David Munrow (of the Early Music Consort) and Folk Music

The original line-up of the Early Music Consort, FLTR: Christopher Hogwood, David Munrow, James Tyler, Oliver Brookes and James Bowman.

Guest blogger: Edward Breen (London-based musicologist, writer and lecturer whose 2014 PhD dissertation was entitled The Performance Practice of David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. See here for more of his work.)

David Munrow (1942-1976) was one of the most widely-known early music ‘personalities’ of the 1960s and 70s. He was a woodwind specialist and director of the Early Music Consort of London and also a prolific broadcaster. As a regular BBC presenter many knew him through his long-running radio series Pied Piper which was aimed at a younger audience but enjoyed by listeners of all ages. Over the course of five years and 655 programmes he discussed a huge range of music themed in four weekly installments that ranged from folk dances to the works of Berlioz.

Having studied Munrow’s recordings, broadcasts and writings over the past few years I have become interested in what first sparked his interest in folk music and folk instruments, and how, in turn, this influenced his performances of medieval music. The following blog-post is offered as an overview of his activities and connections in this area.

Munrow was a chorister at Birmingham Cathedral and attended King Edward VI School. As a schoolboy he was both a talented bassoonist and recorder player winning his school music competition in 1957 for which he was presented with a copy of Anthony Baines’ book Woodwind Instruments and their History. Whether or not this was chosen in recognition of his developing interest in organology or if it was a catalyst in itself remains unknown, but certainly Munrow had begun collecting woodwind instruments before going to university.

In 1960, having secured a place to read English Literature at Cambridge, Munrow took a gap-year post at Markham College in Peru as part of the British Council’s voluntary overseas programme. He arrived in Peru via the slow-train from São Paulo, which allowed him to experience a great swath of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru in the process. This journey clearly fed his appetite for adventure because during his Christmas vacation a few months later he made another, long overland journey by train, this time heading south through Chile almost as far as the Tierra del Fuego, and along the way he immersed himself in traditional music by collecting folk instruments.

Munrow playing the recorder in the very florid anonymous Istampitta Ghaetta

At Cambridge University the following year he forged his reputation by playing many of these instruments at an autumn term concert organised by Christopher Hogwood, and was subsequently encouraged by Thurston Dart to explore links between the folk instruments he had acquired and early European instruments. Dart was therefore a key influence and many years later in an interview for Gramophone magazine, Munrow recalled the moment he first saw a crumhorn hanging on the wall of Dart’s study in Cambridge and was invited to borrow it.

Reading Dart’s The Interpretation of Music (1954) one will find clearly articulated ideas about folk music and early music that must have influenced many performers at the time:

Other evidence may be found in the music of the remoter regions of Europe and the Near East. The music and musical instruments heard in the mountains of Sardinia and Sicily, and the bands still used for Catalan dance music are medieval in flavour. The Arabian lute, rebec and shawm are still much the same as they were when they were first introduced into Europe by the Moors. The singing of Spanish cante jondo and flamenco singers will give us some idea of how the long vocal roulades found in so much medieval music were probably sung originally … (Chapter VIII ‘The Middle Ages’).

The connection between Dart’s line of argument and Munrow’s own reasoning twenty years later in his book Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (1976) is striking. By the time Munrow graduated from Cambridge his appetite was fully engaged in early instruments and their repertoire, and his collection—which now also included copies of early western instruments—expanded rapidly throughout the 60s.

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Unexpectedly, perhaps, Munrow then spent a postgraduate year in Birmingham working on 17th century songs: Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy and these fueled his enthusiasm further, so much so that by the mid sixties he had been appointed to the wind band of the Royal Shakespeare Company where the visionary director, Guy Woolfenden, wrote special parts for his early instruments. Around this time Munrow also toured with Christopher Hogwood and Gillian Ried (whom he married in 1966) giving lectures and recitals for music clubs and societies across the country and established himself as a musician and public speaker of great popularity.

It comes as no surprise that during the late 60s and early 70s Munrow appears as an instrumentalist on several albums by Michael Morrow’s Musica Reservata, an ensemble famous for strident, minimal vibrato performances of medieval and renaissance music and spearheaded by the mezzo-soprano Jantina Noorman whose striking use of chest-voice frequently divided critics. Like Thurston Dart, and perhaps because of him, Morrow also looked to folk cultures across Europe for echoes of older performance practices and thanks to the growing selection of folk records available at that time, developed a particular interest in Bulgarian voices as models for medieval singing.

Morrow felt that since drones often accompanied medieval monody it would need to be performed with both exact intonation and a clear, precise vocal technique. The same was true for instrumental music. This he found in the folk traditions of the Balkan countries and he discussed his hypothesis at length with the folklorist and historian A. L. Lloyd before encouraging Noorman to base her singing on techniques gleaned from Lloyd’s field recordings and before engaging Munrow’s impressively clear and defined instrumental technique to bear on medieval dances.

