OT: 17 October 1903 – Charles Bannatyne “The Passing of the Piobaireachd”



The Oban Times, 17 October, 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd

Salsburgh, by Holytown, 12 October, 1903

Sir,–Will you be good enough to grant me space in your valued columns to make a few remarks anent the afore-named subject?

The term piobaireachd as applied to classical music of the piob-mhòr is a misnomer. It simply means pipe music. Its present and generally accepted use as designating the Ceol Mor, or great music of the bagpipe, is mainly due to Sir Walter Scott, who coined the word “piobaireachd,” and applied it to war tunes principally. But it is also to that great writer that we owe the revival interest in affairs Celtic, which in the early part of last century assisted in the preservation of much of the old music of the Gael.

Your recent correspondents on the “Passing of the Piobaireachd,” from “A. M.” downwards, all, except Mr. MacLennan of Edinburgh, missed the crucial points in dealing with piobaireachd, and only succeeded in showing how poorly qualified they are to deal critically with the subject. The proper point of view from which to treat piobaireachd is contained in the definition I presented in the lecture delivered to the Glasgow High School Ceilidh early this year, entitled “Pipes, Pipers, and Piobaireachd,” and which appeared afterwards in your columns. The definition is–” a piobaireachd may be a warning, a salute, a song of joy, a love song or a dirge, but whatever its object or the nature of its object, it has a fixed structure–a definite rhythm which distinguishes it from any other class of pipe music. It may be slow, it may be rapid, and some parts are very rapid alike in warning, salute, lament, etc. The first part of any piobaireachd, its theme, or ground, is the part to which words are generally adapted. It is expected to render apparent the purport of the peice, the succeeding variations picturing the varying emotions aroused by the theme. There may be in a piobaireachd as many as ten different parts distinguishable by rhythm and name.”

The foregoing definition has not as yet been improved upon, but it is in the last sentence is the key to the proper understanding of piobaireachd music is to be found. The different parts of a piobaireachd had each names which not only denote the rhythm of the part, but it’s mode of performance. This was rendered necessary on account of the Highlanders being ignorant of musical notation and so we have Suibhal, Dublachaidh, Ordaigh, Toar-luath, Crun-luath, and various other names which at once signified to the piper of old days the nature, mode of performance and time, of the part each referred to.

Not only is this the case, but it will be found that each of these variations occupies a fixed position in each tune. While the Highlanders did not divide their tunes, on paper, into bars, phrases, and measures, it is at once patent to anyone who has listened to the tunes, however irregular variations may be, composed to each other, they naturally, like all music, resolve themselves into bars, phrases, and measures. A bar is a division of a measure, and most denote the time or motion of the piece. A phrase, on the contrary, is a division of tune, and in itself is a complete musical sentence. “A.M.” Then, need not have displayed no hesitation in his application of these terms to piobaireachd.

But to return to the explanation the piobaireachd. After the ground, theme, or urlar comes a variation, which is always one of three types, viz., Dublachaidh, or doubling: Ordaig or thumb: Suibhal, from suas, Sullugh, meaning upper index finger, often called “Dithisd,” meaning “second,” or properly speaking, “coupled notes.” It is a fact worthy of notice that the terms generally refer to the grace notes employed. Thus in Suibhal and Dithisd the grace notes are performed with a high G, and E, fingers. The commonest first variation in is the allegro one known as Suibhal. It occurs in more than two thirds of the famous MacCruimen tunes.

Next to is comes the Ordaig or thumb variation. It consists in substituting for the first note in each cadence with which the phrases end, in the ground, the high A, or thumb note. But the substituted note may occur at the beginning of a phrase, as can be seen in the Ordaig variation in “MacRae’s March.” What the note replaced is, depends altogether on the nature of the theme. The variations are not arranged as “A. M.” states according to the arrangement of the theme. It is exactly in the arrangement of the basse notes of its bars, measures, and phrases that a variation differs from its theme. A variation must bear a key relationship to the theme and to the other variations, but the difference of arrangement of its notes is what constitutes a variation. A variation then is “an arrangement of the same thing.”

