New Recordings from John MacDonald, Inverness

Piobaireachd lovers will enjoy the new additions to the PP Audio Archive added today, writes the Editor. They are of the playing of the celebrated master piper John MacDonald, Inverness.

He gives us the ground and first variation of the Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon, and the grounds of the Wee Spree and MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. Of the latter, I think it is fair to say that we would seldom hear the tune cut so much as MacDonald does in this recording, and I wonder if judges today would accept this way of playing the urlar.

The Wee Spree is beautifully handled with all the expert timing one would expect from the maestro. Donald Ban is superbly played too though the first strikes of the double echoes are more tightly controlled than we would perhaps hear them in the 21st century. Bear in mind that these recordings may be 100 years old.

They are all from 78rpm discs on the Columbia label and we are grateful to British Columbia piper Ed McIlwaine for passing them on. How much John MacDonald felt he had to push his tempos to get the various excerpts on to the one side of the disc we will never know. But this will have been a consideration given that they would have been done live and probably etched as he played.

side-lights-coverOne thing that does come through is the brilliance of the technique – all crisply and accurately executed and never detracting from the melody, quite the reverse. I wonder what other piobaireachd aficionados think of the playing. If we recap on what Archibald Campbell of Kilberry writes in his ‘Introduction’ in ‘Side Lights on the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor’ (recently re-issued as a complete volume and reviewed by Andrew Wright here) we read:

‘One last word about my teachers. John Macdonald justly merits the reputation which he possesses of being a most beautiful piobaireachd player. He is universally so described by all those who know anything about the music. [John] MacDougall Gillies is nevertheless his superior, incomparably so in knowledge and also as a player in everything but mere technique. There is far more feeling and expression in Gillies’s rendering of a tune than in anything Macdonald can produce….’

Listening to ‘the Sweetheart’ I would say Campbell has a point; but on the other hand I do not think John MacDonald’s Little Spree, as regards plangent emotion, could be bettered. It is one of our saddest tunes no question, and in my opinion he handles it beautifully. Others will have their own opinions. Going back to MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, isn’t it strange – or perhaps not – that the playing of this tune is so different from that espoused by MacDonald’s greatest pupils RB Nicol and RU Brown – at least on the evidence of the Masters of Piobaireachd CDs?

CDTRAX153Then again is it really so surprising that the pupil diverges from the master’s word – ‘get the shape and do your own thing with it’ may have been their approach to what MacDonald showed them. Or maybe MacDonald played the tune differently at different times; maybe when teaching he was a lot less severe with the short notes. All fascinating stuff.

Read more about John MacDonald here. You can access the new recordings and our complete library of music here. They are brought to you free of charge thanks to your support for our advertisers and the Piping Press Shop. In addition to the Masters of Piobaireachd CDs, there is much more on the teaching of John MacDonald and the Bobs of Balmoral in Jimmy McIntosh’s seminal work ‘Ceol Mor – Piobaireachd in the Balmoral Tradition’ available here.

1 thought on “New Recordings from John MacDonald, Inverness

  1. “Going back to MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart, isn’t it strange – or perhaps not – that the playing of this tune is so different from that espoused by MacDonald’s greatest pupils RB Nicol and RU Brown” – now multiply this through time, across regions and among many more Gaelic players, and you will understand how so much more variation existed prior to 20th century.

    And how tenuous any claim to orthodox interpretation has and can ever be.

    Maybe “what judges would think today” is best considered as a question: why DO judges think the way they do today? Critical self reflection and an approach less close-minded and opinionated than Campbell’s may be a better option. A recognition that music was and is fluid, and the genius of idiosyncratic interpretation is more important to keeping it alive than any effort at making it sound the “same” as one was (supposedly) taught.

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