Morrow, Munrow and Medieval Music:Understanding their influences and practice

The Margot Leigh Milner Lecture 2010

Edward Breen

‘Do you feel somehow something that you began with Musica Reservata has somehow

been leapt upon by practically everyone else in sight?’ asked Tony Palmer in an interview

for LBC radio in the mid-1970s. ‘Well I suppose one can’t really say things like that,

[pause] but in fact I do!’ replied Michael Morrow.1 Did Tony Palmer or Michael Morrow

have David Munrow in mind during that exchange? If either of them were thinking of

Munrow it should not have come as a surprise because he was, at that time, the other

towering figure on the English Early Music scene. But does this candid exchange

accurately represent the situation between two of the BBC’s most prolific early music

specialists of the early 1970s? A quick glance through the concert programming of the

ensembles directed by these two men certainly suggests that Munrow was influenced by

his work as a performer in Musica Reservata, and this experience was heavily reflected in

his choice of music with his own ensemble, The Early Music Consort of London.

However, one must remember that the medieval repertoire is not large, and neither was

it, in the 1970s, very easy to obtain in modern editions. A certain level of mutual

influence is only to be expected. However it arose, such overlap provides a fertile ground

for the comparison of performance practice, and my intention here is to attempt to

open just such a discussion.

So if this was the case in 1975, how did it come

about? How did two seemingly similar ensembles

manage to present some rather similar albums to

the same audience? Could it be that their

approach to performing this music offered the

listeners significantly differing experiences? We

will start with the words of a Radio 3 employee

of the time (who has asked to remain

anonymous). They echo many of the comments

that have been made to me by musicians who

vividly remember the climate of Early Music

around 1970:
[…] the non-choral early-music scene was divided between

those who supported David Munrow's Early Music

Consort and those who swore by Michael Morrow’s

Musica Reservata. […] at my [BBC] interview, Deryck

Cooke, Music Presentation Editor, […] asked me pointblank

which of the two I preferred. I expected my twoword

reply to lead to some kind of discussion, but it was

greeted merely with a grunt of acknowledgement.

It seems that Basil Lam, Head of the BBC’s

Classical Music Division, had also been an Early

Music Consort enthusiast, as he regularly used

them for programming. It is interesting to note

that almost all of the Musica Reservata

broadcasts which can still be heard in the British
Library’s Sound Archive had been simply concert

recordings, which Lam delegated to others.

Studio managers recorded the concerts, with

Lam’s secretary in attendance, who then

supervised the editing process (according to my

anonymous source). Deryck Cooke’s department

then used the programme notes to create the

announcer’s scripts.

So, how can we usefully compare these

two musical directors, and what differences can

be found in their general approach? I will

consider Michael Morrow first, or as J. M.

Thomson called him, ‘The Sage of Aberdare
Gardens’.2 In an obituary, the musicologist

David Fallows tells us that Morrow ‘stood for

clarity of line, absolute firmness of pitch, rock-

hard intonation’, and ‘absolute confidence in

performance.’ He went on to say that ‘The

bright, aggressive sounds of those nocompromise

performances was a major shot in
the arm for everybody present.’3 These

observations benefit from immediate

contextualization. For instance, one might

compare two contrasting performances of
Kalenda Maya recorded within just a few years of

each other: a recording of Gerald English

(tenor) with the Jaye Consort in 1967, and one of

Jantina Noorman (mezzo-soprano) with Musica
Reservata.4 I do not wish to imply that The Jaye

Consort did not stand for clarity of line, absolute

firmness of pitch, rock-hard intonation, and

absolute confidence in performance. But,

through a comparison of these recordings, I

would suggest that one can instantly recognise

the particular ‘absolute’ qualities and

forthrightness that Fallows was highlighting. To

be explicit about this, one might bastardize

George Orwell: all early music ensembles are

rock hard, but some are more rock hard than


Yet ‘…the quintessence of fishwifery…’

is how Howard Mayer Brown, another

musicologist and long-term reviewer for several

key magazines, described Noorman’s singing on

that particular track. He thought that it ignored

‘everything that is courtly and refined’ in the

music but, despite this, succeeded because it

‘embodies such a strong, personal and coherent
conception of the music…’.5 In these comments

we can immediately identify resonances with

those made by Fallows; Meyer’s comment on the

group’s strength of conviction being paralleled

by Fallows’s comment on the philosophy of

‘absolute confidence’.

Aside from general observations about

intonation, line and clarity, it is also difficult to

ignore the style (by which I really mean the

technique) of the singers. Morrow knew that

Noorman’s style of singing had the potential to

alienate his public and admitted as much in the
pages of Early Music:6

…there are two things most audiences and all music critics

abhor: non-conventional singing and non-conventional

violin-playing. With crumhorns, of course anything goes.

