Early musician who could have become a great conductor
Hopefully at least a little of the content from eleven years of On An Overgrown Path transcends the virtual noise that is the staple fare of online music journalism today. For me the most rewarding projects have been the Philippa Schuyler and Master Musician of Jajouka doubleheaders, the profile of Guyanese conductor Rudolph Dunbar, the exploration of contemporary modal music, and interviews with Jonathan Harvey, Jordi Savall, Ali Keeler, and with David Munrow's recording producer Christopher Bishop. Although the latter interview has been available as a sound file it has not to date been transcribed as text. So while tidying up loose ends I have transcribed the interview below. (The photo at the foot of the article was taken during the radio interview and shows me with Christopher Bishop).
Although David Munrow is best known as an early music authority the interview ranges widely. Christopher Bishop mentored both Riccardo Muti and Andre Previn early in their careers, and his view that had David Munrow not died tragically young, he could have become a great conductor is intriguing. Also interesting is the discussion about Munrow's use of improvisation and jazzy rhythms. This chimes with the view expressed by Western classically trained Sufi musician Ali Keeler in my recent interview that improvisation could play an important role in broadening the appeal of Western classical music. Auspicious convergence of cultural paths has always been a feature here, and that convergence is evidenced in the music of the troubadors championed by David Munrow. The troubadors' music, which helped shape the Western classical tradition, was probably influenced by itinerant Sufi musicians from Andalusia, which is where Ali Keeler is based. Another meme On An Overgrown Path has been disdain for musical anniversaries. But I hope that making this interview available will be a worthwhile contribution to the anniversary next year of David Munrow's untimely death in May 1976. Ironically, next year is also the anniversary of the death of American early music pioneer Noah Greenberg, who died too young in January 1966.
Bob Shingleton: In the early 1970s the scores for the BBC TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elisabeth R brought David Munrow’s music to millions. His Pied Piper radio programme was broadcast four times a week for five years, he presented a successful TV series, and wrote music for several major feature films including Ken Russell's The Devils - together with Peter Maxwell Davies - and Henry VIII & his Six Wives directed by Waris Hussein. David Munrow's interest in early music started when he taught in Peru before going up to Cambridge. He combined reading English at Pembroke College with independent studies of Renaissance and medieval music, and went on to form his famous Early Music Consort of London. Under his leadership the Early Music Consort became best-selling recording artists, and David Munrow’s records were considered so important that copies of them were sent to Saturn on board two NASA spacecraft in 1976.
Today David Munrow is remembered by the records he made for EMI that started in 1971 with the LP Two Renaissance Dance Bands. He was brought to EMI by their double Grammy winning recording producer Christopher Bishop who produced Munrow's first records for the famous dog and trumpet label. Christopher who also worked with Carlo Maria Giulini, Charles Mackerras, André Previn, Yehudi Menuhin, Riccardo Muti, Sir Adrian Boult and many other great musicians, and I am delighted to welcome him to the Overgrown Path today. Welcome Christopher, and can you start by telling us how you first met David Munrow?
CB: It was rather strange, it wasn't as obvious or direct as you might think. I used to conduct a madrigal group. We'd done lots of different broadcasts of straightforward madrigals, and the producer Basil Lam said to me it would be very interesting to try doing some madrigals with instruments, and I thought oh... He suggested viols and other stringed instruments, and also recorders. And I thought "oh no" - I used to be a school master, and the word recorder has a horrifying significance for me. So I asked "must we?", and Basil Lam said there is this young man called David Munrow who is an incredibly good player - come and hear him. So I went along to a concert he was doing, and, of course, it was fantastic; so I said that would be great. So the first time I met David Munrow was at the BBC recording sessions. We did some madrigals with viols, and some without any instruments, and we got on very welll indeed. He mucked about all the time; - he was great fun - and he also mucked about musically. One of the madrigals we did was 'Hark All Ye Lovely Saints' by Weelkes, where the choir sings the verse and fah lahs at the end - which are really instrumental in a way - were played by David and his group. We let him do that, and in the second verse he really goes to town and decorates it in a way that I am quite sure no singer would ever have done.
That BBC session was a very important occasion both for me and in a way for David, because he asked for a lift afterwards to the station. We were chatting about his programme and I said how much I enjoyed his playing. I think I took him about a mile and a half, and in that very short distance he managed to convince me that it would be a very good idea if EMI, where I was then a producer, made a record of his group, and I agreed. He had another record he had already made - I can't remember if it was released commercially - and I took that record around the company and persuaded people that it would be a good idea to use him. A year later we did actually make the first record; he was tremendous fun to work with, and, surprisingly, the record became extremely popular.
