Stories of the Tunes: The Green Hills of Tyrol

The North Tryolean village of Ehrwald in the Austrian Alps.

The Green Hills of Tyrol is a ubiquitous tune, learnt by virtually all pipers at an early stage. In 1961, the famous Scottish singer Andy Stewart put words to the tune and his song, A Scottish Soldier reached the No. 1 pop chart spot in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The Green Hills is probably the tune most often heard at a pipe band competition as virtually all bands will play it as part of their tuning up process.

In the September 1981 Piping Times, the late and much missed Roddy Cannon wrote about the origins of the tune:

The Thin Red Line. THe 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment of Foot was the only infantry unit to win the battle honour ‘Balaklava’ after holding off repeated Russian cavalry charges there in 1854.

By Roderick Cannon

The story of how this tune came to be adapted for the bagpipe was told by John and Archibald Campbell in the Kilberry Book of Ceol Meadhonach (Glasgow, 1908):

This is not a Highland tune properly speaking, but it suits the pipes extremely well, and is favourite with many pipers who play it without knowing exactly what it is. It is believed to be an old Tyrolese air, introduced by Rossini into his opera, William Tell. During the Crimean campaign, Pipe Major John MacLeod of the 93rd Highlanders heard a band of the Sardinian contingent playing selections from the opera in the camp before Sebastopol. He was struck by the air, and put it on the pipes. It has been played in the 93rd ever since, generally in parts.

Figure 1. – From ‘Henderson’s Collection of Marches, Strathspeys, Reels and Jigs’, Glasgow (1900), p90. The upper part is printed with the title ‘The Green Hills of Tyrol’, and the lower with the title “Secondo to the above’.

William Tell, published in 1829, was Rossini’s last opera. Whether the tune is really an older one, and not Rossini’s own composition, seems doubtful. After Crimea, the tune must have been passed around among pipers for nearly 50 years, before it was finally published by Peter Henderson in 1900 (see Fig. l). The Kilberry brothers mention that the tune is generally played in parts, and Henderson prints a second part. This is mostly one third below the first part, or else in unison, but there are also intervals of a fourth (in bar 4) and a fifth, on the last note.

Figure 2. – Extract from Rossini, ‘William Tell’, Act HI, Scene II, showing the two soprano parts, superimposed and transposed one tone up for comparison with Figure 1.

Turning back to the original (Figure 2, above) we see that Rossini scored only the second measure of the tune in two-part harmony, the first measure being in unison. I certainly recall that the Boys’ Brigade band in which I first started playing, played ‘seconds’ only in the second measure, not in the first. It would be good to hear other readers’ views on this.

In the opera, this is the tune of a chorus of Swiss soldiers. It is played three times. The first and second times lead into another strain, not shown here, but on the third time it ends as shown in Figure 2. A setting published for the pipes as a waltz, by David Glen, immediately after the appearance of Henderson’s setting, is closer to Rossini’s original but less suitable for marching. (David Glen’s Collection, Book 15).

Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868).

The tune has, of course, been published many times since, and is known to every piper. Every setting differs a little in gracenotes but since Henderson’s time there have also been two changes in the melody, which seem to have become permanent. (1) The minims bars one and five of the second measure have been divided into two crotchets. This first occurred in the Kilberry Book in 1908. (2) The notes D in bars three and seven of the first measure have become C. No doubt this was first done unconsciously by some players. It might be felt to give the tune a more ‘Highland’ flavour.

Robert Reid printed this alteration in The Piper’s Delight, about 1933, but he left the corresponding notes in the ‘seconds’ the same as in Henderson’s version, thus producing a discord, between C and B.

A more recent setting, in the Scots Guards’ collection has new ‘seconds’ that follow the first part one third lower wherever possible. This introduces low G notes where the first part has B, and since low G on the pipes is G natural, not G sharp, the result is wholly unsuitable to the character of the tune.

• Here’s a clip from 2019 of the Pipes & Drums of 3SCOTS (The Black Watch) marching down Edinburgh’s High Street and playing ‘The Green Hills’: