OT: 16 August 1924 – [Contributed] “The Piobaireachd as performed in the Highlands Till About 1808” [review]
as performed in the
Highlands Till About 1808
This is Part I. of what amounts substantially to an improved edition of a work published, some years ago now, by Mr. Ian MacLennan, who, we regret to stay, died while the present issue was in the press. In his day the late Mr. MacLennan was considered probably the best living authority on bag-pipe music. He was from among pipers who inherited a vein for pipe-music, and that combined with a thorough knowledge of the technique of the instrument, and considerable acquaintance with the art of playing it, equipped him with the necessary qualifications for interpreting bag-pipe music and imparting to others what he believed to be the true construction of the tunes and the proper method of playing them.
In a short preface-a certain portion of which might possibly with some advantage have been left out-the author admitted his system having at first met with a somewhat mixed reception, but at the same time found good grounds for stating that it made gratifying headway among writers of pipe-music. He may be considered to have had a passionate interest in the correct production of the ancient tunes, and he rather significantly says:–“ Pibrochs would have been played to time and tune long ago, but for the fact that certain prizes are given for playing written tunes, or rather conglomerations of notes, which have neither time nor execution.” He indicates clearly that while within certain limits freedom may be exercised in bag-pipe playing, yet the art must be subjected to scientific rule, and this seems to have been the case as regards the great masters of the past with, if indeed any, exceptions.
Following the preface is a very useful Glossary of bag-pipe musical terms, arranged in alphabetical order. This feature of the work will serve a much felt want. It is pleasing to find that the explanations are, in most part, unfairly correct lines, and there is evidence that in this particular field the late Mr. MacLennan was a recognised authority. We trust we shall be excused, however, for making a few observations in this connection. There is considerable ignorance of all that is in this subject involved.
We wish to draw attention here to one particular term in Piobaireachd which has for long arrested some interest on our part. This term is “Crùn-luath,” in this work explained as meaning “Crùn,” “a crown,” and “luath,” “fast,” equivalent in full to “crown-fast.” We are under the impression that this term is usually misunderstood and mis-spelt. It is given differently in different dictionaries. In the late Dr. McBain’s –no mean authority–it is shown as “crùnnluadh,” and explained etymologically as composed of the words “cruinn” plus “luath.” We have long suspected, however that the part “luath” of this compound should be “lùth”: and we find this confirmed by the older definitions of bag-pipe terminology. “Luath” does not occur in Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise, compiled about 1760 and published in 1803, where in all these combinations “ludh” is given instead. Thus we think that for “luath” in every case, at any rate with few exceptions, the part-term should be “lùth,” which really means physically a joint, and metaphysically an art, a movement, or trick. It is most interesting to note that in numerous cases this publication before us recognises “lùth.” Then “crùn-luath” should, we think, be “crùn-lùth” or “cruinn-lùth,” same as in “cruinn-léum,” a gallop. In some old literature the combination occurs as “creannludh,” which might be translated as suggesting a tremulo movement in the music. May we also take opportunity to point out that while “Treblachadh,” “Trioblach,” and “Trioblaich” are shown as unknown words they are all well-known Gaelic terms, and mean various modes in tripling, or triplicating, or rendering three-fold, in older works termed “Lùdh-Chrodha.”
We hope to be excused for also mentioning that there is in rents quite a number of bag-pipe music terms still apparently not well known; for instance, “Bàr-lùdh,” “Lùdh-na-h-òrdaig,” “Leith Leigninnean,” “Dochadh,” “Dochadh-na-h-òrdaig,” “Fridh,” “Calp,” “Cuairt,” “Slighe,” “Ri-lùth,” “Déuchainn-Ghléusd,” etc.” and we think the term “Tur-luath” should be “Taor-lùth,” and “Urlar” for the ground of a tune is always correct. It is to be regretted that there is not included in the Glossary the correct terms for the various parts of the pipe. There is a good deal to be preserved in these directions.
