By Hugh Cheape, MBE
Pìobaireachd is not an easy subject but Roderick Cannon was its master. This was his chosen field in the study of the music of the Great Highland Bagpipe and, more particularly, of the type of composition regarded as its ‘classical music’. In spite of the prominence of ceòl mòr in the received tradition, its origins are obscure, its lines of evolution confused and its complexities ill defined. This is still a challenge for all of us. Roderick dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to the unravelling of these complexities and his legacy is a more rounded and better-founded appreciation of this music. The world of piping lost this master-scholar on June 9, 2015 and, with the passing of almost three years, it has been a personal privilege to look again at what he has left to us.
As a distinct genre, ceòl mòr is a music of power and beauty but it is not for the faint-hearted; it is greeted with rapture by its aficionados and ‘disrapture’ or an air of mystification by the uninitiated, that is, most folk furth of Scotland! Roderick preached its significance and virtues with an ever-youthful enthusiasm, and his listeners were converted; and like any good apostle, he had very sound texts and he was their scribe and scholar.
Professor Roderick Cannon was blessed with the mind both of a musician and of a scientist. He was not just scientifically inclined but a researcher and teacher of distinction in his own academic sphere, with this career earning him a personal Chair in Chemistry at the University of East Anglia. These were attainments that Roderick wore lightly and which may have been largely unknown to us in the world of piping and to his audiences in Scotland. We may also have taken them for granted since his warmth and courteous manner carried no vaunting of intellectual mastery. He studied Chemistry at Oxford, graduating BA and specialising in organic chemistry for his doctorate. He then spent two years in the United States on post-doctoral research at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He took up a teaching post at the University of East Anglia in 1966 until his retirement in 2000. His DPhil [the Oxford equivalent of a PhD – Editor] and professorship are witness to his academic career together with the credentials of a solid shelf of scientific titles and articles such as his seminal book, Electron Transfer Reactions.
In terms of his scholarship in piping, his devotion to pìobaireachd was outstanding and exceptional, and supported with constancy by his family. His wife, Elizabeth, was a familiar face at piping events attended by Roderick, and his daughter, Sarah, edited and produced the four books of ceòl mòr manuscripts which the research of Roderick with others – principally Keith Sanger, Andrew Wright and the late Frans Buisman – had placed before the piping world.
Music engenders debate but, in the 20th century, debate about the bagpipe and its music was muted, a sometimes skin-deep consensus reflected in pipers playing the tunes according to a repertoire rescued and published by the Pìobaireachd Society (founded in 1903). Any scholar entering this arena would want to return to their sources, search for evidence, establish premises for careful deduction and debate, and ‘play’ or ‘sing’ their results. This was Roderick’s way, and the arena of his most important contributions was the Pìobaireachd Society and its Music Committee on which he served for over three decades. He had been led to the Pìobaireachd Society by seeing an advertisement for its 1973 Conference at Minard Castle. There he met other renowned scholars and interpreters of pìobaireachd such as James Campbell of Kilberry, Archie Kenneth, Seumas MacNeill and John MacFadyen.
Roderick began the pursuit on his own rigorous terms of the Society’s fundamental object of making available the tunes, known and less well known, published or unpublished, and did so in a generously and scrupulously collegiate manner. He has added immensely to the body of music and our knowledge of it. Devotees of pìobaireachd will understand that this is to simplify the story. This is an ancient tradition that appeared to be dwindling and part-lost by the end of the 19th century, and the founding of the Pìobaireachd Society was the response to this. Its well-meaning initiatives to re-circulate Highland bagpipe music led to a measure of confusion over notation and settings and, in the context of competitive piping, rigidity in attitudes towards interpretation of the music. Roderick was one of a small band that unpicked this and sought to explain. It was Roderick, pre-eminently, who began a return to the sources, to identify and explore them systematically, and then to publish them.
The complexities of the music of the Highland bagpipe arose from its longevity and also from the sometimes contradictory evidence of surviving music, books, manuscripts, oral tradition and song. Symbolic of Roderick’s methodology and achievements are the editing of the manuscript collections of Joseph MacDonald, Donald MacDonald and the MacArthur-MacGregor collection. The manuscript to which he probably dedicated most effort was the most complex – and the earliest. Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe is a manuscript manual written out by a young musician and scholar on the passage to India where he was to die of fever in 1763. The manual’s survival and preservation in Edinburgh University’s Special Collections is another story but a telling factor is that two or more versions of the manuscript had been published (in 1803, 1927 and 1972), adding to the difficulty of understanding the original. When Roderick signed off his text and music scores in 1991, he commented that he had been working on the Compleat Theory for 30 years. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he had discovered a copy of one of the printed versions on the university library shelves and had copied out the whole book by hand. These were the days before PCs, and as Roderick himself has written about “the world of bagpipe research as it was then. No email, no online searching, and in the earliest days, not even photocopying”. Roderick’s daughter, Sarah Franklin, has written recently about the family enterprise for publication of the Compleat Theory by the Piobaireachd Society in 1994:
“This was the first big project I worked on with my dad and my first on piping. … The typesetting technology available to us at the time was fairly rudimentary (my dad wrote the music out by hand!), but I really enjoyed working out ways to present the content of the manuscript to make it as accessible as possible to every kind of reader – pipers and other musicians, scholars with special interest, readers with more general interest. The challenge was to present every element of the original as clearly as possible, to allow readers to look quickly and easily at the source and confirm or question for themselves; at the same time to present editorial commentary alongside, including versions of the music examples, footnotes on minutiae of the manuscript, etc. – all in the same place but without the pages descending into chaos. So for example we used the visual device of showing ‘edited version’ of a music example as if printed on a slip of paper laid over the page just below Joseph’s original. We kept footnotes, manuscript notes, etc. on the same page as the text or music to which they referred, albeit tucked away as much as could be at the bottom of the page, to make it as easy as possible for readers to engage with them. And of course we included facsimiles of every page of the manuscript at the end. I remember this as a very happy time, working with my dad to solve each puzzle as it came up – and so pleasing at the end to hold in our hands copies of the finished book.”
