• From the August 1980 Piping Times.

This is the third of a series of four articles by Mrs. Bridget MacKenzie on the interesting parallel between Scottish ceòl mòr and other art form.

The evidence of early exchange of ideas and techniques is scanty and circumstantial, but it does suggest a common store of terms used by poets and musicians alike, in the Irish-Hebridean tradition. This makes it more feasible to see ceòl mòr as a last flowering of the Celtic tradition, rather than an isolated phenomenon with no fore-runners.

It is then possible to see pipe music as having been a serious and developing art form in the Hebrides from perhaps 1450 to about 1550 (very approximate dates), resembling the Irish poetry of the time in having many measures and many functions, probably also some form of variation. But it had probably not yet acquired the formal structure of a stated theme, linked variations of increasing complexity, and a return, either at the end or at intervals between variations, to the simple statement| of the theme. Possibly the pipers, like the poets, had one measure (or ‘lugh’) for salutes, one for laments, one for triumphs, and so on, and possibly they used terms borrowed from the poets or the harpers for these measures. The names of the poetic metres often go back as far as the 6th century; they were fossilised and only partially understood by the poets themselves in later years, and it is not surprising that they became meaning less or took on new meanings in the hands of the pipers. The poets preserved the old names and continued to use them long after they had lost real meaning, for a very good reason; each named type of poetry or metre earned a set reward from the patron, and these rewards were laid down in the ancient laws of Ireland, which go back to the 6th century, or earlier. A similar reward system operated in Scotland for the pipers until as late as the 17th century (see Collinson, The Bagpipe, pp. 70-1) This would explain why the old terms were preserved for so long, when their meanings were lost.

There seems to have been an outside influence which changed the nature of ceòl mòr, and tradition says that it was in the MacCrimmon family. It seems very likely that the MacCrimmons were of Irish origin and that they came to Scotland. In the great movement of Irish poets and musicians to the Hebrides and western seaboard in the 13th and 14th centuries (see D. Thomson, An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry, 1974). Possibly they were descendants of the MacCrimthainn family of Leinster, who were renowned in the 12th century for their wisdom, booklearning and knowledge. Their reputation reached beyond Ireland to continental Europe (see Flower, The Irish Tradition, p. 67). Such a descent would not exclude the MacCrimmons. It seems likely that a Irish tradition of Italian influence which is so strong about the MacCrimmons. It seems likely that a MacCrimmon daughter married an Italian at some time when the MacCrimmons were established as musicians in Skye, and that this Italian was himself a musician who introduced new ideas into the family’s existing modes of composition.

But did Italian music have, at any period, the systematic progression of variations on a theme, with a return to the stated theme at the end, or between each variation?

Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages, p. 238, says that “the first documentary evidence that “the basic melody in mediaeval strophic pieces could be varied upon repetition” is found in an Italian manuscript of the 14th century, from Florence (Magl. II I 122). Strophic music at that time was a setting for poetry, divided into sections or stanzas according to the form of the poem. The Italian form called ‘laude’ had a refrain played at the beginning and repeated unchanged at the end. The middle section could be, but was not always, based on the same melody as the refrain (Reese, op.cit., p. 237). This ‘laude’ form was used in both sacred and secular music, but after the 14th century it was developed in Italy as a secular form. Usually, the music accompanied poetry, and Reese (Music of the Renaissance, p. 166) says that some laude of the 15th century were monophonic.

The ‘laude’ form seems to have been based on the ‘sequence’, taken from the old liturgical plainsong. The sequence itself appeared in the liturgy first in the 9th century, at exactly the same time as Irish influence on continental monasteries and monastic culture was extremely strong, especially in France, Switzerland and Italy. Irish monks flooded across Europe bringing their culture with them. The Irish harp, for example, with its quadrangular form, spread through Europe in the 10th century (see Hayes in ‘Ars Nova and the Renaissance’, Vol. III of the New Oxford History of Music, p. 471). It is tempting to think that the sequence form which seems to have ended up as ceòl mòr in the Hebrides had its roots in Ireland, having travelled to Italy and back over the intervening centuries,

The French, too, developed the sequence form, into the ‘lai’; they introduced repetition and variation within the strophic section, the variation often being a change to the line ending (Reese, Music of the Renaissance, p. 225). A type called ‘estampie’ was played as instrumental music for dancing and there were also instrumental pieces performed ‘‘on standing foot” before a courtly audience (quoted by Reese, Music in the Middle Ages, p 226).

The development of the variation form was embryonic in 14th century Italy, and as it became secular in application, documentary evidence became sparser; sacred music is always better documented than is secular, since it was the literate clergy who recorded most of it.

During the Renaissance, when polyphonic development pre-occupied most European musicians, a native Italian taste grew for songs that used musical formulae rather than melodies. The 15th century musicians who played them were ‘frottolists’ (see Brown, Music of the Renaissance, p. 100f). When their ‘frottole’ were written down, they provided the formulae on which improvisations and variations could be based. They featured the repetition of phrases with the same rhythm, divided from each other by cadences, and the same rhythmic pattern was usually used throughout the piece, or a
section of it. This ‘frottola’ form died out by the early 16th century. These ‘frottole’ were also settings for poems or songs, but by the early 16th century the Italians were developing the form as purely instrumental music (see Brown, op.cit., p. 264f). One form became sets of variations on a given theme and on a set rhythmic pattern; another, for instruments only, was a single variation on melody. The technique of preserving some recognisable elements of a relatively short theme melody through a number of repetitions, while other elements changed, was peculiar to Italy and to Spain (independently) and peculiar to the early 16th century (Brown, op.cit., p. 265).

Reese describes (Music of the Renaissance, p. 162) a typical ‘fottola’ of the late 15th century as music to a poem with a four-line refrain or ‘ripresa’ and six-line strophes, or rarely eight-line. The music consisted of two units, each of two phrases. These four phrases set the four lines of the refrain; the first two phrases, performed twice, plus the last two phrases, set the six lines of the strophe. Where there were eight-line strophes, the last two phrases were repeated in each strophe. After each strophe the ‘ripresa’ was repeated whole or in part – the part retained was likely to be the first half extended, and was given in the source after the whole refrain. In the early 16th century, thi ‘sfrottola’ music began to be played as solo instrumental music, losing the words of the poetry which had given the piece its form (Reese, Music of the Renaissance, p. 161).

A French-born musician who lived mainly in Italy and was trained there in the late 15th century and early 16th, Josquin des Pres, was a supreme exponent of this form. He developed it from ‘frottola’ as a light song form into something more serious, combining frottolist techniques with liturgical themes, paraphrasing borrowed plainsong melodies, often sequence melodies. Reese (op.cit., p. 251) says: “Josquin liked particularly to vary his treatment of each section of a sequence melody upon its repetition” – this is known as ‘variation-chain sequence,’ and Reese(loc.cit) considers that it may well have been Josquin’s own invention. He used it for vocal pieces of four or six parts, not for solo instruments, at the turn of the 15th-16th centuries. He was an exponent of ‘musica ficta’ (see below) in his works for instruments only; and he was particularly noted for having introduced leaps of fourths and fifths, of which he was especially fond.

In one of Josquin’s works, there are five double sections or versicles; he
uses the basic sequence form for pairs 3 and 4, i.e. the second section of each pair is set to the same music as the first. He varies the endings in pair 1, and even more elaborately so in pair 6, and in the last pair comes close to writing a new setting for the second versicle, the plainsong melody is still paraphrased, but some of the counter-melodies are changed.

One of Josquin’s most famous variation-chain sequences was a setting of ‘Benedicta es coelorum Regina’ in in six parts, to a melody once used for another text at the monastery ol St. Gall in Switzerland in the 10th century. Another similar piece by Josquin has this variation-chain technique applied to a melody of which a two-part setting had already been published, as well as a unisonal version. In other words, Josquin was making over older and contemporary works in his new variation-chain form.

Josquin was followed by composers such as Terzi and Molinaro, who wrote variation suites in the 16th century, These consist of a ‘passamezzo’ and a ‘gagliardo,’ each with several sections having the same basic choral theme. Terzi’s variations usually had a gradual increase in speed; Molinaro tended to write longer works with more sections. Most suites had three sections in each movement, but Molinaro sometimes had up to six. This suite form was that favoured by the Italian musicians at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots in Edinburgh (see Bingham, The Stewart Kingdom of Scotland, p. 201), and by James IV (op.cit., p. 132).

The variation form developed through dance music because it required the shorter phrases, the long phrasings of the more serious liturgical music were too cumbersome for frequent repetition and variation, which would have become both top-heavy and monotonous.

Variation was achieved by different means; and sometimes different techniques were used in successive variations. In some, the original melody was preserved more or less intact in one part played by one instrument, while another supplied the ornamentation. In another, the melody itself was adorned with figuration patterns. Or the melody was lost altogether and merely suggested by the harmonics and surrounding structures. Often the variations were played continuously with no break between them. This was a peculiarity of Italian variation technique (see Brown, op.cit., p. 265).

The period 1540-1570 saw a wealth of composition of sets of variations for the lute, mainly for dancing or accompanying song. The Spanish, meanwhile, developed the form mainly in settings for groups of viols. They also extended the form to Gregorian hymns and sacred songs. The fashion for variation reached England later in the 16th century. Many of the melodies used for variation sets for dancing were ‘stylised’ artistic versions of more or less popular melodies” (Brown, op.cit., p. 269). The variations were not extemporised, nor spontaneous, but “artistic, highly refined and stylized”; and not all dance-music was intended literally for dancing. However, it should be remembered that these variation sets were basically dances or song settings, until Josquin’s influence was felt. The settings even for purely instrumental music were for groups of instruments, and no way was it music for one solo instrument.

• Part 1.
• Part 2.
• Part 4.