This is famously born-out by the comments of

Virgil Thomson, a critic, who spent fourteen
years with the New York Herald Tribune, and once

famously referred to Jascha Heifetz’s ultraromantic

style of playing as ’silk underwear

... It was admirable and fine and swell and O.K. and

occasionally very, very beautiful. The fellow can fiddle. But

he sacrifices everything to polish. He does it knowingly.

He is justly admired and handsomely paid for it. To ask

anything else of him is like asking tenderness of the


With such acidic comments in mind,

reading Morrow’s article ‘Musical Performance

and Authenticity’, one can imagine how difficult

it must have been for him, even in the 1970s, to

find singers willing to try out his unconventional

proposals. In formulating such ideas, Morrow

tells us that he had been influenced by

recordings of Bulgarian women made by the

folklorist A. L Lloyd, and also, it is sometimes

supposed, the singing of Genoese fishermen. He

wrote that ‘Singers […] have always maintained

that there is only one valid vocal style—their
own.’8 How fortunate, then, that he should have

found artists such as Jantina Noorman, Grayston

Burgess, and Nigel Rogers, to name just a few;

young singers willing to explore unconventional

singing techniques. One has to remember that in

1961—a year after Musica Reservta gave their

first Fenton House concert in Hampstead—

Noah Greenberg, across the other side of the

Atlantic, lost his countertenor, Bobby White, to a
more conventional singing career.9

I say this because in a 1976 interview

Morrow recalled: ‘My principle aim was not to

have people singing like the BBC singers...’ For

him, it was a question of ‘precision of

articulation and precision of intonation’. And

that fascination with intonation was what drew

him towards folk singers and towards a style

which Noorman made her own. Not everyone

found the results disagreeable; Ian Bent, in a
review of Music from the time of Christopher

Columbus, wrote:10

There is, for example, a wealth of artistry in Jantina

Noorman’s singing of the lament at the foot of the cross,

Está la reyna. Her high-pressure sound, begun and quitted

without wavering of pitch or volume, is infinitely more

moving than would be what has been called for [sic]: ‘a less

robust and more “artistic” treatment’. Her interpretation is

intensified by her ornaments (more like natural vocal

inflexions than ornaments proper) at the beginning or end

of a line. The same is true of Triste España, in which she

makes the long-held final notes, and the silences between

phrases, harrowingly affective instead of mere

embarrassments which hold up the flow of the line.


Yet such understanding critics were few and far
between. Nigel Fortune wrote of A Florentine


Jantina Noorman’s raucous recreation of (presumably)

street singing I find intensely disagreeable. If heard once it

might be tolerable as an attempt at realism, but surely not

perpetuated on record; moreover, her ’normal’ voice

elsewhere, as in Godi, turba mortal, detracts from the

generally high standard of performance. The recording is


Noorman’s ‘normal voice’ can be heard

on an earlier recording for the Folkways label,
Dutch Folk Songs (1955), which was recorded

before she travelled to Illinois to study with
George Hunter.12 Almost thirty years later it is

still discernible in Andrew Parrot’s 1981
recording of Dido and Aeneas, which featured

Noorman in the role of the Sorceress.13

‘Normal’ voice is, in fact, simply head-voice, and

is used several times in this Purcell recording for

the higher phrases of the Sorceress’s music. ‘The

Musica Reservata holler’ is how Howard Mayer

Brown described the high, brash, chest-voice

style singing used by Noorman in many
Reservata recordings in 1978.14 Today, we would

recognise it as related to modern musical-theatre

and pop techniques. As it was then, the

‘Reservata holler’ was a description that gained

widespread currency among critics and

commentators. But Morrow had already said that

he did not think of Musica Reservata as having a

uniform style (such as the so-called ‘holler’), but

rather his idea was to use a ‘series of sounds, the

articulation, intonation, vocal and instrumental

colour that’s characteristic of each particular
period and country.’15 So whilst it is tempting to

highlight the ‘holler’ as a hallmark of Morrow’s

performance practice we must remember that it

was only intended to be one part of a

multifaceted approach.

So what happened to this Reservata

sound? As David Fallows wrote ‘Why has

Michael’s best work been allowed to disappear?

Was it really a sound of the 60s that has nothing
to say today?’16 In an Editorial for Early Music,

Tess Knighton once commented that ‘the ripples

felt by a thinker of such originality […] have

touched on the work of Gothic Voices,…
Sinfonye and … Ensemble Organum.’17 Her

view was foretold by Howard Mayer Brown who,

on reviewing a 1983 disc by Ensemble Clement

Janequin, claimed to have been taken unawares

by their superb musicianship—but not so

unawares as to pass over the similarity between

their performing style and that of Musica
Reservata. He wrote of their recording of La

Bataille on this disc that ‘[...] they produce, in

short, a French version of the Musica Reservata
holler.’18 The performer who stands out on that

recording is countertenor Dominique Visse, who

gave a masterclass at the NEMA conference in
2009.19 At one point during his class, when

describing the sound he wanted in a particular

chanson, he asked the young participants if they

had heard of Jantina Noorman. They hadn’t.

