Ceol Mor Compositions
Prior to the mid-19th century composition of music for the Highland bagpipe is shrouded in mystery. There are many fine pieces of Ceol Mor that we understand were composed by certain people but, almost without exception, we cannot be absolutely sure of the composer of any piece prior to the early 1800s.
Many tunes that have been credited as having been composed and named by one of the famous MacCrimmon family are open to doubt. The publications of bagpipe music in the early 19th century give credit to members of that famous piping dynasty for having composed a number of tunes. However, nearly all those tunes so accredited have been included in other published and unpublished collections with conflicting titles or composer’s details.
To give one example, Angus MacKay’s collection of 1838 includes a tune called The Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon (the name that is used for it these days) and states that it was composed by John Dall MacKay after hearing a false report of Patrick Og’s death.
Donald MacDonald in his Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia published c1820 has the same tune, but he calls it Lament on the Death of Patrick More MacCrimmon. He adds that ‘A historical account of this Piobaireachd will be given in Vol 2’. Unfortunately, this second volume never appeared. MacDonald was supposed to have been taught by a person who was in turn reputed to have been MacCrimmon taught.
To confuse us even further an unpublished collection of tunes compiled in the late 18th century has this tune but calls it Couloddin’s Lament. The manuscript is called the Netherlorn (or Campbell) Canntaireachd and its authorship is attributed to Colin Campbell of Netherlorn. Nowhere in this collection does Campbell make any reference to a MacCrimmon even though he or his father were supposed to have been taught by one of that family.
There are some tunes that have a remarkable resemblance to others. Compare Beinn a Ghriain with I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand; The MacFarlanes’ Gathering with Too Long in This Condition; The Lament for MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart No 1 and No 2, Battle of Auldearn No 1 and No 2 and Lament for the Old Sword with The Nameless Tunefrom the Campbell Canntaireachd Vol 2 Tune 65 (published in Book 12, Page 371 of the Piobaireachd Society’s Collection).
Some say that all these tunes are different enough to be considered tunes in their own right. Others will debate this and add that this indicates that road along which our music has come has been very rocky indeed.
Prior to 230 years ago none of these tunes were recorded anywhere except in the player’s, and listener’s head. It is easy to believe that someone hearing a tune played on any given occasion would retain it, at least partially in his head, and then may unwittingly compose a tune using the basic theme of that tune. It is also possible that the original composer may never have heard the latter piece played.
Coel Beag Compositions
There is no doubt, as far as Ceol Mor is concerned, the situation prior to the introduction of the written music is quite confusing. The same can be said for Ceol Beag tunes that existed prior to 1850. It is rare that a composer’s name is associated with any of these tunes. Some may have been composed by pipers, but it is more likely that many of them were ‘borrowed’ from musicians playing other instruments.
Many of the early publications of Ceol Beag have tunes with up to three or even four different names. They also give the tunes in a different style (time signature) to the way we play them these days. Some of the more popular marches we play have been freely adapted from older airs that were probably never intended to be played as such.
This is all part of the evolution of music and there is nothing wrong with it. There have been numerous examples these days of pipers taking compositions, both new and old, and adding extra variations or arranging them in a time signature that is completely new. In many cases these adaptations have enhanced the tunes.
By way of example, I can cite two tunes but there are many more. Caber Feidh is a very old tune of unknown authorship and has been published as a 4/4 march, strathspey, reel, jig and hornpipe and I have a handwritten version of it as a 2/4 march. All of these have merit and are frequently played. The other is a more recently composed 4/4 march called Lieutenant Colonel D. J. S. Murray composed by Lieutenant John Allan. It is on page 18 of the Scots Guards Volume II in that form and on page 90 it has been arranged as a reel by the late Pipe Major Angus MacDonald. Both versions of the tune are eminently playable.
Since the first publication of bagpipe music 220 years ago there have been over 300 books published for the Highland bagpipe and the Irish War pipe and they contain thousands of tunes. Many of the more popular tunes are duplicated in a number of books but the overall percentage of tunes that are played regularly is remarkabley small.
In A Bibliography of Bagpipe Music Roderick D Cannon when talking of late 19th century bagpipe music publications states ‘…large numbers of comparatively worthless pieces were produced which are now completely forgotten. The fact that they were printed for general circulation did not ensure that they would be played.’
These days nothing has changed. The last 40 years has seen a proliferation of bagpipe music books and although there are a few gems amongst them the vast majority of the tunes are rarely played.
In my collection I have a number of handwritten manuscript books and they have numerous compositions that are unknown outside of these manuscripts. Most of these tunes will never find their way into published collections.
Many of the favourite tunes played these days are traditional tunes; or perhaps put differently, we have no way of knowing who composed them. Such tunes are the standard fare of the bagpipe music collections of the first half of the 19th century. It is rare to see a composer’s name.
The second half of the 19th century saw a change and many tunes appeared with the composer’s name. One can see the evolution of most of the more popular tunes in these books as each compiler gave his arrangement or setting. Initially, the newly composed tunes were in the minority.
