The Bagpipe Society

Strange case of Bergamo and its Bagpipe

It might seem like the title of a novel, but it’s pure reality.

In Bergamo, Lombardy, a small city of 120,000 inhabitants, but with a province that easily exceeds one million, about 50 kilometers north from the financial and fashion hub of Milan, exists a bagpipe with its own and unique characteristics: the “baghèt”.

But let’s start from the beginning. Around 1980, an expert of popular traditions and ethnomusicologist, Valter Biella, came across a sensational discovery: in the middle Valle Seriana he found seven bagpipes, some incomplete, called “baghèt”, or “pia”, or even “pia baghèt”. In the language of Bergamo the word “baga” identifies a bag, a skin bottle, and therefore the term “baghèt” refers precisely to the bag that acts as a reserve of air, typical of each bagpipe. During his research, Biella manages to interview the one who is considered the last active player, Giacomo Ruggeri called “Fagòt” (“Bassoon”), from Casnigo, a small town right in the middle Valle Seriana, from which he manages to have information on the repertoire, the style and the use of the baghèt.

The traces of the presence of the Bergamo bagpipes can already be found from the 14th century. There are numerous iconographic examples in churches, castles or museums, where in paintings made by Bergamo painters or who worked in Bergamo, players are portrayed in rural scenes or in representations of the Nativity.

In the memories of the elderly and in the oral tradition, a local bagpipe was well present, but until about 1980 this world had remained in the shadows, seriously risking the definitive extinction.

Unfortunately, there are no historical sound recordings. In what we have about Giacomo Ruggeri, he only put his hands on the chanter while a great-grandson helped him by holding the instrument and blowing in the bag, and there are no photographic testimonies of old players either. If we consider that the use of photography to document the local reality made its arrival in the province of Bergamo in the second half of the 1800s, and being currently not aware of any image depicting a “baghetér” (it is the term that defines who plays the baghèt ), we can say with reasonable certainty that as early as the second half of the 19th century, the use of the instrument was limited to a few cases that rarely performed in public. Despite this faint trace, Biella managed to reconstruct the history of at least a dozen baghetér still active in the twentieth century until at least the end of the Second World War. Another important missing piece, is that of the tradition linked to the construction: in the seven instruments found, only some segments seem to be built by professionals, while others have been turned by the players themselves, thus indicating a discrepancy between the different sizes and aesthetic lines. A feature worth noting, however, is that the final part of the three “baghècc” (this is the plural term of baghèt) ends in the shape of a light bulb, and not in a conical or cup shape, thus outlining an aesthetic uniqueness.

Diffusion area of the Bagpipe in the Province of Bergamo

In addition to the aforementioned media Valle Seriana, with the towns of Casnigo, Gandino, Semonte (Vertova) and Gazzaniga, the research has brought to light evidence of the presence of the baghèt also in other areas of the Bergamo province. In the Imagna valley, a small valley west of the province, two instrument segments belonging to the Salvi family, called “Pischira”, from Locatello, were found. These parts, found thanks to the work of Giuliano Grasso, Febo Guizzi and Aurelio Citelli, were displayed in the exhibition “The instruments of popular music in Italy” (1983/1984). In the valley there was also another player, Giuseppe Arrigoni, who passed away in 1922/23, tracked down during research on the territory by Valter Biella with the collaboration of Piergiorgio Mazzocchi. In Valtorta, in the upper Brembana Valley, a player was present until the beginning of the twentieth century, a certain Regazzoni whose family bears the nickname “Pia”, who owned a baghèt, now lost, with only one drone. In Cene, always in the middle Val Seriana was present an instrument with three drones and was played by Vittorio Marchi (born in 1930) who used the baghèt that belonged to his father and before that to his grandfather, and by a Bortolotti, called “Tarèl” (“Rolling Pin”). Unfortunately, both instruments have been lost.

The Structure of the Instrument

The baghèt is part of the European bagpipe family, and has very different characteristics from the much more famous “zampogna”. When you think of Italy, usually the first terms that come to mind are “romano”, “latino”, and if you think of an Italian bagpipe, definitely “zampogna”. In reality the zampogna (there are different types depending on the area of origin), are typical of central and southern Italy, while in the area north of the Apennines and in the Alpine area there are totally different bagpipes, with more similar characteristics to those of the Atlantic area. The zampogna, whose pipes are inserted in the same stock, is an accompaniment instrument and needs the “ciaramella”, a sort of archaic oboe without keys, which performs the melody.

