My Letters from James Campbell – Part 3

10609375743_d0288848f0_oBy Norman Matheson

The third article in this short series is also based on extracts from James Campbell’s letters written on receiving each CD in the ‘Masters of Piobaireachd’ series. In the first two articles, his views were the cornerstone on which the related topics of dogmatism and controversy in piobaireachd playing were considered.  In the third, attention is turned to James’s particular interests in specific tunes. On some of these he wrote in detail on interpretative niceties and their historical background.

In response to Volume 2, James wrote (06.02.2000): ‘I am most grateful for the Balmoral CD and thank you so much for sending it. I am sure it will attract the same merited support as the first one and, now that the enterprise has been successfully launched, it remains to look forward eagerly to the planned availability of more of the same.

‘I have taken a bit of time in replying as I wanted to make a bit of
investigation into the history of ‘the curious note on D’ in the ground of Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, which Nicol deals with in a rather too summary manner. The tune (called in Ceol Mor ‘Lament for Claverhouse’) came to us from just two sources – the published book of Angus MacKay and the Campbell Canntaireachd. Both show the gracenotes on the D as FE. The Canntaireachd syllable for this gracenoting is ‘lal’. ‘Lal’ situations are not common, but in addition to Dundee (che lal hodin) it occurs in Lament for Alasdair Dearg MacDonell of Glengarry and in Queen Anne’s Lament (in both cases che lal hio). The Canntaireachd was not generally available and the MacKay score of the tune was blatantly defective. So one way and another the tune was not well known before Ceol Mor appeared with the MacKay defects acceptably amended. Even then the tune probably did not ‘catch on’ until it was published in P.S.Book1 in 1925. Evidence of previous unfamiliarity with it is furnished by MacDougall Gillies’s letter of 13 November 1923 which is reproduced on page 71 of ‘Further Side Lights’.

‘The probability must be that John MacDonald learnt the tune from Ceol Mor, where for whatever reason the gracenoting of the D was shown as GE, contrary to what was shown in MacKay’s book. Hence John MacDonald’s early teaching of GE. At some later stage, however, he discovered the alternative of FE in ‘lal’ situations. This is shown in two sources which are available to me. One is a tape of Bob Brown’s (recorded for his South African classes) in which he discusses the analogous ‘lal’ situation in Lament for Alasdair Dearg. He says that John MacDonald originally told him that it was an ordinary doubling on D (i.e.GE) but ‘the MacDonalds’ often played an F gracenote instead of G. It was, said Brown, written by the Piobaireachd Society with a long F, ‘which was wrong. It should be a demi-semi-quaver, just as the E is’. The other source is the notebook of J.P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, in which was recorded the teaching of John MacDonald (in 1949) of The End of the Great Bridge. Bar3 of line3 ground and thumb were taught, che dre a lal hio tra, and I quote: ‘lal’ JM said he got from Colin Cameron and is the same FE gracenotes as in che lal hodin in V. Dundee: usually it is the ordinary hi hio cadence which JM ordinarily played in competitions, but on one occasion at Braemar when Colin C was judging alone, JM played ‘lal’, got 1st prize and Colin spoke to him with approval of it.’

The ‘MacDonalds’ referred to by Brown were the MacDonalds of Morar, pupils of the Bruces of Skye, whom John MacDonald held in esteem as an authoritative source. With regard to the Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, Nicol’s brief comments on ‘the curious note on D’ were amplified in the sleeve notes. In addition, the duration of the F as a gracenote rather than a melody note is mentioned, a topic that James takes up below. In The End of the Great Bridge, which also appears in MoP Volume 2, Nicol, as one would expect, taught the lal configuration in the third line, an historical nicety almost never heard played today. Perhaps, in competition, none would think of taking the risk. Sheriff Grant, played it before John MacDonald and recorded his reaction (03.03.1949): ‘J.M. said if anyone played it in a competition judges would throw one out’.

James continues: ‘Now something about the length of the F gracenote. Both Brown and Further Side Lights say that it is a gracenote. Brown also says that it is wrong to play ‘a long F’. And so it is, but how long is long? To me a satisfactory solution is to be found in my father’s annotated copy of P.S. Book1. With reference to Dundee he writes: ‘A favourite tune of Donald Cameron. Taught by him to A. Cameron and by A.C. to me’. And, with reference to the ‘lal’ point, ‘this F gracenote is to be sounded well. Written as a quaver following A. MacKay* but not to be played long like an E quaver gracenote’. (Which funnily enough, is precisely what Nicol does in his chanting of the ground of Queen Anne’s Lament on a tape which came to me from Australia).’

*In fact in MacKay’s book the F is written as a demi-semi-quaver (with a curious single exception of a semi-quaver). In the Kilberry and P.S. books it is a quaver.

