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Remembering Jeremy Montagu

Jeremy Montagu with a Shofar in front of a wall of his instruments

    Jeremy Montagu holding a shofar from his private collection of approximately 3,000 musical instruments. (June 2009)

Jeremy Montagu (27 December 1927 – 11 September 2020), was a world-famous specialist in the history and development of musical instruments.

Over his 70+ year career, he worked in different musical professions, including that of a horn player, percussionist, conductor, teacher, professor, museum curator, and author of 20 books, numerous articles, and many entries in The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments.

He amassed a collection of about 3,000 musical instruments from around the world and a large private library. He used these instruments in his teaching, his lectures always having a show-and-tell element. Going to his home was like visiting a lived-in musical instrument museum and library.

We are fortunate that he also served as a senior advisor in organology* for The Cello Museum from its outset. Sadly, he did not live to see it open; he died within hours of the announcement of the museum’s opening.

About Jeremy**

It would be impossible to do justice to the nine-plus decades of such a remarkable life as Jeremy’s in such a short article, but here are a few highlights:

  • 1947-48 Inspired by the music he heard there, Jeremy became interested in non-Western instruments while doing national service in the Education Corps in Egypt. He collected his first instruments there.
  • 1948 After returning to England upon completing his military service, Jeremy became a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied to be a lawyer, but soon switched to music at the Guildhall School of Music, studying horn, percussion, and conducting.
  • 1951 He became interested in early instruments and joined the Galpin Society. (He was later Honorary Secretary then Vice-President, and finally President of the Galpin Society later in life.)

  • c.1952 He formed a student orchestra which at this time he turned professional, calling it the Montagu String Orchestra.
  • 1955 Jeremy married his wife, Gwen. This year he also published his first article.
  • 1960-61 Jeremy held the temporary post of Curator of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum, renewing and furthering his interest in instruments from around the world that was sparked during his service in Egypt.
  • 1970 He was appointed Heath Visiting Professor at Grinnell College in Iowa, teaching there for a semester and giving guest lectures and collecting musical instruments around the USA for six months. He even appeared on the Today Show!
Jeremy Montagu publications

A few of Jeremy Montagu’s books and other publications.

Bate Collection sign

  • 1981 He was appointed to the position of Curator of the Bate Collection at the University of Oxford. Later he also became a Fellow of Wadham College.
  • 1995 Jeremy retired from his curatorship at the Bate, but continued to teach, and began to write books again. He remained an Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College. In his retirement, he wrote more books than when he was employed full time.
  • 2003 Jeremy’s wife Gwen passed away. He remained in Oxford, continuing his collecting, research, and writing until his heart began to fail this August.

I will always remain grateful to him for all of his help with this museum – and his guidance over three decades. I am sad that he did not live to see the launch of The Cello Museum.

Learn more about Jeremy

Jeremy at the Oxford Antiques Market

Jeremy Montagu on the lookout for new instruments for his collection. Thursday Oxford antique market at Gloucester Green.

To learn more about Jeremy, here are a few sources:

  • Jeremy’s memoir: Random Memories.
  • The obituary written by his daughter, Rachel, in The Guardian.
  • His obituary in The Telegraph, which might only be accessible through libraries or with a subscription.
  • Jeremy’s website, where he has made PDF copies of his books free to download.
  • To watch Jeremy teach – not about cellos, but using instruments from his collection – see this video of a demonstration he gave about musical instruments of the Bible.

Jeremy Montagu’s Connection with The Cello Museum

Jeremy Montagu

Jeremy Montagu, 29 October 2019. This was the day The Cello Museum was conceived.

I am ever grateful that Jeremy was one of my mentors, teaching me on and off for the past 30 years. At our last visit (and tutorial!) in Oxford last October, the idea for an online museum about the cello came to me in a flash in his sitting room.

Jeremy was my doctoral supervisor at the University of Oxford, where I studied cello history and general organology. Jeremy shepherded me through my doctorate and into my first curatorial position at Duke University. After just over a decade there, I left to pursue my interests in the cello and in photography.

Since that time, Jeremy had been trying to persuade me to get back into the museum world, and I had resisted until that moment last October. As our conversation turned to my career, I said: “Jeremy, if only there were a cello museum – then I’d want to get back to museum work.”

Light Bulb

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If this had been a cartoon, a light bulb would have appeared over my head at that moment, along with the text: I will make a cello museum online.

From there, Jeremy and I discussed the value of sharing information, making it readily and freely available to all who are interested, and how such a museum could be made a reality. After leaving Jeremy’s house, I realized I’d had possibly the most valuable tutorial I’d ever had with him.

When I returned to my home in North Carolina, I started to put together The Cello Museum team. Jeremy kindly agreed to be the museum’s first advisor. From there I built the rest of the team, with his advice, including Dr. Laurence Libin, another advisor, and Erica Lessie, my fellow curator, and researcher.

Without Jeremy, we would not have The Cello Museum.

Your Turn

Please share your tributes to and memories of Jeremy in the comments below.

*Organology is the study of the history and development of musical instruments.

**Jeremy lived an extraordinary life, but even with all he accomplished, he did not want me to call him by any title – he always said to call him Jeremy, and that’s why I’ve chosen to continue that form of address even here.