The baghèt, as well as the Piva of the Apennines and the Musa of the Four Provinces, has sound pipes with a separate system, that is, each cane is secured to the bag with its own stock and is a solo instrument.

Already in 1873 the Bergamo savant Antonio Tiraboschi, in his work “Vocabulary of ancient and modern Bergamo dialects”, described the baghèt as consisting of four pipes, one for introducing air into the instrument, two accompanying drones and a chanter for performing the melody. It is interesting how another savant, Giovan Battista Melchiori, in 1817 in his “Brescian-Italian vocabulary”, described an instrument with the same name but with only one drone. Brescia is a city east of Bergamo, with which it borders and with which it shares many similarities in popular language and traditions.

From this approach we could deduce that two very similar instruments coexisted, or that the second drone appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century. These are only assumptions, as in the Brescia area no instruments were found, except oral traces or testimonies collected by Chiara Consolini from Travagliato (Brescia) in some acts of a 16th century trial for witchcraft.

The Bergamo baghèt comes in this form:

  • a tenor drone, tuned one octave below the first degree of the scale of the chanter, called “prìm òrghen” (first organ), formed by two segments and resting horizontally on the player’s right arm
  • a bass drone, tuned two octaves below the first degree of the scale of the of the chanter, called “segond òrghen” (second organ) formed by three segments and resting vertically on the player’s left shoulder
  • a blowpipe, called “bochì” or “sofièt”, with a leather disc at the base to act as a non-return valve, to inflate the bag.
  • a bag with a shape that recalls that of a goose, called “baga” which gives its name to the instrument. Traditionally it was sewn in goat or sheep skin, not tanned, leaving the fur inside and sealed with an external strip of leather or with a flattened rope, called “moscadès”
  • a chanter, called “diana”, with seven front holes and one rear for the fingers and two lateral intonation holes near the bell. The lower hole, the one reserved for the little finger of the right hand that is positioned in the lower part of the diana, is often split in order to allow the player to hold the chanter even with inverted hands. Of course, the hole that was not used between the two was closed with a stopper or wax.

The drones mount simple reeds called “spölète” (“fuzes”), with the cut to obtain the tongue traditionally inverted with respect to that of most of the other bagpipes, while the chanter mounts a double reed called “pìa” or “pìi”, built in arundo donax or, where the around donax does not grow, over 400 meters above sea level, in hazel wood. The sound system of the baghèt is very similar to that of the Galician gaita, leaving open a fascinating glimmer that connects the two instruments. In the province of Bergamo, more precisely in the Brembana Valley, where oral testimonies of the presence of baghèt have also been collected, the surname Galizzi is very frequent, which among the hypotheses of its origin suggests a connection to the region in the north of Spain, so much so that in the town of San Pellegrino Terme, famous worldwide for its mineral water, there is a very small place called “Galizia”. But these are only assumptions without a proven historical foundation.

However, famous Galician piper Carlos Nuñez, with whom I had the pleasure of performing on a couple of occasions in the province of Bergamo, seeing the baghèt, saw some characteristics of similarity with the gaita, but above all he attributed to the baghèt a greater archaicity and a lesser form modified over time compared to the Galician instrument.

The Old Instruments

During the course of the research in the early eighties, seven specimens of ancient baghècc belonging to:

  • Quirino Picinali, called “Manòt” from Gandino, a complete instrument with bag and with the end part of the drones in the shape of a bulb.
  • Maffeis family from Semonte (Vertova) called “Serì”, a complete instrument without bag and with the end of the drones in the shape of a cup.
  • Michele Imberti, called “Nano Magrì” from Casnigo, a complete instrument with bag but missing the central piece of the low drone and with the end part of the drones in the shape of a bulb.
  • Luigi Zilioli, called “Fiaì” from Casnigo, a complete instrument without bag and with the terminal part of the drones in the shape of a bulb.
  • Alessandro Pezzera, called “Pescerì” from Semonte (Vertova), a complete instrument without bag and with drones in the shape of a cup.
  • Valentino Savoldelli, from Gandino, called “Parécia”, only the chanter remains of his instrument.
  • Luigi Cattaneo, called “Rüina” from Gazzaniga, only the two drones of this instrument are preserved.

If we do not consider the Savoldelli chanter, of which the rest of the instrument has unfortunately been lost, of the other six specimens, three have the terminal part of the drones in the shape of a light bulb and three in the shape of a cup. Allow me to insist on this aspect, because this aesthetic feature is unique to the Bergamo baghèt. When you think of the different European bagpipes, even before the sound, especially those who are not familiar with this reality, the image of the instrument is the first element useful for identification. Aiming for an international re-launch of our bagpipe, I believe it can also pass from the proposal of a unique and easily identifiable image.

Both in the case of a light bulb and a cup bell, the construction took place by working a whole piece of wood, dug internally with a special tool to create a concavity. What can be seen by reviewing the different specimens is that, both the drones and the chanters, have different sizes, while remaining within a certain limit. Some segments mount reinforcement rings in bone, bovine horn or iron, while the woods used for their construction are boxwood, cherry, walnut and maple.

The “Diana”, the button heart of the Baghèt

From the tests done with some replicas of original reeds, Biella has established that the original tonality was on average around the note A. The fingering handed down by Giacomo Ruggeri is of the open type, or natural, where each note is performed keeping all the holes below it opened. The scale is diatonic and is limited to one octave, although thanks to the use of particular positions it was possible to obtain some chromatics. Together with the old baghècc, wooden or terracotta flutes were also found, which replicated the fingering of the baghèt and that the old baghetér used to learn the tunes, as for the great highland bagpipe with the practice chanter.

Considering the dimensions of other bagpipes such as the Scottish, the Asturian or the Galician ones, it is immediately noticeable that for the same length, in the baghèt more low tuning is obtained. To explain it better, the diana of the baghèt which is now built in shades of B flat, the most common, corresponds in size to that in C of a Galician gaita, and so is the size of the drones. This, in part, is probably due to the internal taper, which on average ends with a final opening of maximum 17mm, while in the Galician bagpipe it reaches up to 21mm.

Talking about the diana, that of Valentino Savoldelli, called “Parècia”, bought in 1870 when he was 11 years old, deserves particular attention. It is the only piece of his instrument that has come down to us, but it is of fundamental importance for its dating and, based on the aging patina of the wood, it dates back to at least to the 18thC. However, the variety of images that Salvoldelli, a skilled carver, drew over its entire surface with the use of a knife is striking. There are floral images, a woman with arms on her hips, a winged snake, birds, a tree of life, hearts with floral growths, crosses, in a mixture of sacred and pagan symbols. It would be worth submitting it to the examination of some symbolism expert to give a correct interpretation of the sculpted signs.

Beyond the aesthetic part, the study of the relationships of the measurements in the baghèt diana, brought to light an element of fundamental importance: there is a constructive “module”, a code that allowed the construction of the instrument without the aid of fixed measures or a metric system. Examining the diana of Savoldelli and that of the Maffeis family, Valter Biella found that by dividing the length of the chanter into twelve parts, the two lateral intonation holes were obtained at 10/12, at 8/12 the hole of the tonic closed with the little finger of the right hand at 2/12 and a half the rear hole at the top, and at 2/12 and 2/3 the first front hole. The unit of measurement obtained, the twelfth part of the length, corresponds to 26.1mm in that of Savoldelli and 26.4mm in that of the Maffeis family. This measurement is that of an average human thumb. We are not speaking of inches of the British imperial system, but of the physical measure of a human thumb. This detail highlights how the twelve base construction method, previous to the decimal one, used in the construction of our baghèt, is an indication of age. So, to correctly build a baghèt, it was enough to have these notions, probably handed down from generation to generation, and … an inch!

This explains, in all probability, the reason why the seven dianas found have all different lengths ranging from 296 to 331mm

A last question that has always intrigued me: why call the chanter “diana”? In this field, only assumptions can be made, but I believe that one theory above all can have, even if very fleeting, a background of truth: Diana was a Roman divinity, goddess of hunting and of the forest but, especially in the Middle Ages, a period of great diffusion of bagpipes in Europe, goddess linked to pagan rites dedicated to the Moon. The priestesses who performed propitiatory rites at each phase of the moon, combined with the phase of female fertility, gathered in sabbatical rites, then considered by the Church of the time, demonic adorations which needed to be eradicated. As said before, the traces in the Brescia area take us back to witchcraft processes in which testimonies refer to dances between the witches and their respective demons, dances the beginning of which was decreed by Diana herself, who gave the go to the dances which took place at the sound of a baghèt. It is only a hypothesis, a faint thread that links the name of the chanter to this myth, but nothing more. Simple, but fascinating and suggestive assumptions.

