OT: 3 MAY 1919 – J.D.R. Watt “The Piping of the Pibroch”



The Oban Times, 3 May, 1919

The Piping of the Pibroch

119 Oxford Street, East London, South Africa, 24 March, 1919

Sir,–Now the War is over and the piping times of peace are near, the study of piping and of pibroch may be resumed. The value of the pipes during the War has been clearly shown. Pipe music and all kinds of music have proved and found their proper place as a nerve tonic and stimulant to moral courage.

Turning to pibroch, which was referred to by Lieut. John McClellan in your issue of 22nd February last, much has been made of a traditional style of playing handed down by so-called experts. Now music is a universal language, and national music may be classed as a dialect, so to speak, of music. It has been said by many pipers that musicians who are not Scottish by birth cannot understand pibroch music. I do not think so myself; it is a matter of education, study and environment. Once Pibroch is explained to a foreigner, I have always found him follow the music quite easily, at first upon paper and afterwards (much depends on his natural ear) upon the pipe itself, preferably the practice chanter. Native Kaffirs I have heard whistling pibroch urlars too. The simple virgin mind picks up tunes as easily as our own children.

I have met many pipers who sneer at pibroch because they have never studied it, and because they so often know very little about the theory of music, as your correspondent points out. Then again we have the present-day illliterate players–those who play by ear alone. Some of them are naturally gifted with a musical ear and do not cultivate anything further.

Some pipers profess to say that anyone who plays the violin, piano or other musical instrument is unable to judge, or have any opinion on, pipe music. I do not agree with this, for the more the student knows of music the better piper he will be. Yet each man to his favourite instrument.

With regard to the main thought of Lieut. MacLennan’s article, it goes without saying that many pibrochs have words written to them. I wish I had the words of all those he enumerated. I have just had a little controversy with a man who holds that Mackay’s style of “MacLeod of MacLeod’s Lament (No. LI.) in his book is correct, i.e. seven bars in first part of urlar. I hold that this cannot be. To anyone with any idea of music at all, it is evident that the seventh bar must be played twice over; the words of the lament also prove this. This is a point over which traditional players often go wrong. They say, “Oh, this is the way it is written, and it must be played so–mistakes and all.”

Coming to the subject of long E notes and long low A notes, here is a great danger of spoiling melodies. Players who are musical by nature will find that there is in pibroch urlars a well-defined melody which runs all through the variations, and without talking about those mentioned above, I may mention “Gabh sinn an rathad mor” (We will take the high way), and also “Carles with the breeks,” “Wives of this glen,” “Boidach na’m brigais.” I think it must be conceded that the rundown grace notes and long E notes, etc., have to be treated in such a way that it becomes more or less a matter of celerity, and execution performed in such a manner that the melody is not destroyed. Careful attention must also be given to parsing notes.

Looking over a collection of songs, I found several which were written by performers of the bagpipes, as is proved by their style and a long sustained finale of the airs ending upon low A note of the pipe. I think myself that anyone taught by vocables or canntaireachd can have a better idea of a pibroch melody than those who have not, because some grace notes and echoing beats, etc., carry themselves in the head better than by learning only from a visual method of notation.

Sir Walter Scott wrote some verses for “Carles with the breeks,” and it is said he coined the word pibroch–the original of which means piping a pipe tune. Some English folk think pibroch is a musical instrument, and I have been asked that question. You would be interesting if someone would make a list of pibrochs having versus fitting them.–I am, etc.,

J.D.R. Watt

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