David John Munrow (Aug. 12 1942 – May 15 1976) was born in Birmingham and attended King Edward VI School, Birmingham (amongst his contemporaries was tv ‘birder ‘and comedian Bill Oddie). He played bassoon, recorder and piano with some distinction, and sang as a chorister in Birmingham Cathedral, and in the University Orchestra which rehearsed just across the road from the school – although a musical career was not uppermost in his mind. His father, Albert Munrow, was a Birmingham University lecturer on physical education and there exists a sports centre in his name. Munrow had a strong association with Birmingham and the surrounding area.
In August 1960 Munrow went to Lima, Peru, as a student teacher under the British Council’s Voluntary Service Overseas scheme. He helped the pupils at Markham College – a private boys school – prepare for the Common Entrance exam. Whilst there, he avidly collected all manner of South American folk instruments. The influence of this vibrant indigenous music had a lasting effect on Munrow, who would later make much of the missing link between early music and folk music.
The following year Munrow went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to study English. Stories abound of Munrow’s enthusiasm for performing, and he began organising concerts. His organising zeal and gift for performance and presentation were immediately apparent. A crumhorn hanging on a fellow student’s wall, as well as encouragement from music scholar Thurston Dart apparently led to another voyage of discovery as Munrow became more and more immersed in music of the distant past. Another key influence was said to be Anthony Baines’ book on Woodwind Instruments and their History.
After graduation Munrow combined his love of music and literature by carrying out further research for an MA at Birmingham University on Thomas d’Urfey’s collection of rather bawdy English ballads entitled ‘Pills to Purge Melancholy’.
He was still not sure of a career in music but a key catalyst occurred when he joined The Royal Shakespeare Theatre Wind Band, playing for productions at Stratford and London. He played bassoon at first, but the musical director at the time, Guy Woolfenden, encouraged Munrow to perform on the instruments of Shakespeare’s time as well. Woolfenden recalls how Munrow scribbled down notes on the tonal qualities and compasses of instruments such as the crumhorn, shawm and rauschpfeife – with comments such as “let me get my breath back after playing this one…”
There was little doubt now as to Munrow pursuing a musical career, and with his wife Gillian Reid, he began giving workshops and recitals on ‘early music’ to schools and music societies. Soon afterwards, in 1967, he left the RSC’s band and became a part-time lecturer in early music history at Leicester University.
That same year he formed the Early Music Consort of London, with several friends and acquaintances from his university days, including singer James Bowman, strings specialist Oliver Brookes and keyboardist Christopher Hogwood. Later, the lutenist and strings player James Tyler became a key member. It was essentially a very versatile core of musicians for touring logistics, but able to be supplemented by much bigger forces for recording purposes.
Munrow’s recording career took off and there was a steady stream of landmark recordings of medieval and renaissance music – all with his characteristic hallmarks of consummate musicianship combined with an innate flair for presentation. Who can forget the ‘big band’ sound of his recordings of Susato’s ‘Danserye’? Or, his exquisite arrangements of music by Machaut and the era of Courtly Love. His landmark boxed-set ‘The Art of the Recorder’ was as fine a testament to an often neglected instrument as one could wish to make – a fitting tribute indeed to the ‘English flute’. Although known as an instrumentalist, Munrow in his later years revealed the influence of his days as a chorister with superb recordings of choral music by Monteverdi and Purcell. As an aside, what’s sometimes forgotten is how many ‘crossover’ recordings Munrow made with musicians from the folk spectrum – a glance at Medieval.org’s Munrow discography makes for a dizzy read, such was the number and breadth of recording projects he is known to have appeared on.
Munrow’s research into instruments and music of the past led to specially commissioned reconstructions of instruments from the cornett and rackett families, from makers such as Otto Steinkopf and Christopher Monk. His rapidly expanding instrument collection was always heavily supplemented whilst touring, by ransacking foreign bazaars for indigenous instruments.
Primetime recognition came when, in 1970, the BBC asked him to provide the music to a television series ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, and later, ‘Elizabeth R’. Further film soundtrack commissions followed, including Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’, John Boorman’s ‘Zardoz’ and the soundtrack to ‘La Course en Tete’, a film about Belgian cyclist Eddie Merckx. Munrow’s extraordinary talent for presenting and communicating with an audience was also evident when he was asked to present ‘Pied Piper’ – a long-running series on BBC Radio 3 which covered all eras and genres of music and which was targeted at younger listeners but had many older fans. It was on several afternoons a week and ran for over 5 years, notching up 655 episodes!
Munrow presented a number of television programmes on music including a series of six half-hour programmes for Granada Television in 1976, entitled ‘Early Musical Instruments’, and he presented a series for BBC2 called ‘Ancestral Voices’, lucidly expanding on his conviction that the music of the past must have had the energy, virtuosity and relevance that the folk music of today clearly has for many peoples around the world. Other television shows included introductions to early instruments introduced by Clement Freud and an Open University programme from Montacute House, Somerset.
There was even time to write a book, ‘Instruments of the Middle Ages & Renaissance’, complete with a 2-disc set of recordings of many of the instruments described. As ever, it was very readable, reaching out to a wide audience. Sadly, it was to be one of his last accomplishments before he took his own life on May 15, 1976.
In a career that spanned less than ten years, Munrow had helped change the general perception of music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Firstly, he was a master of presentation and rose to the challenges of performing short pieces from widely different eras on varying instrumental line-ups. He meticulously sequenced pieces and chose instrumentation to minimise on-stage disruptions and the necessities of tuning. Secondly, he expected nothing but the best from himself and music colleagues, and his performances are always characterised by outstanding musicianship – he raised standards and expectations, and was particularly influential as a recorder player and teacher – he became Professor of Recorder at the Royal Academy of Music, and his understated ‘English’ style of playing was in contrast to the more expressive approach favoured in Continental Europe. Munrow’s prodigous recorded output has been his most tangible legacy, but his live performances with the Consort also had a profound effect on all who experienced them – the word ‘legendary’ does not seem too excessive a superlative in this context. He was often described as a ‘showman’ and there would always be a carefully thought out shape to a programme, each concert half ending in an obligatory showpiece. Finally, Munrow’s recording of Holborne’s ‘The Faerie Round’ for recorder consort was one of the iconic recordings chosen for inclusion on the Golden Voyager Record – taken into space on the two US Voyager space craft in 1977 (despite the version used featuring a wrong note because of an error in the sheet music transcription).
With the benefit of hindsight we can see that although he was indeed a pioneer, there were others ploughing a similar path at the time. Musica Reservata, directed by Michael Morrow, brought an uncommon earthy presentation to early music, and Munrow certainly featured on many of their recordings. And there were many pioneers in Europe who combined practical musicianship and scholarly attention to detail in their revival of early music. None, however, had quite the energy and showmanship of Munrow – indeed, he is often described as having ‘burst’ onto the music scene – a small, dapper character fizzing with effervescence, sparkling wit and vitality.
Munrow’s star burnt brightly and all-too briefly – but let us be thankful we still have his lasting legacy to educate, inspire and bring joy to our lives.
David Griffith – last updated 27/9/14
P.S. If you wish to amend or enhance this initial biography draft please do contact me. I am currently collating material from various sources and will be posting a more accurate and detailed account soon.