The case for a ‘second’ chanter

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By David V. Kennedy

In the last few years, pipers have recognised that the pitch of the chanter of the Scottish piob mhor has risen to approximately B flat from A natural. Chanter makers seem to have responded to a popular demand to make higher pitched canters – mostly from band players, but sometimes from soloists. But many older pipers are not content to weight anchor on that outgoing tide; they see no reason to cultivate a piercing, equal intensity scale at the expense of sonority and colour in the chanter. Whether the higher pitched and equally-loud-on-all-notes chanter is ‘better’ than the lower pitched chanter (i.e. more intensity on G, dwindling to A’) is going to be a matter of argument for a long time. Suffice to say that a schism exists now in the piping world, and sides have been taken.

Band pipers seem quite content with the higher pitched chanter. Many of them aver that they are easier to ‘reed up’ and easier to blow than the lower, older chanters; that it’s easier to get a good unison with nine or 19 pipers, say, who use the high pitched chanter; that they don’t have to fiddle aroun” with chanter reeds as they used to do with the lower, older chanters.

As a proponent of the lower pitched, balanced chanter, I get quite a chuckle over those asseverations!

The problem with reeding an older lower chanter is simply one of understanding reeds. The modern, high pitch chanter is indeed much more suited to the commercial reed than the chanter of say, 1965; but if you make or even scrape your own reeds, there is very little trouble in fitting a reed to an older chanter.

As for nine or 10 pipers in unison, this is, of course, far easier to do when you have plastic or blackwood chanters, all of the same year, from the same maker, and using the same reedmaker. The fiddling around which arose with the older chanters, in bands, was generally because of dissimilarities in make or year or decade, and quite often because of different makes and size chanter reeds. Even if the chanters were matched, because of the  characteristics of wood, there would be enough differences in chanters so that adjustments in reeds might be necessary.

The real argument for the use of the higher pitched chanter, I believe, is its  uniformity of scale and sound in group of band playing. The bands I know which produce a loud, forceful, in-tune tone from such chanters, use pretty heavy reeds – and allow the reed to do all the work. But one band which uses rather weak reeds in a set of matched, modern, high chanters produces a thin, ‘white’, off-key tone. This leads me to surmise that a mellow, colourful tone is impossible to achieve from the high pitch modern chanter.

Although it is perfectly true that one swallow does not make a summer, and because I have heard one band with those failings does not mean that all bands, necessarily, will sound as that band does, nevertheless the impression I get from the higher pitched chanter is one which is analogous to that received when I hear a piccolo after heating a deeper toned flute. I think that it’s all a matter of personal preference. Some people just prefer piccolos to flutes.

It would be difficult for a piper to prove that the modern, well-made higher pitched chanter was unsatisfactory, because it obviously isn’t. A number of solo pipers of expert category and a number of top bandsmen have proved that it suits them very well. I do believe however that the tendency to fit the notes into a mostly equal temperament scale these days, and to make the upper notes almost as forceful as the lower notes is a step in the wrong direction. It deprives the pipe of its traditional characteristic sound and scale intervals; and raising the pitch of any instrument seems to encourage a certain shrill quality in the tone, the pipe being no exception.

Apparently, the professional judges in the piping world have made no derogatory remarks about the higher pitch, even in solo competitions, which seems to indicate a general acceptance of the chanter and an assumption that it is going to be with us for quite a time to come.

For those of us old-timers who prefer the lower pitched, older chanters, the need for a second, higher pitched chanter becomes apparent, for if we don’t get one, we may find ourselves unable to blend in the a group of pipers with the modern chanters.

 The way the game could be played is this: carry two chanters, one low pitched, the other high pitched, along with sets of appropriate drone and chanter reeds for each chanter. When in band playing use the higher pitched one; but in solo work use the lower pitched one.

Personally, I shall never discard my two low pitched chanters even if a majority of pipers have converted to the higher pitched ones, because I have not yet heard a modern, higher pitched chanter that gives me the contrast and colour in tone which my older ones do. But for playing in unison with students who have the new chanters or with bands, I’ve found it more convenient to have and play a new chanter (high pitched) than to make reeds to try and ‘reed’ the older chanters up to the students’ pitch. For solo work though, I do indeed like the  contrast, colour, sonority and warmth of tone of my particular older, lower pitched chanters. And if it were up to me (playing King for a Day?) I’d have all chanters go back to A 444 c/s.

Seumas MacNeill in his book, Piobaireachd (B.B.C. publication, reprint 1976), p. 28, states: “In 1885 the pitch of the pipe A was found to be 441 c/s, which is practically the present standard A (440). In common with all musical instruments, however, the pitch of the pipe has been rising steadily …”

For the record, the pitch of the piano has not risen steadily since its inception, its A 49 being 440 c/s, and this is what we piano technicians tune to, today; the cello tunes to A 440, as do most orchestral instruments. Orchestral tuning in the past 200 years has probably varied from approx. 415 c/s to 466 c/s (equal

temperament measurement) i.e. a semi-tone either side of A440 … depending on whether or not the tuning was ‘continental’ or ‘British-American’. I cannot agree that the pitch of “all musical instruments” has been rising steadily or even that there has been a trend upwards.

The famous Seumas.

Seumas – inevitably – replies:

With respect, what I write is always true. Well, nearly always.

The piano was invented about 1710. During the 17th century there were three standards of pitch in common use – one was roughly what is accepted now, the second was about a semitone lower and the third was roughly a tone higher. To quote from the first reference book pulled out from the shelf, “Instrumental music of the 18th century … sounded about a semitone lower than it does today. The standard of pitch rose steadily …!” To quote from the second reference book consulted, “Early in the 19th century a rise in the standard of pitch began due to the development of brass instruments of the military band. These were found to give more brilliant effects at higher pitch.”

The battle has always been to try to keep the standard from going too high. In 1858 the standard A in Paris was 448 c/s but in Vienna was 456 c/s. To present a situation of utter chaos the French Government appointed a commission in 1859 (which included Berlioz, Meyerbeer and Rossini) to vchose a sensible and acceptable pitch. They decided on A equal to 435 c/s.

In England the London Philharmonic Society had adopted A equal to 433 c/s in 1820, so the situation seemed to be fairly acceptable.

Once again, however, pitch began to rise and by the 1920s the A used in Europe could be anything from 430 to 460. Eventually, in May 1939, an international conference was held in London with representatives from France Germany, Great Britain, Holland and ltaly. Recommendations were sent in by Switzerland and by the United States, and the conference unanimously adopted A equal to 440 c/s.

It seems to be fairly true to say that there has been a tendency for pitch to rise steadily. The piano is no exception, for otherwise there would have been some weird cacophonies in the last 250 years during which it has been played regularly as an instrument of the orchestra.

It was important to publish this article for two reasons – firstly, it contains a lot of sense; and secondly it contains a lot of nonsense, which coming from a talented and fluent writer like David Kennedy might be taken as true if uncorrected.

Also for the record:

(1) The pitch of the chanter of three top professionals, measured by  Dr. Alex MacKenzie in 1968, averaged 467 c/s.

(2) “… fit the notes into a mostly equal temperament scale …” All measurements show that, in spite of changing pitch, the scale remains as before. It would be impossible to finger equal temperaments on the pipe chanter – the D and C fingers would be too close together.

(3) “… the upper notes almost as forceful as the lower notes …” High G and high A have always been much quieter than the other notes. With rise in pitch this imbalance tends to become even worse.

(4) “… professional judges in the piping world have made no derogatory remarks about the higher pitch …”

The piping world is a big place. Such remarks have indeed been made in Scotland.

• From the March 1980 Piping Times.