By Wilbert Garvin
As church organist I have on occasions played Guilmant’s Noél Ecossais (Scotch Carol) at Christmas, not only because it was appropriate for the time of year, but also because it obviously mimicked the Great Highland Bagpipe, which I had played when I was younger. Not only did this cross-over from bagpipes to pipe-organ intrigue me, but a Frenchman composing a Scottish tune! This unusual mystery crossed my mind from time to time over th years without getting any nearer to a solution — I wouldn’t have even known where to start.
Alexandre (Félix) Guilmant was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer on March 12, 1837. By the time he was 25 he was an accomplished organist, being virtually self taught, though his father had been organist of St. Nicolas in Boulogne. He became something of a celebrity in Paris after playing at the opening of the organ in Saint-Sulpice, and over the next few decades he travelled widely as a recitalist, visiting England, the USA, Canada, Russia, Spain, Italy, Holland and Belgium.
In 1871 he was appointed organist of the Eglise de la Trinité in Paris, a post he held until 1901, while in 1896 he took over Widor’s prestigious organ class at the Paris Conservatoire. Guilmant’s compositional output was impressive, with about 40 organ collections, eight sonatas, and a symphony for organ and orchestra. He died in Meudon on the 29 March 1911. What were the circumstances that stimulated Guilmant to compose this unusual but very effective Scottish piece for the organ? Guilmant’s composition is an excellent attempt at simulating the sound of the Highland bagpipes. Not only is the melody noticeably Scottish, but he uses the pedals of the organ to good effect in imitation of the drones. Above all else he captures the essence of the pipes. He must have heard them somewhere. Where, and under what circumstances?
During my researches into the history of the bagpipes one of those rare coincidental gems occurred. I came across a book by Alexander Duncan Frazer, Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe, Edinburgh 1907, and was more than intrigued to find the following on page 95:
“Tis now some 12 years or more since I had the honour of entertaining Mons. Guillmon [this early spelling, later corrected, possibly arose from a phonetic attempt to spell his name], the great Pari organist, at my house. He had come to open a new organ in the Falkirk Parish Church, and he put up with me for the night. During dinner, Pipe Major Simpson, an old friend of mine, played to us in the hall. It was Monsieur’s introduction to the Bagpipe, and he evidently enjoyed the new sensation, but to the neglect of his dinner, which grew cold in front of him, as he sat in an attitude of wrapt attention, while his busy fingers beat time on the cloth to the different measures. When dinner was over, he must go out and see the “Pipes” for himself, and compliment the piper. He was veritably lost in wonder as he examined the instrument. It was astonishing! Marvellous! Miraculous!
How such “tres bien” music could be got out of so simple-looking an instrument. And the fingering!
What a time — hundreds of years — it must have taken to evolve the system of notes known as warblers! Then he turned to the piper and paid him many pretty compliments, and Simpson went home that night proud and happy, with the words of praise from a brother musician ringing in his ears .. . After dinner, we went to the church, where Mons. Guilmant, unaided, kept a large audience spellbound for over two hours with a marvellous performance on the organ. He was an old man [he would have been about 58 years old — I suppose that this was considered quite old then], and naturally tired with the effort, so, after supper, I suggested bed. “Bed!” said he, but I want to hear the piper
French. I had therefore some difficulty in explaining to him that, owing largely to accident of birth, or, perhaps, to the mislaying of an important paper, I was not a Highland Chief, with the piper one of my tail, — although my tale is one of the piper — that Piper Simpson was an independent gentleman, as independent as myself, and a good deal more so, who had come down of his own free-will to do honour to a brother in the craft; and that he was by this time most probably sound asleep in bed. To lessen the visible disappointment, with which my guest received this news, I offered to play a pibroch to him myself. I was but a poor substitute for the Pipe Major, it is true, and proposed judiciously to perform as far away as possible from him He would not have me play anywhere but in the room beside him. The room was small, being only about 15 feet square. And in this way, it came to pass, that I got an opportunity — no better possible — of testing the effect of the Bagpipe on the trained ear. Mons. Guilmant did not find it intolerable. On the contrary, I had great difficulty in satisfying his newly acquired taste.
With a book of piobaireachd in his hand, he called for tune after tune, scanning the score of each closely as he went along, and so kept me playing on into the small hours of the morning. The variety given to the music by the introduction of grace notes enchanted him, and he announced his determination to write a piece of music for the organ, in imitation of the Bagpipe, when- ever he got back to Paris. This must, however, have proved an impossible task for him — as indeed it is for any musician, however skilful — for it is well known that the variation known as crunluath cannot be put upon any other instrument than the Bagpipe. At all events, if the attempt were ever made, the result was not communicated to me.”
So, the mystery was solved at last. Guilmant stayed with Frazer some time in 1895 and possibly composed the piece shortly after he got back to Paris while the sound of the pipes was fresh in his mind. He was obviously quite proud of his new composition since he dedicated it to his daughter. He probably played it on various occasions over the next few years and eventually it was selected for inclusion in a series of popular organ albums published by Schott and Co. in 1915, so one can assume that it had been reasonably well known for at least a few years prior to this date. It is nevertheless a pity that Frazer never had the opportunity to hear the final result of his encounter with Guilmant, because he obviously created a deep and lasting impression on the Frenchman. I am surprised that Guilmant did not send him a copy — perhaps he did but it got lost in the post! I wonder what Frazer would have thought of it — certainly I am very fond of the piece. I wonder if the process would work in reverse. How would Guilmant’s composition sound on the Highland pipes if it was transposed into the appropriate key? It certainly works well on the Uilleann pipes.
• From the December 2001 Piping Times.