As regards the text of the tunes, these contained in this issue are, so far as we think, very excellent reproductions of the original compositions. In every case the construction is natural and the evolution of the parts consistent and in proper symmetry, while the dominant note, which, as the author truly says, gives the expression and feeling their place with effect, runs like a ribbon through each piece; and there can be no better test.
There may still be some diversity of opinion as to the method of notation adopted by the author, but we are satisfied that it is easy, and simple, and has the advantage of considerable brevity. There is, besides, apart from all matters of detail, the great merit in the work that it has come from one who made a life-study of getting at the old tunes in their correct relations and settings. The late Mr. MacLennan made a point of correctly interpreting the ancient music, and it’s obvious that he has succeeded in very large measure, indeed, in reproducing the story and style peculiar to the ancient Piobaireachd.
Thus there can be no doubt that this work will serve a useful purpose. It is to be regretted that at the present moment there seems to be considerable dissatisfaction with the condition of matters as to the technical correctness of at least some of the pibroch texts. We are told by pipers on all hands that there are deviations from better settings than others which would require some explanation. This is understood to have begun over a century ago, and if it goes on much longer it is clear that not a few of our Pibrochs may become more or less unrecognisable a few years hence. Why this should be it is difficult to understand. With so many sources available from which to reconsider the ancient compositions, and so many good pipers–many of them masters of the art–still with us who could help materially in this direction, it should be a specially easy matter to review and revise the situation. A small committee of competent persons could put the house in order and a short time. Who is to move in this very much desired cause? Surely the time has come when no stone should be left unturned to assure that the great heritage of national music bequeathed to us by our forefathers, and which has so often inspired to noble deeds in the regions of bravery, chivalry and romance, should be handed down by us to posterity in all possible excellence in purity. The matter involved seems one preeminently for the Piobaireachd Society to deal with, and we feel sure that they will rise to the occasion.
It will be observed that this Part contains a number of marches composed by Mr. Geo. S. MacLennan, who is now publishing this work. We believe the intention in including these compositions is that pipers and others interested to have an opportunity of learning Mr. Geo. MacLennan’s style of grace-notes as taught to him and to the late Piper William MacLennan by the late Mr. Ian MacLennan–a service which will be much appreciated by many for long curious to acquire acquaintance with Mr. Geo. MacLennan’s wonderful fingering.
The printers are Messrs. Aird & Coghill, Glasgow, and they had done their work–difficult work–exceedingly well.
A closer scrutiny on the judges’ sheets reveals the fact that as against the five bands ahead of Oban in the confined contests (Oban was 6th), Oban lost 3 ½ points in “Execution.” But for this defect Oban band would have been in the prize list. The same weakness is shown in the open contest, the band securing 28 points out of a possible 45. In other respects the results show a fair average.
The same remarks apply to Inverary, but to a greater degree. It should be noted, with regard to the other County band, the 8th A. & S.H., Their points were advanced from 77 last year to 81 at the last Gathering. This improvement is doubtless owing to the opportunity provided for combined practice a few days previous to the Games. If similar conditions prevail next year the prospects of the Argylls securing the Argyll Shield comes well within the range of probability.
May I state now that owing to the kindness of Colonel Walter Scott of New York, trophies will be put up next year for side-drumming and bass drumming. As drumming is acquiring more importance, this may lead to an increase in the number of points allocated to same. –I am, etc.,
H. S. Strafford,
Hon. Secy., Cowal Gathering
Your correspondent admits the irregularity of the part referred to, but makes the extraordinary suggestion that this may be a feature of the music, and quotes Dr. Johnson in support of this fallacy, which surely he meant as a joke. Dr. Johnson, of all men, as an authority on Piobaireachd is to “Gilbertian” for words. To define Piobaireachd as an irregular form of music is an aspersion on the profound genius of the men who made them, and the definition is as false as it is insulting. Piobaireachd is the music of poetry pure and simple, regular and lyrical poetry, and the lines of the one are the phrases of the other.