The traditional use of the Baghèt and its repertoire.

First of all, it should be emphasized that the Bergamo bagpipe, at least from the evidence collected and referring to the last 170 years, was in use in the peasant world, rather than in the pastoral one, as, for example, it was for the zampogna. The last baghetér were all farmers, and the period of use of the instrument was heavily influenced by this activity, so much so as to limit it almost exclusively to the winter season. During the rest of the year, life in the fields left little time for care and its use, as all activities were carried out following the hours of light, precious for the work in the fields during sowing and harvesting. Only in winter, when men limited their activities to devote themselves to the maintenance of agricultural tools, the instrument was taken up, placed and played. But, as early as the late 1800s, the sound of baghèt could be heard almost exclusively in the stables, where the heat offered by the animals created the ideal conditions for maintaining the humidity of the instrument and its intonation.

To understand the scenario better, it is necessary to know that in the alpine valleys, and therefore also in the Bergamo valleys, the family homes constituted a single body with the stables where the cattle were housed, which ensured heating, we would say today, with zero impact for the environment. In the stable, the elders told horror stories to the little ones, the women mended and chatted about the events that happened in the village, the men, as mentioned, were dedicated to the repairs of rakes, scythes, panniers and someone played the baghèt.

With the arrival of spring, the bagpipes were wrapped in a cloth and placed on a beam of the stable from where it was then taken up again at the beginning of the following winter.

The sound of the bagpipe was thus inextricably linked to the winter period, just in conjunction with Christmas. It became common to combine baghèt exclusively with the Christmas period, so much so that even today, playing it in the summer, some elderly people ask the reason for this use out of season, convinced that the bagpipes can only play in winter. It is curious to note how popular imagination has also attributed the powers change weather to it, so much so that its sound brings rain. In reality it is a case of inverted cause and effect, where it is clear that the baghèt does not bring rain, but how its use only in the winter has linked it to climatic situations that are certainly not sunny.

The old baghetér played almost exclusively on their own, due to the difficulty of tuning two instruments together, and often also because they ignored the existence of each other, even if they lived in neighbouring villages.

Some anecdotes, however, tells us that the baghèt sometimes came out into the open. Valentino Savoldelli, whose instrument is the only surviving diana, was little more than a boy, while leading the sheep home, (which was then entrusted to the care of the youngest while the adults took care of the land) came across a wolf who barred him the street. He took his instrument and the beast, which had been ready to attack, was tamed by the sound. After listening for a while he went away without attacking the flock.

The story of the wolf, tamed by the sound of a bagpipe, is very interesting because it’s also told about other pipers on various sides of the Four Provinces, an area so called because it’s located between the provinces of Piacenza, Genova, Alessandria and Pavia. “The story has a legendary and symbolic flavor, so much so that it’s repeated almost identical in different locations, each time attributed to the main local player, as if the event had happened only to him” 1

It is also said of the Maffeis from Semonte played in the evening, when the fresh air carries the sounds better, getting response from the other end of the valley by Giacomo Zilioli, who responded in turn by playing. The testimonies of Giacomo Ruggeri regarding the repertoire, report only a few original pieces used exclusively on the baghèt. The melodies were mostly arrangements of popular songs, also contemporary to baghetér, marches inspired by those played by wind bands and, above all, by melodies taken from the church bell repertoire. In the past, the baghetér was often also a skilled church bells player. Throughout the province the use of church bells as an instrument was and still is widespread either by rope, or “a distesa” (“at expanse”) by pulling the heavy ropes according to the base of the bell tower, and “d’allegrezza" (“joyous”), that is, standing just under the bells which were stopped in an oblique position, connecting the clappers to metal cables secured to a keyboard in order to play melodies. With the abandonment of the baghèt and the correspondence of diatonic scales, many melodies passed to the bells, allowing to save part of the repertoire consisting of waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, schottisches marches and religious arias. Today these songs are being recovered by the reverse route, passing from the bell tower back to the bagpipe. It has been calculated that, in the province of Bergama alone, the repertoire “d’allegrezza” for church bells consists of a least 1800 tunes which, added to those from different sources, brings the baghèt repertoire close to 2000 melodies.

