Recorder Profile by John Thomson


If we live in another country we are likely to see life from a different angle. Sometimes the experience brings special insights into behaviour and all the arts that will throw fresh light on the patterns of human development as happened to Darwin, the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard, collectors of flora and fauna and even to collectors of folk song. When Maud Karpeles and Cecil Sharp explored the isolated mountain area of the Appalachians in America they discovered a source of folk song that had closer parallels with the England, Ireland and Scotland of the seventeenth-century than with the twentieth. This was their richest find. On another level, when the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss left France to take up the chair of sociology in the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil he came into contact with the Indian population of the interior. The direction of his life changed. He began to study primitive culture, especially their modes of thought and behaviour and was able to use these insights to formulate general concepts that illuminate all societies.* David Munrow would not suggest that his stay in South America as a student teacher for the British Council was as yet of equal importance, but there is no doubt that this experience has stimulated him into a most coherent and persuasive approach to the performing traditions of early music.

It was a German student who had digs in his house who introduced him to the recorder. ‘I would sit at the bottom of the stairs and listen to him playing. He lent me his recorder and music so that when the competitions came up at school I borrowed his recorder and beat all these people who’d been learning other instruments for years. It was rather embarrassing. My parents then bought me a set of recorders and encouraged me to take up

the bassoon, which I learnt from Vaughan Allin of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a very fine player. But I found myself getting more and more interested in the recorder.’

He then spent a year in South America at Lima on the British Council student teacher scheme. He travelled over 10,000 miles by land and came into contact with a tremendous amount of folk music. ‘I dimly realised that this was all mixed up with instruments and traditions mostly dead in Western Europe. For instance, when the Spaniards came to South America the Indians copied their instruments and incorporated them into their music. I found renaissance flutes and recorders, cylindrical of course, because they were made of bamboo. The Indians had gone on using them ever since without altering them a scrap.’

He listened especially to the Indian tribes in the Andes who played a simple, straightforward kind of music, using the pentatonic scale. ‘It was deeply moving : and when one looked at their conditions of life, rather disturbing. There was a very great sadness, nearly everything was in a minor key. By contrast, in Lima, you had the creole music; a bastard form of Spanish folk music, similar to Flamenco; brilliant, virtuoso.’ From these experiences came his belief that the essence of an early music performing tradition might be found in folk origins, rather than in the tradition of western classical music. This coincides with a view expressed as long ago as 1957 by Anthony Baines in his Woodwind Instruments and their History: . . . in the quieter, remoter parts of the Continent, medieval wind instruments live on today as folk instruments, unchanged save perhaps for a small modification here, or a sign of degeneration there . . . Here is material of real importance. . . “It is not difficult for a student of violin to find teachers and virtuosi for his instrument. But those looking for models in medieval and renaissance music find it hard,’ he said. There are, of course, many hints in the surviving instruction manuals, such as Ganassi, and these are useful guides. Ganassi recommends the study of singing and with this advice David Munrow wholeheartedly agrees : ‘I spend more time listening to singers and what they do with their voices than anything else. All players should sing—so much of the early music is vocal. After this, one should look to folk players rather than to those who are just finding their way with these instruments after a gap of 400 years.’

He played a recording which he described as the most beautiful woodwind sound. It was not medieval music nor a modern flautist or recorder player but a performer on the Roumanian nai, a kind of syrinx or panpipes. The freshness, crispness and edge to the sound in this `Cintec de Dragoste’ or ‘Song of Love’ appealed to him enormously. ‘It has a vital improvisatory quality. Later music can’t have it because it isn’t improvised.’ He also gets inspiration from singers like Cleo Laine, or equally, Alfred Deller. ‘I like so many different singers it’s hard to know where to begin.’

In Morocco he once met a shepherd out in the countryside. `We had no language in common,’ he said, ‘but this man sat down and played the instruments I was carrying in my pack, then walked away and back to his sheep. He was one of the few untutored and indubitably great artists I’ve ever met. It’s experiences like this that makes me think such a player gives one a closer link with renaissance or medieval sound.

`I believe early music is expressive. One reads in books of people being moved to tears. Music must always have produced a direct emotional effect. Listeners were not at a concert but at a mass, or aristocratic function, or private gathering. The problem is not the same expressiveness as Beethoven or Chopin dynamics but something not immediately apparent in music. I’m still looking for it, but I get closer by looking at folk music and folk instruments than by looking at music written after 1600, with the beginnings of opera and the foundations of the modern orchestra.’

After Lima, David Munrow read English at Cambridge—`I spent three years industriously making music and not doing any work.’ This included singing in the Jesus College Chapel Choir. With Charles Cudworth he gave the first modern performance of William Boyce’s Cambridge Ode. Thurston Dart started him on the crumhorn and he was stimulated by fine players such as Don Smithers on the cornett and all windcap instruments. He met Christopher Hogwood who has been his harpsichordist ever since. When Cambridge ended he did research into seventeenth-century bawdy songs at Birmingham University and went into teaching.

He started giving lecture recitals on early woodwind instruments and their music and played a crumhorn part specially written by Richard Rodney Bennett for Timon of Athens at Stratford-upon-Avon. ‘After two terms’ teaching I decided the only thing I wanted to do was play. I was offered a job in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Wind Band playing the bassoon, recorder, crumhorn and rauschpfeife.’ He also taught early woodwind instruments for a year under the late Thurston Dart at the recently formed music department of Kings College, London. He lives in St. Albans, a good base for his proliferating concerts, recordings and TV appearances.

After concerts in February 1967 with James Bowman, Oliver Brookes, Christopher Hogwood and Mary Remnant, David Munrow felt that he had found a lively combination of performers to form a consort. ‘We all decided it would be a good idea if we went on working together. We got a Monday concert after a BBC audition and since then everything has snowballed a bit.’ He speaks appreciatively of his artists—’It’s marvellous, for instance, to have a counter-tenor like James Bowman, who has a hard masculine sound capable of great expressiveness.’

He brings back instruments from his travels so that in his house he has an intriguing collection. These include the early instruments he uses in his recitals—Steinkopf replicas and others ranging from North Africa through Japan to the Andes. Sometimes he has to work on an instrument for two years or so until it plays properly.

His collection is alive, everything is playable and is played—’It’s not like a gigantic toyshop.’

He would like composers to write for the recorder and for the other early instruments, for `no instrument is really alive if neglected by the living artist.’ He feels there could be an enormous future in the avant-garde and in pop for those with an individual sound. ‘I deplore the lack of good modern recorder music and think that Berio’s piece the best thing that’s happened to recorder music in the twentieth-century.’

His various activities complement each other so that if he lectures on Machaut at Leicester it seems part of the same process of discovery and experimentation. ‘The marvellous thing about my life is that I’m earning my living doing something I like. I’ve seen so much that’s wonderful in early music.’

At their Wigmore concert they played English music with a stunning sense of style and sympathy for the nuances of the words so it was no surprise to hear him say that he loved almost all English music, especially Purcell, who was probably his favourite composer. ‘I even like Elgar’, he added, ‘Falstaff especially, and of modern English music, everything from Britten to Richard Rodney Bennett’. He is always exploring folk and primitive music and this cross-fertilisation of early music is an imaginative breakthrough of the first order.

*See especially Claude Levi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind (Weidenfeld), and his inaugural lecture, Scope of Anthropology (Cape), paperback.