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Photograph at the time of the publication of her first book in 1978 with her holding the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo Lyre.

Mary REMNANT (1935-2020)

May 2021

REMNANT, Mary Elizabeth Theresa (b. London, 13 January 1935; d. Isle of Wight, 15 May 2020)

Mary Remnant, distinguished scholar, lecture-recitalist, pioneer of iconographical research into mediaeval instruments and Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries was born in London. Her parents were both Catholic converts, her mother, Joan, being a pianist and a graduate of the Royal College of Music and her father, Eustace, an architect with a particular passion for ecclesiastical buildings. He was to be an equally important influence in shaping the unique path her musical career would follow.

When WWII broke out her father decided to evacuate his young family to Kent, but on arriving at Tenterden he found that the arranged lodgings were no longer available. The crisis was resolved by a chance encounter with the harpsichord maker, John Ticehurst, who provided safe haven for Joan and the four-year-old Mary in a cottage nearby on Huson Farm. The tenure was agreed in two humerous poems by her father and Mr Ticehurst entitled ‘A Commercial Transaction’ and ‘The Receipt’ which Mary treasured all her life and often quoted with great amusement. For Mary everything was important and meaningful, hence the meticulous documentation of events in her own life and of those she encountered. She had a remarkable memory for minute details.

Her father’s office in Gray’s Inn Road where the family’s possessions were stored had taken a direct hit during a bombing raid and they had lost almost everything. Mary would recount how when the War was over her father said: “Let’s go back to Chelsea and see if the old house is still there”, and indeed it was.  They returned with Joan’s Bechstein grand piano which had survived having been housed in Westminster Abbey for the duration of the War. Apart from times away for her education and many travels, 15 Fernshaw Road remained Mary’s lifelong home becoming a time capsule of every document, letter and photograph from the 1930s onwards.

Her education began with a strict Catholic schooling at the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, St Leonards-on-Sea. Mary studied violin and piano becoming equally accomplished at both. Aged 13 she participated in the Hastings Festival in 1948.

Having heard her play to see if she might be considered for entrance to the Royal College of Music, the renowned pianist Frank Merrick said: “It would be a tragedy if she wasn’t accepted”.  Merrick became her much loved piano professor there from 1952.  Henry Holst, Antonio Brosa and Neville Marriner were her violin professors. In 1954 she arranged for Henry Holst to give a recital at her former school, as was recorded in their magazine, The Cornelian, in which it was also reported that Mary had already passed her ARCM in both piano and violin and taken part in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra summer course. She led the First Orchestra at the RCM and was the soloist in Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto.  In 1956 she won the Tagore Gold Medal (awarded to the two most distinguished RCM students of the year) at the same time as clarinettist Colin Bradbury. Mary always said: “He got it for being brilliant; I got it for meaning well”.

By now Mary was in no doubt that her career was to be a musical one. She became aware of the numerous musicians portrayed in mediaeval art while visiting churches in England and France with her father, who taught her photography. Occasionally she would also refer to her father’s friends as being an important influence on her. One of these friends was Lawrence E. Tanner who mentioned in a congratulatory letter to Mary that he had spent a month enthusiastically photographing French cathedrals.

After leaving the College in July 1956, she began to list and photograph the images and carvings of mediaeval instruments herself and then to have reconstructions made for performance (such as the Portative Organ by Williamson and Hyatt, 1961 which Mary is shown holding in the photograph in colour below).

After teaching the violin for some years at Colet Court, her studies of mediaeval music continued at St Anne’s College, Oxford where Dr F.W. Sternfeld became her supervisor. One afternoon, a friend, Tony O’Halloran, was showing some visitors around the C14th Chapel of New College when they heard what they thought must be mice under the back row of the choir stalls. It turned out to be Mary checking the misericords with a torch to find any carved musicians.

Misericords illustrated in Mary’s book English Bowed Instruments from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor Times (see below).

He also recounted how she took part in a concert in 1963 organised by Alan Loveday and was allowed to play one of the Stradivarius violins from the Hill Collection at the Ashmolean; she complained that the girl next to her had a much better Stradivarius.

While still a student she won a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship in 1967 which enabled her to research in eight European countries as well as Afghanistan where she collected folk instruments. These were occasionally played in programmes with the Dunstable Consort which she had founded in 1963 and re-launched in 1969 at the Purcell Room “to perform mediaeval and early Renaissance music on instruments of authentic types”.

Her studies at Oxford culminated in a DPhil thesis completed in 1972 on ‘Early English Bowed Instruments from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor Times’ (later published as her second book in 1986). During numerous animated conversations she loved to bring to life her vivid recollections of people she had encountered such as Mme de Chambure, the viva voce examiner of whom Mary would say with a theatrical French accent: “She was formidable!”.

Mary became a Professor at the RCM where she lectured from 1970 to 1994 on the ‘History of Instruments and their Use’ (for students on the London BMus course only until 1988, thereafter open to all students for the remaining years). Each lecture incorporated a visit to the RCM Museum of Instruments.