Two weeks later (21.02.2000) James returned to the topic: ‘Where
did the current practice of pronounced elongation of the F in Viscount come from? Well, I don’t know, but I have a theory which I’ll expound. The starting point is my belief that in the case of at least some gracenotes, the practice used to be to play them more ‘open’ than what is heard today. For example, the D gracenote in hiharin or in hihiorodo or in hihioendam is often insufficiently sounded. The teaching of Gillies (and no doubt others of his generation), which was passed through Reid to Andrew MacNeil and through my father to me, was that the D finger should be well lifted and the D well sounded. A similar lifting of the finger was favoured by Reid and Andrew in the case of the G gracenote when it embellished the first low A or low G of a movement. And a more fanciful but still interesting straw in the wind appears in a letter which my father wrote to Seton Gordon on 5/10/29 (preserved in the Seton Gordon archive in the National Library in Edinburgh). In that letter John MacDonald was reported as having floated the idea that the high G in line3 of Var.1 doubling of Mary MacLeod may have started life as a well sounded gracenote!

‘Now the playing of a well sounded F gracenote in ‘lal’ situations accords with this supposed earlier practice in the case of the other and less unusual gracenotes. Then at some stage there followed the ‘tightening up’ process, which may have had its beginning in the staff notation portrayal of gracenotes as three-tail gracenotes and/or in the influence of ceol beag playing. But so far as the comparatively rare F gracenotes were concerned the ‘tightening up’ process may have been countered by the practice of some recorders in staff notation to depict the F as a full note. Thus in the ‘lal’ situation which occurs in the ground of Nameless, hiharin dro o dro, you find Duncan Campbell (whose MS is the source of knowledge of this tune) writing the F as a full note. Similarly, in the ‘lal’ situation in Queen Anne’s Lament, Angus MacKay in his MS writes F as a full note and, following him, William Ross and Ceol Mor do the same. And MacDougall Gillies (according to P.S. Book 14, ed. note on Alasdair Dearg at p.447) writes the F as a crotchet! So my theory is that the practice of pronounced elongation of the F stems from a misinterpretation of those scores which show the F as a full note and that the truth lies between a three-tail gracenote and a full note – i.e. a well sounded gracenote which is incapable of accurate depiction in staff notation, an example of the ineptitude of staff notation as a safe guide to how to play.

‘One more matter of interest on this subject is to be found in the last paragraph on p.116, P.S. Book 4 (ed. note to Park Piobaireachd No.1). The view (to me a correct view) is there hazarded that the Fs in the bars there referred to, and written as quavers, are in fact gracenotes.’

In MoP Vol.4, The Prince’s Salute proved to be particularly interesting to James. He wrote (20.06.2002): ‘This is the one which provided the greatest fascination. The pointing of Var.1 is indicated in different ways in the book of Donald MacDonald and the MS of Angus MacKay. But there is a third and highly subtle timing, which John MacDonald taught and which came to him from Malcolm Macpherson. And Brown’s singing of this style in Track 7 gave me my first satisfying understanding of this pointing. I refer to his singing in Track 7, and not to his timing in his playing in Track 8 which seemed to gravitate towards the straightforward ‘Donald MacDonald’ timing. The ‘Macpherson’ style is elusive and attempts have been made (with scant success) to depict it on paper. The singing of Brown illustrates the impossibility of conveying in writing all the nuances of piobaireachd playing. The vocal rendition in Track 7 will be a boon to anyone concerned to appreciate the subtlety of this particular style.’

An interesting reflection on that subtlety, which captivated James, may be found in Sheriff J. P. Grant’s (Rothiemurchus) notes on his teaching from John MacDonald. During 1948 and 1949, he records tackling the tune on three separate occasions, but couldn’t quite capture the idiosyncratic ‘Macpherson’ nuance in Var.1. He notes: ‘J.M. said it might take me a month to get Var.1 Prince’s Salute right.’

Continuing with James’s comments on MoP Vol.4: ‘Donald Gruamach. There are many different settings of this tune. What Brown plays in Track 5 follows closely on what is found in Ceol Mor. The ‘Cameron’ setting which is printed on page 72 of P.S. Book 2 was adopted by John MacDonald in the timing of the Siubhal (i.e. played ‘down), but the ‘Cameron’ ground (shown by J.M. to my father before the first war) was not taught to the Balmoral pipers, though I have heard it played by some of J.M’s post second war pupils in the 40s and 50s. A thing to be remembered about John MacDonald is that he had come to full maturity before the beginning of the present P.S. series in the 1920s, and some of his preferences stemmed from familiarity with the scores of earlier publications, especially Ceol Mor and Glen. In a letter to Dr McPhail written in July 1940, John MacDonald opined that Glen’s Collection of Piobaireachd was ‘the most reliable we have today.’
(This letter is printed in J.H.Shone’s book ‘Some letters of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry’, published in 1980.)

Thus ends the series of three articles based on extracts of James Campbell’s letters received during the last few years of his life in response to gifts of CDs in the .Masters of Piobaireachd’ series. James Campbell, son of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry and a Cambridge don in the Faculty of Law at Pembroke College, was a life-long devotee of piobaireachd and a leading authority of the recent past. Aside from the depth of his knowledge and insight, he was, in his approach to controversy, remarkably open-minded and dispassionate, an attitude characteristic of the intellectual rigour of his academically disciplined mind.

• Copies of the ‘Masters of Piobaireachd’ CDs are available from Greentrax Recordings. For more on the ‘Side Lights’ go to the Piobaireachd Society website. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *