Changing styles in pibroch playing – part 1


With most of us self-isolating during these uncertain times, there is, perhaps inevitably, a dearth of news to report. However, we at will continue to use this time to bring you great articles from our archives. Today’s piece was written by Dr Peter Cooke and published in The International Piper of June and July 1978.

Peter’s two-part piece concerns how ceòl mòr has fundamentally changed from its original styles, styles that were once equally valid. It is quite something to think that this article was written over 40 years ago yet the points he makes are still relevant today.

Peter Cooke was for many years a senior music researcher and lecturer in the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame at the 2019 MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards held in Aberdeen. He was awarded the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music.

Cadence E’s and Beats on A
By Peter Cooke

The pibroch repertory must be the only musical repertory in the world that survives virtually solely in the context of official competitions. The opinion of many pipers about this seems to be that competitions are a necessary evil — for without them a fascinating repertory would no longer be heard but instead be known only as curious fragments preserved on paper in libraries and museums.

As things stand in the 1970s the frequency of pibroch competitions, the large numbers of competitors and the number of different pieces that are offered up at these competitions suggest that the newly-formed Highland Society of London made a sensible decision when it planned that first competition at Falkirk in 1781. On the face of things it appears that a musical style, which before the 18th century flourished in the castles and houses of Gaelic chieftains, on their battlefields and in their glens, has as a result been faithfully preserved unchanged down to the present.

William MacLean (1876–1957) was a pupil of Calum Piobaire and won all the major prizes of the early 1900s. He became Pipe Major of The 5th Cameron (Lochiel) Highlanders during the First World War.
William MacLean (1876–1957) was a pupil of Calum Piobaire and won all the major prizes of the early 1900s. He became Pipe Major of The 5th Cameron (Lochiel) Highlanders during the First World War.

Tradition changes
But has it? A musicologist will expect such an answer to be always ‘no’, and for many the study of musical change within a culture (in response to internal innovation or changing social ‘context, or to influences from outside) is a study of absorbing interest in itself. Anyone who considers that the pibroch tradition is an exception to this should read the Piping Times of November 1976 where the editor referred to the pibroch playing of P.M. William MacLean one of the champion pipers of the beginning of this century – as now being of purely academic interest. Or they should take a look at piping correspondence in back copies of the Oban Times, where in the early years of this century each new issue of collections of pibrochs gave rise to indignant and often lengthy letters or reviews concerned with what their writers saw as changes for the worse in the notating and playing of the music.

Some of these protests no doubt stemmed from a failure to admit that justas there are even today different dialects of Gaelic spoken throughout the Gaeltachd, or different traditional singing styles, so there must have been different performance traditions in pibroch playing, each with entirely reasonable claims to validity.

In a non-competitive situation there is often tolerance of, and sometimes positive interest in differences in performance style. Sometimes this is also true of the competition context. The annual traditional singing competition organised at Kinross each September by the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland is a particularly happy example.

Several years ago the organisers accepted that it is impossible to have a yardstick for judging traditional singing and adopted two simple but effective measures. One was to appoint each year the winner of the competition held the previous year as one of the two judges (on the assumption that the traditional Scots singer is the best judge of what traditional Scottish singing is all about).

The other was to ask the judges simply to select as the ‘winner’ the singer whose performance they most enjoyed, for whatever reason, and not to go beyond saying who were the immediate runners-up.

In this way the principal aims of the organisation, namely to encourage and provide a platform for the performance of traditional Scottish music, was achieved without allowing the competitive spirit to rule supreme.

Problem of regional differences
Now the pibroch devotee may well argue that the history of his repertory, unlike that of the Scots song repertory, is marked by rigorous courses of instruction at ‘schools’ of piping where apprentice pipers memorise and learn to perform a relatively stable repertory in the manner prescribed by his ‘guru’, and that there is a well-defined aesthetic which should be used as a basis for judging at competitions. This may be true but he would need to consider the problem of regional differences in style which certainly seem to have existed in the late 18 century, and be aware of what can happen if and when one style becomes the favourite of competition judges over a period of time for whatever reason.

Let us take as an example the playing of one important formulaic phrase that occurs in many pibroch grounds, the so-called ‘echoing beats’ on the note A preceded by the G-E-D ‘cadence’. Joseph MacDonald was the first piping scholar to notate the echoing beats in his Compleat Theory (1762) where he calls them Na Crahinin (shakes or beats); and he quotes from a number of pibroch grounds that contain this formula (e.g. the Lament for the Castle of Dunyveg, Lament for Donald of Laggan, The Groat and The Earl of Ross’s March).

In Joseph’s time the playing of the E cadence seems to have been quite optional and it is clear that Joseph, who called them ‘Introductions’, intended the beat of A to be played as he wrote them, with the first A accented and of longer duration that the second (Ex. 1a).

The earliest staff notated collection of pibrochs, Angus MacArthur’s MS (1799), also shows the A beats in this way, but complete with all graces and cuttings, including the G-E-D cadence (Ex. 1b). Donald MacDonald in his book (1822) and Peter Reid in his manuscript (1826) also adopted the same method of writing these beats.

Clearly, this seems to have been the way MacArthur-schooled pipers played them. One also finds evidence of the same style preserved in the fiddle set of The Fingerlock pubished in Patrick MacDonald’s Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784, p. 42).

Angus MacKay’s record is the first evidence from a piper of a different way of performing these beats – that is with the first two A’s being shorter than the third. (Ex. 1c). One might argue that the particular way he writes them follows from his decision to write out the E’s in the G-E-D cadences as if they were melody notes that take time from the real melody notes (the A’s) that follow.

Classical Baroque
The appoggiatura in the classical European baroque style behaves the same way. That this is not the case is shown first by his careful noting of the D and the low G’s which are also given a longer time value than the high G and secondly from another source altogether. His father’s good friend, Elizabeth Jane Ross (later Baroness D’Oyley, the niece of John MacKay’s patron, James MacLeod of Raasay) wrote out several pibrochs in a manuscript she compiled (c.1811); presumably it is a record of the way she them on the pianoforte at Raasay (see A. MacKay’s note to Lady Doyle’s Salute in his Collection).

Wherever this particular formula is called for she writes it as in Ex. 1d, with the E in an unaccented position, the D taking the accent and with the obviously pianistic device of sounding quavers B and G (presumably against left hand A pedal-drone).

Whatever one may make of a pianist’s solution to the problem of writing the formula it clearly suggests that John MacKay gave some accent to the D as well as the E in the cadence and that he played the third A longer than the first two.

That the MacKay way is not just a style of its own and that other pipers gave length to the E in the G-E-D cadence is suggested by some confusion between the cadence E and E’s that are part of the melody itself in some settings of ‘pibrochs’ published by Daniel Dow (in his Collection of Ancient Scots Music for the Violin, Harpsichord or German Flute).

Donald MacDonald appears to have been aware of other ways of playing the A beats, for his manuscript collection (presumably compiled after his book, when he must have been exploring the repertory outwith his own tradition) contains different ways of writing the formula (Ex. 1e). Angus MacKay was also aware of the MacArthur/MacDonald style, for at some time, when he had possession of the MacArthur manuscript, he marked in the index those pibrochs which differ “from my father’s style of playing”, but passes no judgement on the style.

Question of style
None of the canntaireachd collections of the time give us much help in deciding which was the more common style. Gesto (1828) usually writes Hieririn for this formula and John MacKay in his Specimens of Canntaireachd also quotes hianana and occasionally hiaanana. The a in the hiharin of Colin Campbell’s collection may conceivably be a reference to the prominent sound of the D in the MacKay style.

A generation later, William Ross (1869) is seen to be advocating the playing of all tunes in MacKay’s manner, for in his Instructions he states, “All the run down Grace notes in MacDonald’s piobaireachds ought to be played with a rest on the E grace note”.

He usually adopts MacKay’s style for the complete formula (except for the extra length of the D and G grace notes), but in two pibrochs, The Lament for the Only Son and Queen Anne’s Lament, he dots the first A and shortens the second as if admitting that the MacKay style simply isn’t right for certain tunes(Ex. 1f).

The two other collections of the second half of the 19th century appear to restate the MacDonald/MacArthur style as far as the beats on A are concerned. Donald MacPhee (1880) writes them as in Ex. 1h. and David Glen (1880-99) as in Ex. 1g. But both attempt to indicate differing degrees of note length in the G-E-D cadence which perhaps represents a modification of the MacDonald style in favour of that of MacKay.

David Glen in a footnote to the pibroch The Blue Ribbon, which appears in his Highland Bagpipe Tutor (1881), tries to show how one should play the E cadence along with the A formula, but he does not help matters by quoting standard academic musical theory as if it applied equally to Gaelic music:

“In this class of music … there are two kinds of grace notes, the first a short one, the Acciaccatura — is the one the pupil has already become familiar with in Marches etc. And its purpose is the same, namely to accentuate and divide the notes of the melody. The second kind, a long one, — the Appoggiatura — also a small note, may be said to form part of the melody. This grace note should indicate how much is to be taken from the principal or melody note which follows it; but this is not always done.

When the principal note is even, it as a rule takes one half, when dotted, it takes two thirds or the length of the note, leaving the melody note the length of the dot. These two kinds of grace notes are frequently used in combination, as in the above “Cadence”, the first one G is one of the short kind, and it is used to accentuate the first of the next two grace notes which are of the long kind. Some players make the “E” in the above Cadence of such a length that no musical sign will serve to indicate its duration. When it has to be made specially long a ‘Pause”’ is sometimes written over it, but its performance is usually left very much to the pleasure of the performer” (p.29).

Two playing styles
The reader may well be wondering about the need for all this detailed and tedious documentation. Its purpose has been to determine that, in the late 18th and through the 19th century, at least two different playing styles existed and to try and trace their development over the next 100 years.

We have noted a tendency for the two styles to merge as far as the playing of the E cadence is concerned, but not in the case of the echoing beats on A. The way the beats are played strongly affects the character of many pibroch grounds and the way the cadence E’s are played undoubtedly affects the structure and rhythmic flow of pibroch grounds wherever they appear as they affect many variations, too.

A study of both should provide a useful index to changes in performance style. Unfortunately, there is little or no evidence in the 19th century as to what people thought about the two styles, other than that which is inherent in the notations themselves. Competitions in pibroch playing continued with few interruptions throughout the 19th century, but as far as we can gather judges, even if they knew anything about the music they were judging, had little say as to which pieces were to be played or how they were to be rendered.

All this changed in the early years of the 20th century and in the second part of this article we shall look at the effects of this change on the tradition and particular its effect on the MacArthur/MacDonald style.

*Part 2