The connection between Visse’s style and

Noorman’s may be enough to link the

philosophy of Musica Reservata with Ensemble

Clement Jannequin, but surprisingly, the one

artist who does not seem to be linked with

Morrow by Knighton or Mayer Brown is David

Munrow. His ensembles are the very place where

we might expect to find the general influence of

Morrow’s performance practice (as well as his

repertoire), not least of all because the two men

had worked together in the late 1960s. One

might go so far as to make a broad comparison

between the trajectories of Morrow and

Munrow’s careers along these lines: Both men

were, to some extent, musically self-educated. In

Morrow’s case this was due to frequent hospital

admissions as a child, and in Munrow’s it was

because he was primarily a student of non-music

subjects at university. Despite their lack of

traditional musical education, they both admired

the work of Thurston Dart and acknowledge his


Alongside the influence of Dart,

Morrow and Munrow were interested in folkmusic

styles and instruments as a model for

practical research into mediaeval performance

practice. This can be seen most clearly in

Morrow’s fascination with A. L. Lloyd’s

recordings of Bulgarian singers and Munrow’s
book Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

(1976), which draws heavily on folk models.

They also worked together in Musica Reservata.

Indeed, one eminent musicologist has described

this situation to me as being a ‘formative

influence’ on David Munrow, and that he was

influenced by Morrow’s highly innovative
approach.20 Many of Munrow’s ideas appear to

have been borrowed from Morrow—and a few

people were quite angry at him for being so

obvious in this regard. John Southcott has

written that there was a tendency at the time to

borrow ideas from Morrow without

acknowledgement (although he was thinking

generally, and not explicitly directing his
criticisms at Munrow):21


The conscious and deliberately used influence of various

traditional or exotic forms of music in his [Morrow’s]

versions of medieval music are very evident on recordings

made at the time. This kind of empirical research was

previously unheard of and has often been made use of by

others, usually without acknowledgement.

A clear contrast between the two men

can be found, however, in Munrow’s appetite for

commercial success—in order to secure his

position as a professional musician—and

Morrow’s lack of interest in a career as we

understand it today. John Sothcott has observed
that Morrow had this particular trait:22

Michael’s reason for attempting performances […] was to

bring the music to life for its own sake and, as he often

said, so that he could hear it. He was in no ways a careerist

performer and perhaps never really understood those who


The 1968 Morrow recording, and the 1973
Munrow recording of the lament Triste España

sin Ventura show clearly how their approach

could differ, which allow us to contextualise
these observations.23 On his recording, Morrow’s

no-compromise approach is far from the

reflective mood that Munrow cultivates from

James Bowman and Martin Hill. As John Potter

There has been no revolution in singing to compare with

that of instrumental playing. In England the very musical,

Oxbridge-trained light voices adjusted to the new

requirements [of the early music movement] with the

minimum of change in their existing techniques: the

‘Reservata holler’ […] proved much less enduring than the

relatively conventional singing preferred by David


It is tempting to build an argument in

this manner and to suggest that Munrow’s

careerist zeal lead him to choose conventional

singing techniques over those which Morrow

was exploring because he was courting

commercial success. Yet, it would be quite hard

to suggest that, as a singer, James Bowman was,

in the late 1960s, anything like conventional.

And, in fact, the vocal styles that Munrow was

drawn to were, even in the 1970s, still not

conventional. Conventional singing in the 1960s

and 1970s had a much more obvious vibrato, as

can be heard in recordings made by the Prague
Madrigal Singers.25

Munrow claimed to have been drawn to

his sound by instinct. In a 1974 interview for
Gramophone, he described meeting James

Bowman. It was, apparently, at a madrigal

rehearsal in Notting Hill Gate. Munrow

remembered: ‘and then I heard James Bowman

and thought that here was the most fabulous
“noise” I’d ever heard, so he joined us too.’26

John Potter suggests that Munrow’s instinct for

lighter voices did much to encourage such

I’ve said that no revolution has a single cause, but if there

was one element that enabled the kind of intellectual and

musical critical mass to kick-start change, it was the

meteor-like crossing of the English music scene of David

Munrow. The breadth of his musical imagination, his

dynamism (and sheer physical energy), gave (the largely ex-

Oxbridge) singers a huge confidence, enabling them to

create an exciting alternative to what we thought of as

vibrating voices which scooped all over the place. We

could hear pitches, identify temperaments, we could be

creative with the notes, and more than anything we could

produce a new music that people wanted to listen to,

unlike the avant-garde that many of us were also involved

in, with its absurd complexities and unknowable

parameters. It was also anti-establishment: it wasn’t

remotely academic and was about as far away from

conservatory training as you could get.