Next in popularity to the Suibhal we have stated comes the Ordaig or thumb variation. It occurs in three MacCruimen tunes, viz., “MacCruimen’s Lament,” “The Glen Is Mine,” and “The Lament for the Children,” and not only in one tune as your correspondent “A. M.” asserts. The next in order as a variant of the ground is the Dublachaidh or doubling. The MacCruimens were not partial to doubling the ground, and so far as I remember it only occurs in “Donal Dougal Mackay’s Lament.” Now doubling, notwithstanding “A. M.” and several of your other correspondents, is not a simple change, and it does not necessitate any change in time. It is a drastic change in the character of the phrases of a measure, and consists in absorbing the cadence with which each phrase ends, and doubling the chief note, often the first of the cadence. Whatever variation doubling occurs in, its place of occurrence is always fixed, and the effect is always similar. The effect is to apparently blend all the phrases of a measure into one long phrase, the place of junction being still appreciable to the ear on account of the retention of the chief note of each cadence. It can be studied in the theme of “Donal Dougal Mackay’s Lament,” and in the Toar-luath and Crun-luath of any other tune. A very good tune to get it pure in is “Too long in this condition.”

Almost invariably the second variation in a piobaireachd is a Toar-luath, in one form or another. Toar-luath is from Tri-lugh–three fingers. The three fingers with which the cuts are done in the four note Toar-luath are D., E, and high G. This is the form often erroneously called “Breabach.” Simply speaking if it is a tripling, “Breabach” literally means a kick, and is so named from the snap sound it is to the ear when played, but it consists in the deliberate addition of, in the Toar-luath, one note, and in the Crun-luath, to notes, which are new notes, and not depending for their presence on their occurrence in the theme, as in the four single note Toar-luath. The pure three note Toar-luath is performed with a grip on the lower hand, the chanter being closed, and opened with the D, and E fingers. This is “hirrin!” The Toar-luath a mach is performed by doubling the notes played, and in the Toar-luath Fosgailte there is no grip in the lower hand.

The movement succeeding the Toar-luath in all piobaireachd is the four note movement called Crun-luath, from Ceithir-lugh–four fingers. Add the E and F grace notes to the “hirrin” and we have a Crun-luath, and it also may be doubled, a mach, Breabach, or Fosgailte. The Breabach here requires an extra low A added in addition to the kick note, but the extra “A” is played as a grace note by doubling the E and F grace notes. Tripling of a Crun-luath or Toar-luath consists in playing the turns a mach, with the same changes of phrase cadences as I have before described.

“A. M.” Apparently has only made a very superficial examination of the subject he attempts to treat of, and his errors are often sophistical. In no part is this sophistry more apparent than where he quotes from “Pipes, Pipers, and Piobaireachd,” this fragment. He says, “Not long ago my eye was caught by an essay on piping in which the author stated, ‘I am no advocate of the ridiculous theory that pipe music speaks in actual language. No! only that of the emotions!’” Let me finish the quotation:–” nevertheless it may be that each clan had a secret system of musical signals applicable to the pipe, so that the traditional signals of warnings conveyed in tunes such as that of “Dunyveg” may have some foundation in fact, and not be the mythical fables generally supposed.”

“A. M.,” However, only quotes enough to send his own purpose, and then proceeds to demolish me in the following words, where, by the way, he commits the fallacy of assuming what he should first prove. He states–” erroneous the theory may be, but to call it ridiculous is exceedingly strong language. In fact, the knowledge that piobaireachd are constructed according to a fixed pattern is very much in favour of the theory being correct.” Is it? Why? There are many art forms of music constructed according to a fixed pattern, but no musician claims that they speak any language, but that of the emotions.

