Pipers of the Maastricht Hours

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Last year Tom Hughes, posted a picture on Facebook that he’d found on a British Library web page depicting a bagpiper from the Maastricht Hours, Medieval book of Hours. It didn’t take much imagination to come up with the idea that if there was one bagpiper, then there may well be one or two more. In fact there turned out to be 15 of them !

The Maastricht Hours was produced in the first quarter of the 14th century in Liege in the Netherlands for an aristocratic woman who it is thought is actually depicted in various places through the manuscript. Such books were apparently often given as wedding gifts to the bride from the groom. Whoever she was she must have had quite an enlightened attitude and have been a bit of a music lover. Many of the illustrations depict scenes from normal life, often in humorous context and often depicting a good many musical instruments as well as the bagpipes.

The pipes fall into 3 or possibly 4 basic categories - firstly, droneless bagpipes with short, conical chanters; secondly, similar instruments but with very long chanters, so supposedly much lower in pitch; and thirdly, a bagpipe fitted with a short conical chanter plus a long drone and a shorter drone all in a common stock. The fourth possible category is suggested by one of the instruments in the first category which on close inspection appears to have a short chanter with a drone alongside it in the manner of modern French bagpipes. All the pipes are mouth- blown. It must be pointed out however that these illustrations are very much sketches rather than technical drawings and considering how imaginative many of the other pictures are one could question just how much they were ever meant to represent actual instruments. The bagpipes with chanter and drones in a common stock, however, appear to show some very interesting details that, if they were mere imaginative creations, it would be difficult to account for. Specifically, in illustration 44v (the numbers refer to the scan number of the original document, the letters v and r to whether it is the left or right hand page in the scan) the shorter drone appears to have a stopper in the end of it which is connected to the instrument by a loop of thread. This is verified by illustration 35v which clearly shows this stopper dangling loosely. It would be difficult to imagine how the illustrator, if actually unfamiliar with an instrument like this, could have come up with this particular detail.

I hesitate to refer to the drones on these pipes as ‘bass’ and ‘baritone’ drones as their lengths differ substantially between different illustrations. In some, for example illustration 234r the longer drone is approximately double the length of the chanter which might well indicate a bass drone two octaves below the chanter while the shorter drone is midway between the bass drone and the chanter which would suggest that it may be tuned a fourth or a fifth above the bass drone. This assumes, of course, that the depiction of a chanter having a roughly conical exterior indicates that the bore of the instrument is similarly conical – and that isn’t necessarily so, for example a parallel bored chanter with a conical widening at it’s bottom end would similarly have a conical, or near conical external shape, and would of course have a very different sound to a true conically bored chanter and in fact also be an octave lower which would put the ‘bass’ drone an octave below the chanter.

In illustration 35v however, the drones are much shorter in relation to the chanter which could of course simply be due to inaccuracies in the sketch, but could also indicate (assuming a conically bored chanter) that the ‘bass’ drone is in fact two octaves below the three finger note, while the shorter drone may be an octave below the chanter. This would then be the same arrangement as that of the schaper pfeiff in the 1619 Praetorius ‘Syntagma Musicum’ which, although a very harmonious arrangement, makes less sense as to why you would need a stopper for the shorter drone.

If the arrangement is indeed a bass drone two octaves below the six finger note plus a baritone tuned to the fourth or the fifth then the ability to stopper the baritone drone would make the instrument much more versatile for if it is tuned to the fourth, then unstopped, tunes with a three finger tonic would sound to advantage, while stoppered, tunes with a six finger tonic would be good. If the baritone drone is tuned to a fifth the reverse would apply.

The question remains, however, whether the layout depicted is in any way a practical arrangement in terms of the mechanics of actually playing the instrument. Illustration 31r, I believe, shows a typical French arrangement of chanter with drone alongside, though with the chanter on the left of the drone (from the player’s perspective), left hand playing the upper notes, the right playing the lower notes. The addition of the second drone is a little problematic in that the most obvious position for it is centrally directly behind the mid point between the chanter and the bass drone (see figure 1). This arrangement, however, although the neatest in design, would make the instrument quite cumbersome to hold, though if it angled only slightly away from the other two pipes it would be possible for the right hand thumb to fit in between it and the chanter. The illustrations, however, clearly show the right hand thumb wrapped round the back of it to hold the chanter. Experimenting with a set of French pipes by fitting the chanter and drone the appropriate way round and taping a length of tubing to the back of the stock to mimic the position of the baritone drone showed that this configuration was quite uncomfortable and made the chanter difficult to play. Placing the drone behind the bass drone and slightly outboard of it, however, allowed it to more comfortably fit into the palm of the right hand (figure 2), though the stock would necessarily be much more bulky and less ‘neat’ to accomplish this.

I’ve never seen pipes like this from another source, and certainly never seen any ‘Medieval Bagpipe’ recreations in this style. If you know of any, do let me know. Assuming the illustrations to show an actual bagpipe that existed at the time, it could be that it’s inherent clumsiness meant that the design was short lived. There could also be problems associated with interference between the reeds which can be a problem with the French layout. Certainly an extra drone here would not help matters.

The rest of the bagpipe illustrations:

(illustrations to follow)

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