Some Thoughts on Ceol Mor and Its Study

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

The above manuscript sample of the well-known tune Lament for the Viscount of Dundee, aka Cumha Chlaibhers or Lament for Claverhouse, has been forwarded by Dr J David Hester PhD of the Alt Pibroch Club website. (There is new a letter from Mr Hester in our Letters column.) I believe the sample may have come via piobaireachd analyst Barnaby Brown and has the comment ‘We’re playing it wrong’ attached.

The music is from Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise – the first attempt at explaining piping in print, and dated circa. 1760. Joseph writes: ‘There is no Style more Martial than this; and when this March is well playd it certainly is Martial. The Contrasts of G & D joind, & A & C, makes the boldness and Singularity of the Style which is very obvious to a knowing Ear.’

viscountBarnaby believes this statement should affect how we interpret the piece and says: ‘What I’d like to know is, how widely was it considered to be a lament before the 1830s?’

I believe the above to be a transcription written to be understood and appreciated by a pianist or other musician. ‘A Species of A Sharp’ above the score is surely a giveaway. No piper in history ever concerned himself with sharps and flats – at least not until the advent of playing in Tattoo massed bands or folk groups. And I am at odds with Barnaby on the ‘we’re playing it wrong’ statement and with the idea that pre-1830 ‘the Viscount’ was perhaps not even considered a lament.

I think it encouraging  that today we have so many skilled, intelligent individuals examining the classical tradition and the old sources. All the evidence we can find should be laid before the piobaireachd playing public as the Piobaireachd Society continues to do, as does the Alt Pibroch website.

But, and you will have been waiting for a but, the difficulty comes in interpreting this source material. For example, names of tunes can be a notoriously inaccurate way of assessing the style of tune and how it should be played. A case in point would be MacDougall’s Gathering. Here we have a tune named, apparently, from an off-hand scrawl on one of the source manuscripts.

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The calling of the double echoes on E at the beginning are certainly in the gathering style. Thereafter, however, the piece becomes a plaintive, melodically enthralling piece of music, one of the greatest feats of bagpipe composition there is. If the first few bars say ‘gather round’ then the remainder says ‘sit down and have a listen to this’. Hear it on my ‘Purely Piobaireachd’ CD.

In the case of the ‘Viscount’ the name is not in dispute, it is well documented as a lament in all the early sources. The error we can make in piobaireachd is to worry about names at all; all piobaireachd is slow. Rhythmically different, yes, but there is hardly a gnat’s crotchet of difference in tempo (to borrow from the late, great Humphrey Lyttelton) between Lament for Donald Ban and A Flame of Wrath – have a listen to some of the masters on the PS website.

No, it is not the tempo or ‘attack’ we apply to tunes that govern how they should be played. The music itself is the guide (as Kilberry stated). The sadness in Donald Ban does not come from saying ‘hey, this tune is a lament, I must play it slowly’. Or, ‘hey, Battle of Auldearn, let’s get the broadswords out and have a real go here.’ The music does that for you, (though there is nothing of the chaos of battle in the latter anyway). The piper’s job is to apply a tempo that suits the ear (something that comes after years of listening and appreciating the music),  correct phrasing and then to let the composition do the talking.

Our piobaireachd professors are at times guilty of writing far too much into these old scores. They need to appreciate the social circumstances, the class-conscious milieu they inhabited and that a lot of what they noted down (thankfully) was an attempt to get the bagpipe and its music accepted into polite society; an attempt to get the mainstream musician to consider our music as anything but the work of the untutored savage, as General Thomason says.

The scholars need to acknowledge too that central to the delivery of good ceol mor is the bagpipe itself. It is absolutely integral. It governs the music in a way no other instrument does its canon. Piobaireachd is desgnied specifically for the great Highland bagpipe and the harmonic complexity of its drones, the modal shifts of the chanter. How we play, and how these tunes were composed in the first place, all are influenced to a lesser or greater degree by the instrument itself.

Another scholarly failing is the inexplicable lack of recognition of our oral tradition as passed down over the generations. Strangely, some of our musicologists will pay slavish attention to the links with Gaelic song and specific works of ceol mor, whilst at the same time ignoring this tradition – a tradition documented and, in the case of P/M William MacLean, linking directly to Calum Piobair. We can also hear John MacDonald play.  Should not this evidence be weighed in the balance?

Please let us continue with the gathering of the old scores but please let us not use them to settle old scores, to perpetuate a ‘them and us’ approach, perceived or otherwise. Piobaireachd is difficult music to play well. It takes a lifetime of study to do so, and to teach and to appreciate in full. The academics do important work which must not be undervalued, but it should be viewed within the context of the piobaireachd world as we know it today not outwith it.

And  they must strive at all times to avoid the pitfall of so many learned, well-meaning scholars and their tracts: that of clothing their studies in modal mishmash and language designed for the exam board rather than we ordinary pipers. It does not improve an argument the more difficult the syntax; nor does the last confer a worth greater than its essence, rather the opposite.

Mr Hester of the Alt Piobaireachd Club will be at the Piobaireachd Society Conference next March to deliver a paper on his thoughts. Barnaby Brown himself has already done so. I hope more academics will follow suit. I wish too that they would get out more and listen to today’s piobaireachd players. The competition scene should not be an alien environment for them. The more interaction between scholars and players the better. Each can learn from the other and give a more rounded context in which to proceed.


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