Towards the end of his life, David

Munrow became increasingly convinced that he

was frittering his time away on the peripheries of

renaissance repertoire when the solid core—

unaccompanied choral music—was what he felt

he should have been concerned with. In fact,

such a theory is supported by Howard Mayer-

Brown in the opening sentence of his 1978

article on renaissance choral music: ‘instrumental

music did not equal vocal music in importance
until the 17th century.’28 With this in mind,

therefore, I suggest that rather than explicitly

rejecting Morrow’s performance theories,

Munrow’s instinctual preference for the voicetypes

he would have heard at Cambridge (King’s

College in particular) were a key part of his

successful performance practice.

1 British Library Sound Archive, Musica Reservata Collection, 1CDR0005846: Morrow, Michael (speaker, male; interviewee).

2 J. M. Thomson et al., ‘Obituaries: Michael Morrow, 1929–94’, Early Music, 22/ 3 (1994), 537–39.


3 Ibid.

4 See Medieval Music: Gerald English, Tenor, with The Jaye Consort: Pye Records, Golden Guinea Collector Series GGC 4092

(1967) (British Library Sound Archive, 1LP0113507), and Music from the time of Christopher Columbus, Musica Reservata

directed by Michael Morrow: Philips 839 714 LY (SAL 3697) [LP] (1968) (British Library Sound Archive: 1CD0037509).

5 Howard Mayer Brown, ‘[Review: Untitled],’ The Musical Times, 114, no. 1563 (1973), 498.

6 Michael Morrow, ‘Musical Performance and Authenticity’, Early Music, 6/2 (1978), 233–46 (237).

7 New York Herald Tribune, 30 October 1940, as quoted in Virgil Thomson and Richard Kostelanetz, Virgil Thomson: A Reader:

Selected Writings, 19241984 (London, 2002), 127–28.

8 ‘Musical Performance and Authenticity’, 237.

9 White had been told by the conductor Léon Barzin that if he sang countertenor he would ‘…never be able to escape…’.

See James Gollin, Pied Piper: The Many Lives of Noah Greenberg, (Hillsdale, NY, 2001), 306.

10 Ian Bent, [Review of Music from the time of Christopher Columbus], The Musical Times, 110 (1969), 643–644.

11 Nigel Fortune, [Review of A Florentine Festival], The Musical Times, 112 (1971), 353.

12 Dutch Folk Songs sung by Jantina Noorman with Guitar: Folkways Records FW 6838 (1955). The album is available for


13 Purcell: Dido & Aeneas, the Taverner Players and Taverner Choir with Emma Kirkby, David Thomas, Judith Nelson and

Jantina Noorman, directed by Andrew Parrott: Chandos ABRD 1034 (1981).

14 Howard Mayer Brown, ‘Choral Music in the Renaissance’, Early Music 6/2 (1978), 164–69 (164).

15 J. M. Thomson, ‘Early Music Ensembles 1: Musica Reservata [interview with Michael Morrow]’, Early Music, 4/4 (1976),

515–521 (515).

16 Thomson et al., ‘Obituaries: Michael Morrow, 1929–94’, 539.

17 Tess Knighton, ‘Editorial’, Early Music, 22/3 (1994), 372.

18 ‘[Review of:] Le cris de Paris: Chansons de Janequin et Sermisy’, Early Music 11/1 (1983), 133.

19 National Early Music Association, UK:

20 Margaret Bent, private correspondence with the author, 6th November 2009.

21 Thomson et al., ‘Obituaries: Michael Morrow, 1929–94’, 538.

22 Ibid.

23 See Music from the time of Christopher Columbus, Musica Reservata directed by Michael Morrow, and Music for Ferdinand and

Isabella of Spain, The Early Music Consort of London directed by David Munrow: HMV CSD 3738 (1973) [LP] (British

Library Sound Archive: 2LP0071504).

24 ‘Reconstructing Lost Voices’, Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, ed. Tess Knighton and David Fallows (Oxford,

1997), 311–16 (311).

25 A particularly clear example of this is: Kyrie from Monteverdi: Missa da capella Prague Madrigal Singers: Supraphon SUA


26 There are many references for this story. For one of these, see Alan Blythe, ‘David Munrow Talks to Alan Blythe’, The

Gramophone, May 1974.

27 John Potter. ‘Past perfect & future fictions’, Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis, 26 (2002), 11.

28 ‘Choral Music in the Renaissance’, 164.




Popular posts from this blog

The tragic story of the man who inspired millions to love music

"Indicators" of Public Influence? Noah Greenberg, and Michael Morrow

Munrow, and the Jazz Connection