Like any bagpipe that has its origins in the past, the baghèt also carries with it some popular beliefs, which are decidedly anachronistic today, but which are worth keeping in mind to better understand their spirit. In the past, for example, it was argued that the colour of the wood with which to build the instrument could not be dark, especially if combined with the red colour, since this combination recalled the colours of the devil. Playing baghèt was a ritual that had to respect times and places, and the fact that it was used by farmers relegated it to the winter only, even making the last witnesses declared that baghèt could not play in summer because “it was not his period”.

Over the past century, the baghèt has experienced several ups and downs, more low than high. With the advent of the industrial revolution of the late 19thC, the life of the Bergamo populations has drastically changed, bringing about profound transformations sharpened even more by two world conflicts that decimated entire generations. A few Swiss entrepreneurs arrived in Bergamo, who invested in the manufacturing sector with the plant of industrial silk mills, a sector in which our province had already been active in the Seriana valley since the 16thC. Thanks also to the exploitation of other natural resources, such as for the production of cement, at the end of the 19thC century, Bergamo was visited by European personalities from the political-industrial-financial world so as to earn the nickname “Italian Manchester”.

Thus, a large part of the workforce moved to the factories where the natural cycle of the seasons was zeroed, standardizing the days that became the same both in winter and in summer.

These changes affected the baghèt, which was relegated to a very limited use, until it almost disappeared. The development and adoption of other instruments within the popular musical tradition, above all the accordion, contributed to putting a strain on the survival of the Bergamo bagpipe. Thanks to Valter Biella’s research at the beginning of the 1980s, the tradition continued trying to fit into the vein of resurgence of local music throughout Italy, but we can safely say that, in hindsight, today the instrument has not much more than survived. For almost twenty years, Valter remained the only manufacturer, except for the occasional cases of luthiers, experts in other bagpipes, who produced only a single instrument. However, at the beginning of the new millennium other enthusiasts have ventured into the construction of the baghèt. Currently there are six luthiers who dedicate themselves to its revival, but in some cases they are instruments borrowed from other traditions, with the external features of the Bergamo baghèt, but with the soul of other bagpipes. This hybridization, justified by the understandable motivation to rely on more consolidated traditions, however, risks contaminating the genetic code of an instrument that has no equal and has nothing to envy others.

Valter is the only one who tries to re-propose an instrument as close as possible to those found, thus making a sort of musical archeology, while a couple of luthiers, Daniele Bicego and me, understanding that each bagpipe has undergone and still undergoes a positive transformation process that improves both from the point of view of management and intonation, have made small changes without altering their essence.

Some small realities, a couple of band formations and small groups, promote the diffusion of the instrument with courses, conferences and concerts, but in a reality like the Italian one, where the traditional culture and the music that represents it have been exploited for years by the different and often opposing political factions, and where today they are practically forgotten, everything becomes very difficult. And if we combine the character of the people of Bergamo, reserved and unwilling to show off, even enhancing a real treasure becomes a problem.

Just think that during the searches, the family of the old baghetér often preferred not to say that the grandfather or the great-grandfather played, because the music was considered “waste of time” (a thought not so rare even today), and above all they feared that they could be brought together to those wandering figures who played on the corners of the streets trying to collect some money to survive. It would have been a disgrace to the family, and even if it didn’t correspond to reality, there was always fear of what people would think. If we then add the parental quarrels that caused the dismemberment of the instrument between the various parties in the struggle, the game is done.

Is there a future for baghèt? I firmly believe so, but only under certain conditions: that we make a team, sharing ideas and joining forces, receiving attention from institutions, but above all doing a capillary job of proposal to the youngest, who represent our future both as citizens and as connoisseurs and bearers of our local traditions. In my small way I am trying to give a modern and less dusty image of our bagpipes, with the foundation of Radio Baghèt, a radio station in podcast that offers fortnightly broadcasts (www.radiobaghet.it), or by publishing some “pills” on some social media: videos of a few minutes where you can see and listen to the instrument. A modest contribution to the growth of the movement, made above all to prevent another probable extinction which, this time, unfortunately would risk being the last.

Note: all information is taken from my experience as baghetér and from Valter Biella’s research, whose publications can be found on www.baghet.it

  1. Claudio Gnoli and Fabio Paveto, “U messié Draghìn” in “Chi nasce mulo bisogna che tira calci” Associazione Musa Cosola 2007, page 150