For forty years, from 1973 she also taught violin and piano to children of the Brompton Oratory Junior Choir.

It was at this time that Mary wrote her first book, Musical Instruments of the West (Batsford, 1978) which was later translated into Japanese and Spanish (shown in our main image). The Musical Times wrote:  “Mary Remnant has written what is without doubt the best short book on all the musical instruments of the West, and quite possibly the best book of any size currently available on the subject.”   She contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) and to the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1984).  Her first book was revised and enlarged as Musical Instruments: An Illustrated History from Antiquity to the Present (Batsford, 1989).

She took part in many recordings and broadcasts of mediaeval music with groups and as soloist, directing the music of ‘From Every Shire’s End’, a 1968 American documentary about Chaucer’s England, recording music for Beowulf for the BBC and the WNYC of New York, also appearing on BBC TV in 1977 with Reginald Bosenquet and Angela Rippon, playing her reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo Lyre.  She also recorded music for the 1987 Age of Chivalry exhibition for the V&A.

Mary always preferred live performance and she considered her solo lecture-recitals to be her “unique contribution to the musical world”. Always performing with slides from her iconographical research to illustrate the origins of the instruments themselves, her recitals were acclaimed across Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland and the USA. Her first was in 1961 and over the next 53 years she performed to audiences ranging from universities to primary schools with programmes such as ‘Musical Animals in Mediaeval Art’ and ‘Music in Paintings at the National Gallery’ appearing regularly at the Purcell Room from 1968 until 1999. She also lectured in French, (and even on one occasion, Italian) in 1979 at Rouen and Caen for the Annee des Abbayes Normandes.

In 1980 she was the first soloist to have a tour arranged by the Early Music Network and the Arts Council. Her chosen subject was the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela for which her organistrum, copied from the Portico de la Gloria (1188) at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, was made by Alan Crumpler.

Alan Crumpler made many instruments for Mary including a mandora, a mediaeval fiddle and a harp depicted in the Westminster Psalter. Other instruments she commissioned include a copy of the C14th Billingsgate trumpet by Frank Tomes, a symphonie and a crwth by Bernard Ellis, a psaltery by Colin Booth and a set of mediaeval bells made by the Whitechapel Bell foundry.

Her second book, Early English Bowed Instruments from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor Times (Clarendon Press, 1986) received the Nicholas Bessaraboff Prize, the very first person to receive this prestigious international award from the American Musical Instrument Society.  Howard Mayer Brown of the University of Chicago wrote: “Her book sets a new standard for the study of instruments and instrumental practices” and in the official award citation:

Mary Remnant has assembled a vast collection of pictures…. She has carefully and imaginatively interpreted the information they give us … about the details of construction and about the playing techniques of musical instruments during the Middle Ages and Renaissance…. [she]has written a path-breaking book, which can serve as an example of the ways musical iconography can help performers, instrument makers, and scholars alike.

Her Catholic faith was central to everything she did, and particularly in the lecture-recital programmes she devised on the various Pilgrimage routes:  ‘Music on the Road to Santiago de Compostela’ and ‘Pilgrims and Music on the Way to Walsingham’ being among the long fascinating list of lecture- recitals she performed across Europe and in the USA.

On 11 September 2016 she was made a Dame of St Gregory at a ceremony at her parish church the Servite Church in Fulham Road, Chelsea in recognition of her many achievements.  The Confraternity of St James was founded in her house on 13 January 1983 and has grown to several thousand members (Click here for more information). She directed the Confraternity Choir in many of her performances.

Mary kept working, even devising new programmes right up until 2015 including ‘Music minstrels and Instruments in the early years of Exeter College, Oxford’ to mark the seventh centenary of the College, performed there in 2013. Having noticed that Catte Street ran behind Exeter College (beside the Bodleian Library), she decided to include the Cheshire Cat from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ on the illustrated programme which gave her great amusement. The last programme she devised was ‘Music and Instruments in the age of the Early Servites to that of St Philip Neri’, celebrating 150 years since the first Servite Friars arrived in London. This had two performances, one for her parish church but given at St Mary’s University Twickenham in 2014 and the following year at the Brompton Oratory. This was to be her last performance.

Examples of several programmes specially illustrated for Mary Remnant by the Author.

The main part of her archive of iconographical research consists of thousands of photographs taken over a lifetime, motoring across Europe and the UK in her slightly battered Morris Minor Traveller covered in stickers from every place she visited. They will be preserved with her collection of 150 musical instruments at the Museum of Music History which includes a bird whistle from c.500 BC. Mary became a member of the Advisory Committee soon after the Museum of Music History was founded in 2003 – one of the very last things she attended was the meeting on 10 December 2019, two days before a severe fall from which she never recovered.  She died 15th May 2020 aged 85.

A vegetarian with a love of animals, particularly her many catsMary will be remembered for her scrupulous honesty and meticulous attention to detail which pervaded everything she did, including her research and scholarship. A very kind and loyal friend, she kept in contact with an international network of colleagues, family and former pupils to the end of her life.  She is greatly missed by all.


Nicholas Lane
© Museum of Music History 2021