The tragic story of the man who inspired millions to love music
As Radio 3 re-run episodes of their landmark 1970s music series for children, Pied Piper, we remember its presenter - early music specialist David Munrow
Those kinds of questions have dogged parents and scientists for decades, each new study providing different answers. Does listening to Mozart really boost your brainpower? asked BBC Future in 2013 in response to a widely misunderstood report from 1993, which didn't actually declare that there was a "Mozart effect" - the idea that infants will become cleverer if they're exposed to classical music. In fact, just about any kind of music is good for children of all ages to listen to, and a much broader 2006 study suggested pop (Blur!) was just as effective as Mozart.
If you liked music when you were a kid, you already know that it benefitted you. The conundrum is how to interest children in music, and for that there a multitude of initiatives around for parents to investigate, including the BBC's Ten Pieces.
Munrow's love of music was life-long. He taught himself the bassoon in two weeks while still at school, before travelling to Peru, where he learned other instruments, and then studied at Cambridge in the 1960s. The breadth of his knowledge ensured he could present with devastating clarity, never cramming too much into an episode and always letting pieces of music play to a decent length, so they were enjoyable as well as illustrative. His touch was light-but-learned, fun and informative and he knew the power of stories to engage young minds. Here's how the episode (above) on Sir Thomas Beecham, grandson of the founder of the pharmaceutical company Beechams, begins: "Do you know which famous English conductor was born in St Helens, Lancashire, belonged to a family who made a fortune in pills, enjoyed cricket, chess and billiards, used to sing bass in a madrigal group and once practised the trombone in a rowing boat right out in the middle of a Swiss lake?"
In the first of the five episodes to be broadcast (below), Munrow picks out a phrase in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, composed in the early 18th century, which he tells listeners sounds like someone saying, "Jolly good! Jolly good! Jolly good! Jolly good!" Then, to prove that "most people today would agree that Bach is one of the greatest composers there's ever been - even today's pop musicians listen to and study Bach because they find it full of excitement; they find it an inspiration", he plays the section of prog rock band The Nice's Ars Longa Vita Brevis from 1968 that includes a version of "Bach's jolly good tune".
And yet there are huge swathes of music fans who best remember Munrow not for his broadcasting career, but as a musician and recording artist. It seems almost impossible to believe, but in his 33 years he also released over 50 albums that it's not an exaggeration to say they changed our understanding of music history by spectacularly throwing a light on, most notably, the medieval and renaissance periods.
Munrow's interest in what is loosely termed 'early music' began at Cambridge when he discovered a crumhorn (an early wind instrument) hanging on the wall in a friend's room. He learned to play it and later, according to his collaborator Christopher Hogwood, mastered some 42 other instruments from different times in history and different places in the world. A group he formed, Early Music Consort of London, became highly influential, their many albums managing to combine the strictures of ancient music with the free-flowing experimentation of the 1970s. Just as Canadian pianist Glenn Gould had managed with Bach in the 50s and 60s, Munrow made old music sound bracingly modern and he won an audience not just with classical buffs, but rock fans, too.
The Early Music Consort's The Art of Courtly Love won a Grammy in 1977 for best Chamber Music Performance, and Munrow also scored for TV and film - including, with Peter Maxwell Davis, Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), starring Oliver Reed.
The Munrow legacy
Have we become genre-blind in the way we listen to music now? Radio 3 controller Alan Davey thinks so, telling the Sunday Times in 2015: "Young people are growing up with an open mind about various kinds of quite complex music." Munrow foresaw that, instilling a sense of sonic adventure in the minds of people who heard the Pied Piper series in the 70s and now have considerable influence on the way music is presented, curated and broadcast to us now. "Today," Tom Service writes in BBC Music magazine, "Munrow would have taken advantage of the technological possibilities of our musical world in ways that we can only imagine." He was a futurist as well as an archivist, who left the universe of music vastly expanded in all directions for the benefit of those who came next.