We still make bold to say that the theory is not only erroneous but ridiculous, and utterly ridiculous. It has been proved time and again by “Fionn” and others that many of the tunes were composed long after the events they celebrate, and that the stories connected with many tunes are of much more recent origin then the tunes. The theory is ridiculous, because it reduces to the level of a telegraphic code the fine old airs which are at once the most singular the most original and the most pathetic expressions of the whole gamut of the more essential human passions known to the civilised world. To make these tunes merely ciphers is not complementary to either the genius or imagination of the great race out of whose daily existence the tunes were evolved, and certainly out of whose inmost hearts sprang the celebrated and moving music properly called Ceol Mor.

“A. M.” Pokes sarcasm at those who argue that authentic settings of the tunes should be printed. This, I think, is of great importance, and I note it is to be one of the first tasks performed by the recently formed Piobaireachd Society of Scotland. Its effect would be to the advantage of both judges and competitors, and would save much heart-burning. There is no doubt many of the tunes require revision, as their occur in many of them glaring errors, known to pipers, and easy of correction. When one finds a variation, a bar short as compared with the theme, as occurs in the Suibhal of “I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand;” or a Toar-luath whose base notes and general effect are quite distinct from those of the theme as in “The Desperate Battle” and “the Lament for the Earl of Antrim,” or a markedly stupid variation, such as the Suibhal in “Mary’s Praise,” and a host of other glaring errors I could point out if space permitted, one is forced to conclude there is room for revised versions of such tunes.

“A. M.” Mentions the tripling or trebling in Mackay’s banner as an exception in point of treatment. MacPhee is the Crun-luath in that tune as an ordinary Crun-luath a mach, while Mackay gives it as a common Crun-luath differing only from its doubling in the treatment of the key or base notes of each alternate bar. Which is correct? Mackay gives the base notes of alternate bars of the Crun-luath with the G and D grace notes; MacPhee gives them as “hirrin,” that is to say, with a grip from G, opening the note operated on, in this case a C, with the D grace note. Practically the same differences are apparent in the Toar-luath and its doubling and trebling, and I venture to assert that McPhee’s version is the better one, according to any recognised rule, and probably is the correct one.

In various tunes mentioned by “A. M.” As containing variations striking in form, such as “Isabel Mackay,” “”Donal Ban MacCruimen’s Lament,” “Padruig Og MacCruimen’s Lament,” and a few others, it will be at once apparent on close examination, that the originality of their respective themes explains them all. The second variation of “”Donal Ban’s Lament” is a Suibhal, the first being an Ordaig or thumb variation. “Isabel Mackay” contains an ordinary Suibhal and a thumb Suibhal: in short, it will be found that none of the tunes mentioned contained a variation of original form, the apparent originality being due to originality of the theme.

Here let me point out a serious mistake that has been made in a well-known popular setting of the piobaireachd, which is arranged and sung as “MacCruimen’s Lament.” The tune in question is not a setting of “MacCruimen’s Lament” or “Cha Till MacCruimen,” but a setting of the tune called “MacLeod of MacLeod’s Lament,” also a MacCruimen tune.

I see the Scottish Piobaireachd Society guarantee competitors that the judges they appoint “will know the tunes.” Now, “knowing the tunes,” is not a sufficient qualification for a judge of piobaireachd, and I question very much if the majority of those whose names appeared as judges at recent competitions could detect the missing of a prominent grace note, or its performance with a wrong finger. Men are wanted as judges who not only know the tunes, who have a theoretical and practical knowledge of the bagpipe, its intricate system of grace notes and peculiar technique. A few more judges like the late Dr. Bett, of Coatbridge, would at once raise the standard and number of players and piobaireachd competitions.

Finally, let me say that until piobaireachd music is written in a more intelligible style, until a better and clearer description is given of the methods of playing the different styles of grace notes peculiar to Ceol Mor, we need not hope that young pipers will study those classical tunes. Let me express the wish that the Piobaireachd Society will see to this, and also, as Mr. MacLennan has already suggested, place their MSS. in the hands of men having the necessary theoretical and practical knowledge and so have the music of piobaireachd placed on a sound and sensible basis. Once this is done I venture to prophesy that there will be no more need to bemoan “The Passing of the Piobaireachd.” –I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

© Copyright Pipe Major John Grant - Designed for Dr. Alan Armstrong