Your correspondent goes on to ask why we should assume that there is anything wrong in piobaireachd considering the careful manner in which it was and still is taught. That being so, will he please tell us how he accounts for the extraordinary divergence in style between the various publications of this tune, none of which agree as to the correct phrasing of the “Ground,” and are flatly contradictory in regard to the first two variations, the one method of playing them being precisely the reverse of the other. A perusal of the tune in all the publications shows quite clearly that the compilers had very hazy notions of the melody; they are very misleading, and the song of the thing is conspicuous by its absence. This is all the more inexplicable as the air was very popular at one time in the Highlands, especially in the Mackay country, where it was sung to the words of “Iseabal Nic Aoidh.” As children, we were quite familiar with it. Robert MacKay (Rob Donn), the bard was a contemporary of John MacIntyre, composer of the Piobaireachd, and they may have met frequently, as Rob Donn’s occupation took him regularly on foot to the South. It is more than probable therefore that he would get the tune at first hand.—I am, etc.,
As to the whole tune being out of gear, my view is that the symmetry of the tune depends on each part being in keeping with the others, and that if one part is wrong then the whole is out of gear. I only mention this as Mr. MacKay seems to make a point of calling the parts he wishes to alter being out of gear.
Now as to the suggested alteration, from the lines given I see that Mr. MacKay’s idea is to cut out what I consider to be main notes of the melody, although he said nothing of this in his original letter, in order to keep each part of equal time value and at the same time preserve the cadences. It seems to me that the Taorluath follows the ground faithfully that to cut out these notes mars the melody. Certainly as published the bars with cadences are greater time value than the others, but is this not a peculiarity of Piobaireachd? After all it is not so very long since the ‘45, and considering the careful way in which Piobaireachd has been, and still is, taught, why should we assume that those through whom it has come down to us have not passed it on exactly as they themselves received it. The great Dr. Johnson must have heard Piobaireachd during his tour and in his dictionary defined it as “irregular music.”
I was under the impression that Mr. MacKay had made a discovery in the way of some ancient manuscript when he referred to the change in the tunes since the’45, but from his letter of 10th July I gather that the transposition of the notes is his own idea and is what he considers the correct way of getting over what seems to him in error. I quite agree that all this should be thoroughly ventilated in your columns and am looking forward to what others may have to say on the subject. –I am, etc.,
Now, this threatening danger to-day and we should be watchful lest Gaelic song with its variety of theme should become a song of one class. Some of our Orain Mhora are old, but whether old or modern they should be a distinct class and sung in the traditional way as distinct from the lyric, puirt-a-beul, etc.
The Comunn, I believe, are doing their best, but it is not so easy to get judges competent both in orain mhor and lyrics. The Gaelic lyrics are more or less in the same class as Lowland songs, which, as a rule, have a distinct Celtic flavour, but to be a competent judge in Orain mhor, I should say, would require a native Gaelic speaker combined, of course, with the necessary musical ability. Gaelic is so intertwined with its music that in this particular class one would need to be a master of the original words and understand the theme to which the air is set.
Orain Mhor in Gaelic song might probably be classed somewhat as piobaireachd in pipe music, and it is difficult for the average Celt to understand how one unversed in MacCrimmon’s language can play the music of MacCrimmon’s soul as it ought to be played, even with the musical score before him. A certain latitude ought, in my opinion, to be given to singers in this class who if they truly understand the theme should not be too critically dealt with if they do not exactly follow in every detail the cold musical score as it is written.
The subject is not an easy one, and for those of us who wish to keep Gaelic song running pure in its natural channel let us beware of the school of modernity, which through blissful ignorance of Gaelic is shaping, though it may be quite unconsciously, all our Gaelic songs into one class. –I am, etc.,