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.,
Within recent years, the teaching of Gaelic songs and music has been in the hands of people who know music well but who do not know Gaelic, and whose ears therefore never catch the cacophonous jarring caused by displaced quantities when words and their value are submerged in favour of a certain expression in music.
In this connection I shall only mention one song out of many which have become mere monstrosities when divorced from the traditional style of singing–I refer to “Bràigh Rusgaidh,” whose most expressive and heart-melting words are lost in the singing.
In the line, “Mar is minic a bha mi” the words “a bha mi” are rendered so short that the poetic expression is entirely lost. The word “bhà” cannot bear to be shortened anywhere, and especially in this case, where it assonates with “là” in the following line.
These little oddities, which are foreign to Gaelic, and to the very nature of Gaelic poetry, should be jettisoned, and more attention should be paid to the soul which the bards have put into their songs with all their natural imagery and affinity of expression, and in all that there is music.
–I am, etc.,
19th April, 1924
Let us suppose a poem is being recited, not sung. What a poor impression the reciter makes if he does not give correct emphasis expression where such ought to be. You say instinctively, he does not feel when he recites. Clothe this poem with a fitting air, and let it be sung. The musically-uneducated Gael can tell you if it is properly sung. I know scores of people–Gaelic-speaking–who will not attend a concert where certain Gaelic singers are announced. Their attempts at correct quality of tone at the expense of the language is evident.
The fact is that the air of a song is only a guide to the correct recital of its words in the realm of music. Jessie Maclachlan never slavishly followed the air of a song when singing. She breathed her own soul into it because she knew the language. I am told that certain medalists would cut a sorry figure, say, in the case of an Oran Mor if the Comunn insisted that the piece should be recited first before being sung. The Gaelic judges would then know if he understood what he was to sing. I have heard some singers in a simple song, and could not follow the words where the words were previously unknown to me. I have heard others in a difficult song, where every word was absolutely distinct, and it is a real pleasure to the Gael to be able to follow the words when a song is being sung.
Mr. MacFarlane [sic] writes that the policy of An Comunn has been for a long time to discourage new creations. What a pity if this should be so, for its very existence ultimately will depend on the reverse policy. Every generation must put its own stone on the cairn of Gaelic literature and music if these are to exist, and when a new poet or composer appears on the scene the Comunn should give every encouragement, even if his work should fall below the average standard. There are a number of men all over the country who are doing quiet, steady work for Gaelic. Some of them are not members of An Comunn because they cannot afford the time nor can they find the opportunity to attend meetings with the pressure of other duties. But they are working in the same noble cause. “Mach an droch sgeul.” –I am, etc.,
Gaelic Song and Music
Sir, I have heard many addresses by chairman at Gaelic concerts, but it has not been my lot to hear so much that was to the point, independently spoken, and in so small a compass, as I heard from the list of Captain Campbell, yr of Succoth at the recent concert of the Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association. He surmises that the traditional style has been conflicting with pure music in some small points when the singer was being taught and he feels that we have a national style of singing. I would hardly put these statements in the form he has put them; but I fancy those of us who interest ourselves in Gaelic song and music know what he is driving at. The traditional style is, unfortunately, exercised by indifferent exponents, and the term, owing to its association with rusticity, is apt to mislead many people. It may be accepted that the main effort of the traditional style of delivery was directed towards voicing the words in the clearest manner with due regard to measure and expression. This entails distinct utterance; and distinct utterance requires natural voice.
These are the essentials of traditional style. The professional style of to-day is against natural voice and elocutionary delivery. It makes the singer an instrument. The musically uneducated Gael feels when fitting delivery is being given to a song. His interest is centred on the words, and is repelled if these are clouded by unnatural use of the voice to produce certain qualities of tone, which, though fashionable, are not always desirable. On the other hand, those who regard as authoritative the professional style of their time are prone to forsake natural utterance, and go after the fashion, losing at the same time the power to recognise true Gaelic style or its absence. This can be put in a number of ways, but the clearest indication I can produce in support of my view is that the song “Suas leis a’ Ghaidhlig” can be used without protest as a rallying song for the Association which makes the greatest pretense of promoting Gaelic song and music and their style, as a matter of course. That song and its air are as innocent of Gaelic style as a duck is of gracefulness in walking. And just as a duck seems gracefully enough on water, so “Suas leis a’ Ghaidhlig” in a setting which appeals to the English music-hall taste of the degaelicised section of our people, may–nay does–seem quite right and proper.
Varieties of Song and Music
Captain Campbell said we had two types of singing which were absolutely peculiar to us as Highlanders. He might have gone further and included a few others, particularly the work-song. Other countries have work-songs. So, too, other countries have Orain-Mhora. But our work-songs and Orain-Mhora and others have characters peculiar to themselves. Those others, under professional and fashionable alien influence, have gone almost out of use. All are varieties of song and music need to be kept in evidence to prevent us from wandering into one group like the Lowlanders of Scotland whose song has great variety of theme and an unparalleled excellence in the presentation of its themes; but whose music is almost of one class.
The Oran Mor and work song, if more cultivated, would lead back to Gaelic style. An Oran Mor singer may not neglect clarity of utterance or expression. A work-song singer and a Port-a-beul singer must have freedom of utterance, and due regard to time and rhythm. The one great drawback to those classes of song is that their themes are mostly out of date. The new generations, while holding onto tradition, more or less, are not satisfied entirely by it, and want subjects relating to their own epoch. And, whether they want them or not, I contend that they need them. But, beyond the Oran Mor, which Captain Campbell heard at Inverness, whose words and music are quite modern, what can An Comunn Gaidhealach give us that is new? Its policy has for a long time been to discourage new creations, and the history of the Inverness Mod’s Oran Mor is proof positive of my statement. It would greatly clarify Captain Campbell’s Gaelic outlook if he were to get up the history of that one musical item. For next Mod, An Comunn Gaidhealach has given us the dullest Oran Mor they could by research discover. The theme is politically and religiously disconcerting–to say the least–and certainly opposed to cohesion of race. There is nothing in words or music to make a singer put forth his best effort. –I am, etc.,