This was also long before I met Roderick in the 1980s but tells us what a store of detailed research now over 50 or 60 years lies behind these major volumes in their published form. Roderick’s fondness of reference to Joseph MacDonald and his manuscript was much more than sentiment; he had had to try to get into the mind of the young musician on that ship to India, to understand how Joseph perceived the bagpipe and its music in his world of the mid-18th century and how to explain its Gaelic culture to an anglophone world. His depth of commitment was reflected in a thorough working knowledge of Scottish Gaelic and his fondness for his conversations in Gaelic and about the language over many years with a Norfolk neighbour, Nan MacQueen, born and brought up on Eilean nan Ròn off the north coast of Sutherland.
My introduction to Roderick’s work was reading a typescript shown me by Peter Cooke in the School of Scottish Studies about 1979 with the comment: “This is something different”, which indeed it was in a field notorious in the past for a scant literature and quirky historical treatment. This was Roderick’s Bibliography of Bagpipe Music, published in 1980 by the loyal publishing house of John Donald in Edinburgh. The book’s detail and thorough painstaking treatment of its subject was outstanding and, of course, immediately picked up on by practitioners in the field of Scottish music. Its mission, to identify and locate all music printed for each type of bagpipe played in the British Isles and Ireland – Scottish Highland, English Northumbrian and Irish Union – was so abundantly fulfilled, each item including all editions and reprints noted with dates and authorship and with graceful acknowledgement of the one or two earlier attempts at bibliographies. Over more than 30 years research in the field of piping, I have only turned up one item not in the Bibliography and to claim that this was missed by Roderick would be disingenuous – this was a seemingly unknown third printing in 1851 of Angus MacKay’s Piper’s Assistant!
This was baseline research in which the assembling of the building blocks of evidence merited some publication in its own right. Another monument of this approach is Roderick’s The Highland Bagpipe and its Music, published in 1988 and continuously in print since. Given Roderick’s specialist study of the Highland bagpipe, this book had to be written. It is beautifully crafted, written principally for pipers but in no sense exclusive or dogmatic. In fact, it serves also to explain the piper to the world! Other baseline research was the bagpipe in England and a set of articles by Roderick, ‘The Bagpipe in Northern England’ (1971), ‘English Bagpipe Music’ (1972) and ‘Bagpipes in English Works of Art’ (1989) were re-published by the Bagpipe Society in 2014 in a book in his honour, Essays on the Bagpipe in England. This gives voice to the inspirational and life-changing experience of the devotees of the English bagpipe in first coming into contact with Roderick’s work.
The search for and forensic examination of sources has had a further outcome for future generations of players and scholars. Some of the earliest surviving manuscripts had had a chequered history, being discovered, lost and re-discovered – or not – and, in the course of Roderick’s career, most of the papers and music manuscripts identified were steered to the National Library of Scotland. I am not sure – because it seemed impertinent to ask – how influential Roderick was in cementing this alliance between the Pìobaireachd Society and National Library, but I believe that he was the main or sole architect in our generation. He had earned the respect of the staff of the National Library and has raised the profile and status of pìobaireachd by consolidating it as national collection.
The world of piping and its study is still unthinkable without Roderick Cannon. Consciously or unconsciously, so much of what we know now about piping in Scotland and ceòl mòr is owed to him. His mastery of the sources and impeccable scholarship is his legacy, and our memory is of a kind friend who understood and enjoyed to the full the fraternity that is Scotland’s piping tradition. In that it has its own ‘language’ and ‘symbols’ is reflected in another of Roderick’s longstanding endeavours, the recovery and editing of the ‘Gesto Manuscript’, exemplifying his extraordinary dedication in searching out all possible sources for the music of the Highland bagpipe, and soon to be published through the generous support of the Pìobaireachd Society. I and others are the beneficiaries of long discussions of ‘Gesto’ and its intrinsic detail of spoken or sung vocables and I miss our conversations on such esoteric subjects, face-to-face or by ’phone.
Piping in Scotland is remarkable for the changes that have coursed through it over the last 20 to 30 years and, with immeasurable expansion of numbers of good and informed players, I can only imagine how poor we would be without the contribution of Professor Roderick Cannon to this world. This contribution, in its published form, is in the public domain, and Roderick’s executors and family have transferred his immense volume of papers and correspondence as gift to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands, where they are available for future research.
From the March 2018 Piping Times.