OT: 12 September 1903 – A.M. “The Passing of the Piobaireachd – Part III”



The Oban Times, 12 September 1903

The Passing of the Piobaireachd
by “A. M.”
Part III.

The present writer has no desire to pose as an authority on the piobaireachd. His sole object is to draw attention to the shameful way in which it is neglected by Highlanders of the present day. At the same time, without claiming the ability to write a treatise on the science and technique of, he would like to suggest a few aspects from which it might be dealt with by those who wish to write or lecture upon the subject.

The piobaireachd is too often regarded as the primary form of pipe music, old-fashioned, and barely intelligible, little suited to the

Present Age of Civilization,

and consequently but little appreciated. Now, nothing can be more objectionable than this tendency to regard the piobaireachd as an interesting relic of antiquity. So far from being the rude creation of a primitive society, it is one of the most elaborately artificial forms of music known to the modern world. Demosthenes never chose his words with more care than Padruig Og his notes. Socrates expended no more labour on polishing and turning his periods than did Donald Mor in working his ground and variations into a complete harmonious whole. In each case the result was a story couched in language clear and simple, yet in form so perfectly symmetrical as to raise the composer to

The Highest Pinnacle

on which his art could place him. Like Athenian oratory, the foundation for all later refinements of language, represents the height of scientific development, the crowning achievement of several centuries’ steady progress. For, as the language of the Philippics arose from the uncouth rhyming of the Attic waggon songs, and sank once more to the vaster depths of modern Greek, so from the rude simplicity of Gabhaidh sinn an Rathad Mor,” played by the half naked savage on his droneless chanter, pipe music reached the zenith of perfection in “Donald Ban MacCruimen’s Lament,” and descended again to the machine-made mediocrity of our modern competition marches.

There are various forms of piobaireachd, laments, salutes, gatherings, battle tunes, love songs, and narrative and descriptive pieces of different kinds. This is, or ought to be, well known, but

It Is Surprising

how many people forget it. They listen to “The Vaunting,” and condemn it, owing to its lack of similarity to “MacKintosh’s Lament” their standard, and appreciate only such tunes as bear some resemblance to it! And yet it is a crude, inferior piece of work as a piobaireachd. The air is a pretty one, but it is clumsily handled by the constructor, and the result is a long drawn-out monotonous piece of music, which can endure no comparison whatever with any of the fine McCruimen laments.

Briefly speaking, a piobaireachd is a theme with variations. In some tunes, such as “Bodach nam Brogais,” the theme is an existing air, probably a song, which the composer adapts to suit his purpose. More often it is an original melody, carefully thought out and arranged. This is the ground or urlar. The keynotes of the ground form the basis of the variations, a law which is invariable. It follows, then, that the arrangement of the bars, phrases, measures, or whatever name be adopted, of the variations must correspond with that of the ground. There are certain stereotyped forms of variations, that is to say, variations in which the keynotes are treated according to fixed rule. Such as the dithis, breabach, leumluath, toarluath, crunluath, etc. All do not necessarily

Occur in Every Tune,

except the Crunluath and either a Toarluath or a Breabach, which are to be found in nearly all the piobaireachds we possess, although it is at least possible, that in many cases they have been tacked on to suit a later fashion. In fact, the question as to whether the tunes left their composers’ hands in the form in which they now exist, or whether they had been subject to later additions and alterations, is a particularly interesting one, and one which admits of much discussion. To apply a stereotyped form of variation to a given urlar is not a task which calls for any great effort of originality, though certainly some ingenuity requires to be exercised. And frequently, when listening carefully to a piobaireachd, one fancies that one or more of the variations are out of place and

Foreign to the Spirit

of the ground. In the same way some variations appear to be redundant and so unnecessary, with the result that the air of the tune is written to death. “The Glen is Mine,” for example, would not suffer by being curtailed a little, and other examples might be quoted.

