A composer’s champions
The piano music of Troon’s Douglas Munn has a showcase at the end of Cumnock Tryst 2022. KEITH BRUCE talks to his widow, Clare.
That Ayrshire man Douglas Munn’s legacy in his professional field of mathematics is secure seems in little doubt. As Dr W D Munn he held professorships at the Universities of Stirling and Glasgow and he was still publishing internationally-admired work in his particular algebraic specialism well beyond retirement.
In his latter years, however, Munn was as concerned with the after-life of the fruits of his skill as a composer of piano music, revising – and in some cases completing – work he had written in his teens and very early twenties.
Since his death in 2008, Munn the musician has been fortunate to be championed by three loyal women: his widow Clare, his sister Lesley, and Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane, whom he and Clare met at the 2001 Scottish International Piano Competition and went on to assist with accommodation and practice facilities through her studies at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire (then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama).
This weekend that work reaches a moment of posthumous celebration, appropriately near to his Troon home, when Arnicane plays Munn’s music in Dumfries House on the final day of Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival. The recital follows the release of an album she recorded at home in Riga which collects his complete catalogue for solo piano, handily clocking in at just under an hour of music and released on Toccata Classics.
Clare still lives in the Munn family home in Troon, and when we spoke earlier this week, I interrupted her playing the piano – “winding down”, she said, from the stress of emptying the couple’s Glasgow flat before it is sold.
“There was never a day went past without us playing the piano, either separately or together. The maths conferences used to have a lot of musicians and we played together at those,” she said.
“We also played at the university club, including many of the most famous pieces in the piano duet repertoire. I especially remember pieces by Debussy and Lutoslawski. I’ve still got my family Steinway, which belonged to my Cambridge grandparents and it still sounds pretty good. It’s been well looked after.”
It was, as is perhaps abundantly clear, music that brought the couple together.
“We were married for nearly 30 years,” Clare explains, “and we met through music in Salzburg, at a summer school organised by Glasgow University’s Extra-Mural Department. I had graduated from the Royal Academy of Music and was a young music teacher in London, and I went there with a flatmate on holiday and met Douglas.
“I think I quite impressed him, because the first time he invited me to Scotland I climbed to the top of Ben Nevis.”
That was in the 1960s, and it was the start of a slow-blooming relationship.
“It was a long distance romance,” laughs Clare. “I lived in Australia for 11 years, where I was teaching, and Douglas came out and lectured there. I think we did surprise everybody when we eventually got married in Sydney in 1980 and Douglas persuaded me to come back to Scotland.”
“Douglas’s mother was a teacher and had brought up her children after the death of their father at the end of the Second World War. She and her husband were both accomplished artists and members of the Paisley Art Institute.
“My father sang in the King’s College Chapel and my mother trained as a pianist and I had musical siblings – my younger sister was a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.”
Steeped in music as Clare and Douglas Munn were, they were supporters of Scotland’s orchestras and opera company, and of the conservatoire. Douglas was the Glasgow University representative there as well as serving on the board of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh.
“We bought a flat in the West End of Glasgow and used it while my husband was teaching at the university and I was a piano and a violin teacher,” said Clare.
During that time the couple met composer James MacMillan and his wife – a long friendship that links the early years of both marriages to this weekend’s event. They also got to know composer Eddie McGuire.
“It was Eddie who encouraged Douglas to dig out his music and have it stored at the Scottish Music Centre. That spurred Douglas on to start the revisions.
“The first little Prelude was written in 1944 [when Munn was just 15], and he continued to compose and play through his student years until the mathematics took over, although I do remember him finishing off the Sonatina and singing the tunes from it in the mid-80s.”
Given her teaching background, there was also encouragement of young musicians. The Ayrshire String Orchestra that plays in Dumfries House following Arnicane’s recital on Sunday includes a couple of Clare’s former pupils.
It was the commitment to young talent that introduced the couple to the Latvian pianist.
“Arta came to Glasgow to take part in the Scottish Piano Competition, when John Lill was on the panel,” said Clare. “We heard her play a Chopin study quite remarkably well, and Douglas said: ‘That girl is extremely good.’ I invited her to come and play in the flat and then we were able to offer her some accommodation when she was in between competitions.”
The Munns were in time invited to Arnicane’s wedding in Riga to Florian, who is a German cellist. They perform as a duo and now live in Zurich, where they have two sons, and the pianist has not stopped championing the music of Douglas Munn, including it in her solo recitals.
The recording of the complete Munn canon was made in 2019 in the studio of Riga Radio in Latvia, and the Toccata release comes with a fulsome booklet including notes by the pianist herself, a Maths colleague of the composer, David Easdown, and Munn’s sister Lesley Duncan, a journalist at The Herald. Crowning the package is the cover portrait of her son by his mother Elizabeth.
Arta Arnicane (pictured at top) plays Douglas Munn, Debussy and Martinu at Dumfries House, Cumnock at 2pm and 4pm on Sunday October 2 as part of Cumnock Tryst.