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The Bagpipe Society

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WHEN the very long-standing early music group of which I am privileged to be a longish standing member plays a concert at an arts centre, theatre, church or school hall we do not require amplification nor fancy lighting effects, but we do request tables. The more tables the better. A table each for six performers is the ideal. On these we lay out the preposterously large numbers of wind and stringed instruments that we employ during our programmes.

It works smoothly on the whole. I have never – touch wood – picked up a sackbut when the next number demanded a cittern, for example. A late and much-lamented colleague did once heave a six-foot high contrabass recorder to the playing position, gaze at the music, make a harrumphing noise, put the enormous thing down again and pick up a tiny sopranino instead. How the audience roared! But I think that was an example of the deadpan comic business at which he excelled.

During the interval our groaning tables come into their own for a different reason, when the audience, having grabbed their plastic cups of coffee and complementary biscuit, come forward to examine and discuss the instruments.

They take a lively interest and it is good to chat, but I estimate that 94.3 per cent of the questions and comments are on the lines of, “I loved the hurdy gurdy. How does it work?” The fascination exerted by this instrument never ceases to amaze. I often regret that, years ago, we did not put together an illustrated booklet with a snappy title like “It’s Called the Hurdy Gurdy and This is How it Works”. If we knocked them out at a quid a time we would have made a bomb by now.

The second most common question – in my experience – comes when an audience member points at an instrument – it might be a shawm, recorder or crumhorn – and asks, “What wood is that one made of?”

I am always at a disadvantage here because I have a bit of blind spot when it comes to the various woods used by instrument makers. I usually mumble something about maple or sycamore (does that sound about right?).

Then there are the bagpipes. Depending on the programme, we might have as many as eight different varieties jostling for space on the tables, from the vintage crop of current makers who include (in alphabetical order) Allen, Goodacre, Jones, Parr and Swayne. A common audience reaction is to point to one of these instruments – it might be a grand cornemuse or a gaita – and say, “are those Northumbrian pipes then?”

It is easy to see how this misconception arises. Audience members are aware that the instruments they had seen and heard during the first half of the concerts were not Scottish Highland bagpipes. Not loud enough for that and there was no tartan in evidence. The only other bagpipe of which there is much general awareness is the Northumbrian smallpipe, so – by a process of elimination – it is assumed that this is what our instruments must be.

Obviously, this is an easy matter to clear up. “No, Northumbrian smallpipes are soft, bellows-blown instruments, usually fitted with a large amount of keywork, developed in the nineteenth century. Our bagpipes are….”

Yes, but what are they exactly?

When I was young and reckless I had no hesitation in pointing to an instrument and saying, “That is a renaissance English bagpipe…that’s a Flemish bagpipe” and so on.

Occasionally this caused complications. Once, when I identified an instrument as “Flemish”, the audience member commented “Hmm, it must have come to this country with the Huguenot weavers”. Try as I might, I couldn’t dislodge this eccentric theorem, not even when I said that the instrument was made by a modern-day craftsman in Somerset and was reconstructed from paintings by Brueghel.

Generally, however, I was happy to dish out simple taxonomies. But recently I have become more fastidious. For example, my current bread-and-butter early music bagpipe (highly recommended) is a Sean Jones instrument in G. It has what we might call a standard post-Swayne chanter, originally devised for a new interpretation of the Border pipe and inspired by French designs. The instrument, marketed under the generic name “Border pipe” is available in various configurations but on the version I plumped for, the two drones share an attractively carved common stock derived from those in the well-known Breughel paintings.

The young W. Marshall would happily have described this instrument as a “Flemish bagpipe” and I might have added “from the sixteenth century”. The doubt-ridden modern version of me is more circumspect. So I mumble something about it being a speculative reconstruction based on the appearance of instruments in sixteenth century depictions of bagpipers. I use a similar formula for most of the other bagpipes I play in early music concerts. What I find that I want to avoid nowadays is any suggestion that the instruments, whether “Flemish” or “English” or any other kind of “ish “are the organic products of an unbroken tradition or copies of original specimens.

With almost all of the other instruments that we play, the issue does not arise. They are modern reproductions, but will almost invariably have been based closely on surviving originals that the makers will have been able to examine, measure and even X- ray. Making allowances for alterations in playing techniques and in what the Germans call the “klang ideal” we can be guardedly confident that they make much the same sound that their forbears did.

No such luck with bagpipes. Possibly a gaita with cane reeds can be regarded as a 46.

kind of ur-European bagpipe, the sound of which has remained basically unaltered since the Middle Ages. But can we say that a modern instrument with a sophisticated bore profile and plastic reeds is a true “early bagpipe”, whatever its external appearance?

No serious renaissance musician nowadays would play a crumhorn with plastic reeds and upward extension keys; nor perform on a plastic recorder, or use a mandolin to stand in as a cittern (all of these things were once common – I had a 1950s recording of medieval music that used a hecklephone to simulate the shawm). Are we, therefore, guilty of inconsistency by using modern, scientifically designed, plastic-reeded bagpipes and perhaps allowing the audience to assume that they are fastidious reproductions of the instruments that were played by medieval minstrels and renaissance town musicians?

Maybe. But if you are a performing early musician you also need a practical streak. I used to play on cane-reeded bagpipes in concerts and a splendid sound they made – but there was always that moment of dread when the time came to pick them up from the table. What mood would they be in? The reed would need re-wetting, and the drones would have to be retuned, which is fair enough, but then there was always the possibility that the instrument – maybe only played for a couple of numbers in the course of a 90- minute concert – would throw a wobbly in performance. Perhaps the chanter reed would begin to cut out or the whole pitch of the instrument begin to rise.

Plastic reeds avoid all this, of course. The chances are that an instrument tuned half an hour beforehand will play perfectly well straight away and keep on playing. There is an analogy with lute players, who read from original tablature and study renaissance techniques – but use nylon strings. When it comes to the crunch, they want to be able to play the instrument and not devote their lives to retuning and restringing.

The bagpipe, whatever its provenance, is a wonderful vehicle for medieval and renaissance music. The modal nature of early popular music means that much of it lies well on the instrument and if you haven’t got a band to play with, it is self-contained, although it also blends well with early reeds such as shawm and curtal. There is some evidence – pictorial and documentary – that bagpipes did indeed sometimes participate in ensemble music during the Middle Ages and early renaissance.

Also, if – like me – you don’t have the sort of technique that enables you to toss off full sets of Dixon variations in your sleep, the linear, melodic nature of early dance music – from sources such as Praetorius and Susato – means that you can acquire a good -sized repertoire of satisfying material with relative ease.

Even this advantage can lead to self-doubt, however. I was much impressed some years ago by an article in an early music forum newsletter. The author – sorry I can’t remember the name; get in touch if it was you – posed the question: “Is your early bagpipe music difficult enough?” The thrust of the argument was that where bagpiping traditions have survived continuously they almost always display extreme virtuosity, whether in the system of gracing or the demands made by elaborate styles of variation. Surely bagpipers in the renaissance would have pushed the technical boundaries in the same way and therefore we should be trying to develop a much more elaborate, showy style of early bagpipe playing.

So maybe authentic reeds and chanters are not the issue. We need to acquire authentic fingers instead.