But to return to the actual construction of a piobaireachd. First comes the ground, and then, perhaps, the doubling of the ground, though this movement does not occur in every tune. Nearly every variation, however, has its doubling, a term which is, perhaps, a little unfortunate, as young pipers lacking in experience suppose it to mean that the variation is to be replayed double as quick, and they endeavour to do so, with the most painful results. When a variation is doubled it is repeated a little faster and with some slight alteration. The doubling is, therefore, merely

Another Aspect

of the singling. Trebling of variations is rare, except in the Toarluath and Crunluath, and even in the Toarluath it is very seldom played nowadays. In these two variations the usual alteration from the doubling in the trebling is a slight increase of pace, and the playing of the tunes on the B, C, and D “a mach.” Yet there are exceptions to this, too, witness the treblings in “MacKay’s Banner.”

It has been said that the doubling of the ground is not found invariably. Where it does not occur, a favourite first variation is the so-called thumb variation–that is to say, the substitution of high A for some prominent note in the ground, usually an E or F, but sometimes a C. It may be no more than

A Curious Coincidence,

but it is certainly remarkable that, of the sixteen or seventeen tunes which have come down to us from the name of McCruimen attached to them as composer, only one, the “Lament for the only Son,” has a thumb variation. There can, of course, be little doubt that several of the other tunes which we possess, must be the work of that great family. “Maol Donn” has a thumb variation, and the name is commonly translated “McCruimen’s Sweetheart,” although no tradition has come down to us as to its authorship. It would hardly be justifiable, then, to say that

The Thumb Variation

did not find favour with the McCruimens, though it is worth while noticing that they did not employ it in many of their finest compositions. In addition to the stereotyped kinds there are variations in some tunes which are as original in form as they are striking to the ear, and they lift the tune at once to a level far above all others. Notable instances occur in “Donald Ban McCruimen’s Lament,” “Isabel Mackay,” “Padruig Og McCruimen’s Lament,” “Donald Dugald Mackay,” “Cronan nan Cailleach,” and many others. These variations are the

Finest Musical Expressions

ever put upon the pipes. Not long ago the writer’s eye was caught by an article on piping, in which the author stated:–”I am no advocate of the ridiculous theory that pibroch music speaks an actual language. No! only the language of the emotions.” The theory may be erroneous, but to call it ridiculous is exceedingly strong language. Indeed, the fact that piobaireachd variations are for the most part constructed according to a fixed pattern is very much in favour of the theory being correct, and a careful study of the best piobaireachds will show that the different forms of variations are not used at random. Every incident in the story is described by

An Appropriate Combination

of notes. A feature of battle tunes is almost invariable use of the Dithis variation, that is to say, a long keynote coming down to a short low A with the third finger grace note, and a long and a short keynote for the doubling. Equally remarkable is the way in which the Breabach is brought in, like the Trochaic distychs of a Sophoclean chorus, to indicate strong excitement, and in no tune is this used with more effect than in “Moladh Mhairi.” As far as internal evidence goes, the balance seems to be in favour of there being an actual language of pipe music, and tradition supports this view with stories like that of “A cholla mo run.” This, again, would be a most interesting question to thresh out. The above disjointed remarks may perhaps give a clue to certain points in piobaireachd music, which the writer earnestly hopes will, ere long, be taken up and dealt with by abler pens than his. Hitherto the tendency has been for writers and authors to confine themselves entirely to the

Stories of the Tunes

as they have been handed down by tradition. How much more profitable it would be to take the tune itself, analyze it, and compare it with the story, and then see how far the one bears the other out. The Highlander who possesses the ability and inclination to speak or write on Highland subjects can have no fitter object of study than this thoroughly characteristic product of the Highlands, the piobaireachd. And the result of his research would undoubtedly be the bringing to light of several matters, discussion and correspondence on which would be not merely interesting, but would also have the healthy effect of helping to rouse his countrymen from their present condition of comatose indifference to the passing away of the piobaireachd.

(To Be Concluded.)

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