the distant past of “classical music”. In a brief but blazing career — he committed suicide in 1976 aged 33 — he unearthed a treasury of instrumental music from the medieval and Renaissance periods, and brought it to life in performances of unsurpassed brilliance. For about 10 years, his group, the Early Music Consort, toured incessantly, and produced more than a dozen recordings.
One of the Consort’s players was Christopher Hogwood, a keyboard player and conductor who later set up the renowned Academy of Ancient Music. He met Munrow when they were students at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
“I remember I had the job of arranging Sunday morning concerts for the Dean,” says Hogwood, “and someone told me about this chap who had spent a year teaching English in Peru, and had come home with dozens of exotic instruments. But he also played recorder and bassoon as well, so he was very useful. He’d got interested in old instruments in Cambridge, and had this amazing ability to play anything he laid his hands on. Really, he could have made music out of a chair-leg.
“Towards the end of our time in Cambridge, he organised a concert of Renaissance dance-band music, gathering together anyone who could play these strange old instruments such as dulcians and shawms. That was the beginning of the Early Music Consort.”
Being a member of this travelling medieval roadshow was very demanding. “We had to fit the repertoire to only five or six players,” says Hogwood, “so we all had to multi-task. I played percussion and sang, as well as playing keyboards. David had to persuade us all to learn the crumhorn [a curved reed instrument], which wasn’t easy in my case, as I thought it made a horrible noise. But David beat all of us with his 43 instruments.”
Nigel North, the lute player who joined the group in its final years, remembers Munrow’s astounding energy. “He was totally wrapped up in his passion, and he wanted everyone to share it. But he wasn’t just a musician, he was a great entrepreneur and organiser. He was one of those people who notices everything, so he could pick up on people’s strengths.”
As well as giving concerts, Munrow was a brilliant broadcaster. Any music-lover over 50 will remember Pied Piper, a long-running educational series on Radio 3. And between the incessant recording, touring, broadcasting and unearthing old music in libraries, Munrow was also a professor of early music at Leicester University.
In all, it’s an astonishing legacy, which is being celebrated at the Bath Festival next month in an event to mark the 70th anniversary of Munrow’s birth. It’s to be hosted by Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican and a long-time devotee of this fascinating music.
“What made Munrow different was that he was the first real professional of the early-music scene,” says Kenyon. “All this stuff had actually been going on for decades, for small circles of connoisseurs in places like the Haslemere Festival. Munrow burst all that wide open and showed that this music could operate at the highest level. Also he realised that the concerts had to be entertaining and well organised. You couldn’t play a two-minute piece and expect everyone to wait 10 minutes while you tuned the instruments.
“I think it chimed in with the interest in anything exotic that was part of pop culture at that time. And remember an awful lot of people heard this music indirectly through television drama. It was Munrow’s group that provided the music for those ground-breaking series like The Six Wives of Henry VIII.”
The irony is that those recordings of the 1970s, with the performers lined up in kipper ties, and the general feeling of missionary zeal, have become period pieces themselves. But Kenyon thinks that in some ways they were ahead of their time. “People say that Munrow gave a skewed picture of the era, because most music of the Renaissance era was vocal, not instrumental,” says Kenyon. “And they say an awful lot of invention went into those recreations. Which is true, but that’s what makes them valuable. People have come to realise that early music isn’t about 'getting it right’, it’s about using the text as a springboard for your own imagination. In that respect, Munrow was way ahead of his time.”

'The Maverick of Early Music: David Munrow’ takes place at the Bath Festival (01225 463362) on June 2


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