Delving further back through historical musicology, we find that such ideas were neither new to Dart nor to Morrow. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson in his book The Modern Invention of Medieval Music (2002) has traced ‘The Oriental Hypothesis’ back as far as the German musicologist, Arnold Schering. Schering’s Aufführungspraxis alter Musik (1931) suggests that medieval singing might have contained ‘Oriental elements’ such as nasal and guttural sounds.

Only fifteen years after its publication Dart studied in Belgium with the musicologist Charles van den Borren who may have pointed him in the direction of this text. Certainly, Dart, Morrow and Munrow were not the only people to explore this theory in performance: Thomas Binkley’s Studio der Frühen Musik also made many superb recordings of medieval music influenced by Arabian and Andalusian folk practices (amongst other elements) in the 1960s.

During 1968 Munrow founded his own group, the Early Music Consort (later called The Early Music Consort of London) with James Bowman (countertenor), Oliver Brookes (viol), Christopher Hogwood (keyboard and percussion) and James Tyler (lute). Their repertoire was to span from Leonin to Handel with Munrow himself playing a great number of different instruments. One of the consort’s great achievements was to bring to early music a professionalism and flair that suited the concert platform. Gone were long pauses for tuning, jargon-laden introductions and applause between each short piece. Munrow planned his concerts to include both a pleasing contrast of music and a trajectory for the evening as a whole. As Howard Mayer Brown put it so well in an obituary:

The special quality that set David Munrow apart, or so it seems to me, was […] an uncanny ability, given only to a few great teachers, to convince large numbers of people that what was important and attractive to him should also be attractive and important to them. (Early Music 4, no. 3, 1976).

One of Munrow’s (many) important achievements with the Early Music Consort of London was to build on and further develop ideas of folk-influenced performance with panache and showmanship, particularly in medieval dance repertoire. In fact, Munrow often played medieval dances as concert encores and audiences loved his quick-fire shawm technique and his audacious recorder trills as he skilfully decorated the melodic lines whilst other members of the consort provided percussion and drone accompaniment.

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Video of Munrow showing off his impressive shawm technique, in a 14th-century Italian Saltarello

Often such performances were so elaborate that James Bowman has remembered they were fondly referred to amongst the consort as ‘Turkish night-club music’ (BBC Radio 3, Mr Munrow, His Study, 2006). Even this little joke might contain important information because one of the many performers Munrow admired was Mustafa Kandirali, the Turkish folk clarinettist whose records he collected.

Early music, and medieval music in particular, has a long association with using folk music-models as templates for performance. The results are often fascinating, beautiful and striking, and despite current theories promoting predominantly vocal performance in medieval motets and chansons, the bright array of medieval instruments, with all their folk-resonances, remain a source of fascination and preoccupation for many musicians and audiences in the medieval dance repertoire.

Certainly David Munrow was a performer in which dazzling technical ability met with both an active historical imagination and a keen musicianship enabling him to explore this area of medieval music in both performance and theory. Added to his abilities as a public speaker and broadcaster he brought such orientalisms and medievalisms into the mainstream during the 1970s and, even though the shifting sands of musicology have outdated some of his ideas, his performances are still treasured today for their vitality and conviction.

© Edward Breen 2015 – All rights reserved

Thanks are due to David Griffith for the photo of the EMC, which came from his excellent David Munrow website.

Also of interest

The forgotten harpsichord teacher of Christopher Hogwood & Colin Tilney (in whose living room the Early Music Consort rehearsed).

Contemporaries of David Munrow Remember

3 comments to David Munrow (of the Early Music Consort) and Folk Music

  • Very interesting. I was with David Munrow in the RSC Wind Band at Stratford for the 1965 season. David played bassoon in the band and I think Guy Woolfenden also wrote for him on recorder. But I don’t remember him writing for any of the other early wind instruments that David played, though I could be wrong. One reason that Guy may not have written for any other instrument than bassoon or recorder was that, even in 1965, David had many other commitments and often put in a deputy. So busy was he that on one night two bassoonists turned up, while for another performance no-one appeared. If Guy had written for crumhorn or shawm it would have been hard at that time for David to find a deputy on the instrument.

    By the way, Guy Woolfenden was a fine musical director, but I wouldn’t describe him as ‘visionary’.


  • Nancy Fahringer

    And in the USA….NY City, another visionary was at work…..Noah Greenberg, who gathered a group of musicians to perform the medieval “Play of Daniel” [see the blog post here] to acclaim …. in the Cloisters, and later for a larger audience at Riverside Church. Some of the performers: Gordon Meyers, Russell Oberlin, Alva Tripp. I was fortunate to be in an informal group of singers who would read through music Noah had found, so that he could get an idea of it. He wasn’t really a great musician, rather a great enthusiast and promoter, and he brought the early music movement a big start in New York City and eventually a wide audience. I think Auden wrote the [English] words to The Play of Daniel.

    • Yes, Noah Greeberg did play an important role in the popularisation of Early Music. But I think it is safe to say that it was David Munrow who more than anyone else in the 20th put Old Music on the map. Admitedly, this process was greatly aided by advances in record production, and marketing along with the increasing ownership of television, and radio by the public.

      Also, I would like to add that I have the largest audio-visual collection of Early Music which may be of interest //

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