The further we get into the 20th century there is an increase in new compositions and less arrangements of older tunes. There are many books that have new compositions only.
The mid-19th century also saw the genesis of the competition march. Initially, these tunes were arrangements of existing tunes but clothed in the style of the 2/4 march. As the century moved into its last quarter, we start to see the emergence of some extremely fine tunes. Their quality is proven by the fact that they are still played these days.
In comparison with marches, reels, hornpipes and jigs, the composing of Strathspeys has not been nearly so prolific. There are very few Strathspeys composed in the last 150 years that are played regularly these days.
Scotland has produced many pipers who have distinguished themselves as composers. Some have brought us one or two tunes, and many have been prolific. Arguably the best of them is the late Donald MacLeod. During his tour of New Zealand in 1976 Donald made the remark that ‘Composing is the easiest thing in the world – if you can do it’. That about sums it up for me; I find it an impossible art and have a ton of admiration for those who can.
To determine which New Zealander composers, merit a place in this series will not be easy. As stated earlier, the most important aspect will be their standing in the eyes of their fellow pipers. Some have had tunes published in music books from Scotland and that will be sufficient to warrant a mention. There are also those New Zealanders who have published their own collections and they too will find a way into this series. There will undoubtedly be some who have composed some tunes that have been neither played nor published. A decision will have to be made as to whether they warrant inclusion.
When I started learning to play the bagpipes and had a repertoire of about half a tune, I found that I could amuse myself by doodling on the practice chanter. Mercifully, none of these musings were committed to memory or paper. In the 38 years since then nothing has changed very much; I still doodle and very little has been worth preserving.
Frequently, I have put some of my inspirations on paper and have convinced myself that it has the makings of tune that will fit nicely into a World Championship Pipe Band Medley or perhaps even be the march, strathspey or reel that will be played by the top soloists. However, the next day when I have gone back and played it over again any delusions, I may have had the night before are soon dispelled and the manuscript is destroyed before I am embarrassed by a public airing of the tune.
There is no doubt that bagpipers are inveterate doodlers. All pipers try it with various degrees of success. However, there is only one criteria as to whether a tune is any good and that is whether it is played or not. I have composed one tune that I think may be playable and I do play it. That is not the real test; it will only be considered a good or great tune if the piping world at large accept it and play it. I am not holding my breath.
Bagpipe Music Indices
Over the last few months, the writer has been preparing an index of tunes for the Highland Bagpipe, the Uillean Bagpipe, the Irish War Pipe and the Northumbrian Bagpipe. Over the last thirty-five years there have been three indices published that the writer knows of, but they all have their limitations.
The Bagpipe Music Index was published by The Bagpipe Music Index, New Jersey, USA in 1966 and includes 2430 listings from 35 books. The title page states that the index is an ‘alphabetical tune listing of tunes from books currently available’.
Seventeen years later in 1983, a second index appeared on the market. This is Bain’s Directory of Bag-pipe Tunes, compiled by Harry Bain and published by Albyn Press Ltd, Edinburgh.
This is a far more substantial index with 114 books listed and over 5000 tune titles; most of the books published from the beginning of the 20thcentury up to the early 1980’s are included and a few from the 19thcentury. At the rear of the book is a small section that gives some historical notes on 48 tunes.
The one drawback of this index is that the tunes are listed alphabetically under their time signature. If someone is looking for a tune and does not know its time signature, they may have to look in a number of different sections of the book before they find it.
Nevertheless, this is the index used by many people until the early 1990s when a new index appeared. It is called Pekaar’s Encyclopaedia of Highland Bagpipe Tunes, compiled by Dr Robert Pekaar and published by Scott’s Highland Services Limited, Ontario, Canada.
This publication has 19675 listings from 286 books and has been through 4 editions. It lists the tunes alphabetically and providing the correct name of a tune is known it can be easily found. The latest revision of this book has an addendum of a number of books recently published. This does add a little confusion when looking for tunes.
The reason for the writer getting involved in his venture is to make it easier to search for a tune even if only one word of the title is known. For this reason, an Excel spreadsheet format has been used. The Highland Bagpipe tunes alone exceed 20, 000 and the number is growing monthly as new books come on the market.
As the reader may imagine, this is a job of gargantuan proportions, but it does have rewards other than those mentioned above. When all the data is present in such a format it is possible to see different patterns emerge, particularly in relation to the composers of the tunes.
Firstly, a huge number have no known composer; these are often heaped together under the convenient label of ‘traditional’. Many of these tunes have been around for centuries prior to the written record and it is not surprising that the composer’s name has long since been forgotten.
Secondly, it is noticeable that the majority of the great modern tunes have been composed by a relatively small number of people. There are a few composers who have composed one or two commendable tunes and whose tunes are and will continue to be played but the majority of the modern classics come from pens of a small number of prominent composers.
A vast number of new tunes have been composed over the last forty years, but it is a surprise that only a very small percentage are considered ‘great’ by the piping community.
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