BS: At that time there wasn't a great market for early music; in fact there was hardly a market at all. What convinced you to record what at that time must have been a very minority market?
CB: I think it was just that it was so very jolly and clever, and full of life. You know, it just had it; in a way I suppose we looked at in a way that pop producers do. They don't ask 'is there a market for this?'; they say 'that's good, so we'll do it', and then the market is made. I don't suppose anyone thought there was a market for the Beatles when they first started; they just thought this is a great band and it took off. In a way David was like that: he was his own advertiser he did these broadcasts called Pied Piper that you mentioned, and he also went round performing all the time. He was never not working, and that sort of energy committed itself.
BS: That level of risk taking is something that is really disappearing now from the classical music scene. There is virtually no backing of hunched and those golden days of risk taking have gone presumably.
CB: Yes, that was the late 1960s and early 70s when we did that. It was a very different world indeed, and people don't dare do anything like that now, particularly in the large companies. I think all the adventurousness now tends to be in the smaller companies, but EMI in those days was a very adventurous company indeed. It made the first recording of the Elgar oratorios and that sort of thing, which, of course, have also been recorded by other companies since then. It was a very, very great company.
BS: Did you have a job of selling the concept of David Munrow to the powers that be at EMI? It was EMI UK that recorded him for presumably?
CB: Yes, it was the British company, a man called John Whittle who was a tremendous enthusiast. It was quite easy to make John enthuse; if you enthused to him he would pick it up, as would another chap called Douglas Pudney who worked very hard in the same way. I just played the record to him and he said "wow!" The record I played had on it the first piece we did for the 'Two Renaissance Dance Bands' album. It was called La Mourisque; it's a very noisy piece and I always think of David red faced and puffing away when I hear it
BS: Christopher, in the studio you had been dealing with the conventional symphony orchestra and conventional chamber music and suddenly you were confronted with these extraordinary instruments that David Munrow suddenly introduced. Wasn't this all a bit of a culture shock?
CB: It was indeed; it was such a culture shock that at one stage in the game I said wouldn't it be a good idea if you did a record (in due course it turned out to be two) with samples of all these peculiar instruments - things like nakers for example which are a percussion instrument, and various kinds of string instruments, and regals and crumhorns. I knew what a crumhorn was, but before working with David I had never seen one actually being played. One got quite used to all these things, and I used to say I can't quite hear the second crumhorn, can you just play it a little louder or move the mic and that sort of thing. It became a completely different world and eventually David did do a wonderful box set called Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which is a very po-faced title. I wanted to call it 'A Young Person's Guide to Old Instruments' but they thought that a little too populist. Nowadays I am sure they would have used that title; but remember, this was a long time ago when we were much more po-faced really. It was terrfific fun working with David, you can tell from the enthusiasm you can hear on his recordings.
BS: What was David Munrow like in the studio? Did you have to restrain him? - I always get the impression of someone running away with all these weird and wild instruments and wanting to do extraordinary things. Did you give him his head in the recording studio, and what was the chemistry like?
CB: No, he wasn't like that at all in the studio. He was full of enthusiasm and so on, but he was so professional - he could never have done all he did if he hadn't been absolutely disciplined. He used to do ridiculous things like staying up all night writing out parts, and he wouldn't really trust anyone else to do his work for him. He did all the copying; think of nowadays what you can do so easily with Sibelius (the music writing software), he used to do all that by hand, there were no mechanical aids at all. Nothing was printed; it was all written out by him and it really was an amazing experience working with him because he was so full of energy. It was terrifying, he used to put the music stands out, he'd appear early and put out all the music and the music stands, and he'd suddenly think he had got them in the wrong place and rush out and move them all again. Then we might ask him if he wouldn't mind moving a seat because, you know, we wanted to get nearer to a certain instrument which might be quiet, and he'd have to go out and reorganise it himself.
BS: Listening to your recordings of the Early Music Consort I am struck by the freshness and spontaneity of it all. They sound almost improvised in fact. Did David Munrow come into the studio with a clear plan for the record? Did you know what he was going to record?
CB: Oh, absolutely. Everything was completely organised - totally. But what you say about improvisation is actually true, because in some pieces he used to decorate. He and John Turner (the second recorder player), they used to fiddle around and decorate in the most delightful way. Whether they rehearsed the basic idea, or whether it was second nature to them I just don't know really, but it was extremely free. Some of the improvisation was very jazzy, I can't really believe some of the improvised rhythms were used in the 16th century. His music was improvised, because if you did two takes the second would be different to the first. Now that posed slight problems for us sometimes if we tried to edit between them, and it wasn't always easy. But as all the pieces were very short, if it went wrong he did it again.
BS: So there was very little editing. We hear so many stories today about very short takes and it all been spliced together - was there very much editing required after those David Munrow sessions?
CB: No there wasn't - very little indeed. Because we really didn't need to: because they were so good and you could redo the whole piece if it only lasted two or three minutes. It's not like a symphony where you have to slice in a chunk.
BS: There is this stereotype of David Munrow as being an early music specialist. But in fact this is not true at all. He was involved in modern music and he was involved in film scores. He was a much broader musician than this early music category wasn't he?
CB: He started with early music and moved on from there. In the same way I suppose that Neville Marriner started with 18th century music and moved on from there, and Raymond Leppard the same. But the fact that he was able to change his interest and his concept was fascinating.
BS: How important were the film scores?
CB: Well, the only one that I had anything to do with was Henry VIII. That consisted almost entirely of old music except for one piece, which is the music for the joust where Henry VIII is sitting there looking jealous; there is sort of tortured music, he is sitting there looking at Anne Boleyn flirting with young courtiers. Then, eventually, that music is used on his deathbed. It is very effective; he says that it is aleatoric, which means it has been done by the throw of the dice. But I don't believe that is true at all: I don't believe he made it up, I believe he wrote it - but it is extremely effective.
BS: That is very interesting. I hadn't heard he claimed it was aleatoric music; obviously there are connections there with John Cage and other contemporary composers like Alvin Curran, whose Inner Cities piano cycle I broadcast on Future Radio recently. It's amazing how all these threads come together; we are not talking here just about early and medieval music, it's much broader than that.
CB: Well I think it would have been. I think it had only just started, I'm not sure how much he would have known about John Cage in those days to be quite fair. But I think he had begun to develop into a different kind of musician from just the recorder player. Because he was so intelligent and had such a lot of energy, and the Pied Piper programmes were amazingly broad - he was quite happy to talk about Mahler and Wagner and so on - he was by no means narrow. Was he frantic to deal with?
BS: Tell us about more about working with him in the recording studio. We get the impression of someone who was incredibly driven: you say he was working all night, he was working across radio and television and cinema, he was recording LPs, and, of course, performing in the concert hall. That was very unusual in the 1970s, he was a true multi-media artist.
CB: Well he was pretty terrifying to deal with, because he got himself into a pretty high-pressured state - I think his blood pressure must have been horrendous. But his face - partly because he played a wind instrument and of course he was puffing all the time - his face was usually a sort of red colour. He was very, very driven, that is a very good word for him. He was totally driven; he spent all his time working at music. I don't know what he did to relax; one never saw him relax; but then I only saw him in the studio and doing concerts
BS: Some of the music David Munrow composed is quite extraordinary. If you played a piece like his music for the jousting scene from Henry VIII that we talked about earlier to someone without telling them who the composer was, I suspect they would never suggest it was by him.
CB: Well you are used to David Munrow the performer, and, of course, he wouldn't have performed that sort of music in his early music concerts. I produced the music for the film and I think the music was composed - by chance or otherwise - for the film and not the BBC programme, although I can't quite recall. I can remember the film appearing on the screen in the recording studio as it does, and you see little bits the wrong way round and think who on earth is that? - it is someone who has come in at the beginning and you hardly see again. It all had to be done in that highly complicated way, but he was completely on the ball about it and knew exactly what he was doing.
BS: We are starting to move away from David Munrow as an early music performer. One of the interesting things is that he worked with such a wide range of musicians. He worked for instance with Sir Adrian Boult - David Munrow and Sir Adrian Boult is not a combination you would expect. How did that come about?
CB: Well it came about through me I suppose. Because Adrian Boult was one of my artists and I thought what a wonderful thing it would be for him and John Turner to do the Brandenburg Concerto recorder parts - because they are really recorder parts and not flute - and I suggested it to Sir Adrian. I think I must have played a record to him and he said 'this is fantastic'. When David and John Turner came into the studio Sir Adrian was wonderful with them; he treated them perfectly normally, as if they were great artists, which of course they were. There was no patronisation at all, and John Turner said he was always terribly amused by the fact that Boult always said to him [imitates Sir Adrian] "Well, we will try that again and I am sure it will be even better", and the result is a wonderful performance.
BS: The classical music scene today is divided very sharply between period and modern instrument performances. It must seem surprising to the younger generation that David Munrow, who in some ways was a pioneer of period instruments, performed Bach with a modern symphony orchestra. Were there any obstacles to that?
CB: No, it is strange now, but I think the thing was Boult was doing a set of Brandenburg Concertos, and therefore we had to have a recorder or flautist for numbers 2 and 4. I think that Boult was amazingly adventurous to accept the idea of doing it. But he immediately said 'that's a wonderful idea'. I think these days it would have been recorded by a tiny 'Bachy' type orchestra with Harnoncourt or someone. In those days symphony orchestras did still play Bach, and jolly well too.
BS: Tragically David Munrow took his own life in May 1976. Presumably this came as a terrible shock to his fiends and colleagues.
CB: It did; but in a way, when you think about it afterwards, he drove himself so terribly that any emotional problem would have had a much greater impact on him than for someone who was on a more even keel. We were all absolutely devastated by it, particularly the peformers he worked with who saw him as a life force, and if a life force dies or kills himself it is simply terrible - it couldn't be worse. I know that it knocked some of them - the countertenor James Bowman for instance - absolutely for six. He couldn't sing for quite a long time afterwards; he was absolutely devastated by it, and i am not surprised.
BS: And the news of his death came totally out of the blue.
CB: Completely, one day I had a phone call from John Willan who had taken over producing his recordings towards the end of his time, and John said: "You will never guess what has happened, the little blighter has killed himself" and I knew exactly who he meant. I said "you mean David" and he said "yes". It was really absolutely frightful.
BS: He was just thirty-three when he died. If that tragedy hadn't happened what do you think he would have gone on to do?
CB: Now that is a very interesting question. I think he would have become a very, very distinguished educator,and also conducting full-size orchestras. It is almost impossible to imagine, but his agent and I agreed always, if about nothing else, about the fact that he had definitely got the potential to be something more even than someone like André Previn. Previn was a great populariser and I think Munrow would have gone slightly deeper than that. I am not sure what repertoire he would have done, certainly opera and things like that, he would have loved anything that could have broadened his musical outlook.
BS: We can only speculate, but as a conductor, do you think he would have had a career across all categories and across all ages of repertoire. Would he have moved out of the early music and baroque category?
CB: Yes, I think he probably would. You think of Daniel Barenboim, but his career followed a fairly straightforward path: he started off as a pianist - a great Beethoven and Mozart pianist - and he then went on to conduct - a not unusual course. But Munrow's world was absolutely different; I don't think I have ever come across anyone like that. Neville Marriner is a sort of parallel, someone who in early music, although obviously he was an orchestral player who played everything when he was at the London Symphony Orchestra; Neville's conducting career began with early music and gradually went into the modern era. I think David Munrow would have become a very great conductor and also a great populariser.
BS: Christopher, we've heard how David Munrow was an extraordinary talent and extraordinary person to work with. How would you like to remember this extraordinary talent? What would be your abiding memory and the piece of music to remember him by?
CB: Well my abiding memory really is, of course, of him in the studio. I can remember him so well coming rushing in to listen to takes, and on one occasion something wasn't very good. I said to him "David that's not really up to standard", and he said [angry voice]: "What do you mean, what do you mean not up to standard. What standard is it not up to, EMI's?" And I said: "No, it isn't actually. It's not up to your standard either". He said "Oh balls!" and went back into the studio and immediately played the whole thing perfectly.To rile him and to get him angry was a pretty sure way of getting him to perform perfectly. He was so proud; he was a very, very proud person oddly enough of his ability and of his standards. The music which makes me remember him most was La Mourisque from 'Two Renaissance Dance bands". I can see his red face puffing away at the crumhorn or recorder - I can't remember which - and that music captures him perfectly.
This article is a transcription of my 2007 Future Radio interview with Christopher Bishop. However, the text has been judiciously edited to enable it to work in a text format; the original audio interview is available at the time of writing on Soundcloud. All text is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2015. Header photo credit DavidMunrow dot org. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.