The Bagpipe Society

Review: Duets suitable for two D bagpipes

Is your playing in a rut? Playing the same tunes from the same books and sources? Same style and periods? Do you want the opportunity to stretch yourself? Then why not try this latest book published by Dave Rowlands? It’s a bit of a pot pourri: tunes of different styles – from classical, folk to Baroque; some dance pieces - Alamaines, Pavans, Gavottes; and tunes across a range of technical difficulty. So, why do you buy a book of tunes? To see if you can replicate the sound of the musician who has published it? To extend your playing ability and range? To have a set of tunes from one period, place or musician? Or do you like to spread your playing across a wide musical landscape? This book could be for you!

Dave is well known to Bagpipe Society members, and has run several workshops at the annual Blowout. He’s published a number of tune books of music of the 18th century, and this book of duets ranges from the 16th to the 21st centuries. In his introduction he says that the volume is ‘intended to give the more adventurous players the opportunity to musically stretch themselves’. Having said that, not all the pieces demand advance level skill, but many require you to have real comfort playing over the break into the top octave. There are also some challenging leaps. Although some of the tunes appear rather formidable, with lots of dots, don’t be put off by that! He advises playing the pieces in a leisurely fashion, noting that ’things were a lot slower (then), so do not try to be rushed, or pressured into thinking that any given time signature is as you would see it today’. Commentators of the time suggested that ‘a minim is the same as a heartbeat’. I would have preferred Dave to give us more indications of the speed for a tune than he does, but maybe we just need to play them all slowly – at least at first. I think that the very last tune in the book – The Luxborough – in particular calls for a slow and stately speed to match the story he gives.

My first impression was that this is a well-designed book containing a lot of music. In fact, there are over 90 pages of music to explore. As well as choosing the pieces, Dave has also laid them out for printing. Occasionally, this more ‘home-spun’ approach is evident. One minor quibble is that some of the systems don’t seem to sit well on the page with enough space between them to make clear which is the first line. His notes illustrate the pieces on the page.

Dave is a bagpiper and sees the music as suitable for his instrument, but I also played a number of pieces with a friend on English concertinas and on recorders. Dave has aimed his book at those who play bagpipes. Well, maybe it’s my poor playing, but I find that a leap from low C to top G - or from A to top F natural – on pipes is a bit of a struggle. I also find that playing at the top of the range on a bagpipe can sound rather scratchy. As well as being a piper, I also play a number of historical woodwind instruments, Anglo and English concertinas, and melodeons. I spend quite a bit of time working out arrangements, and take any book of tunes – be it for bagpipes, crumhorns, melodeons, or whatever – as a mere starting point. I’m not fixed to the publisher’s idea of a good sound. He has done the hard work in finding the tunes and printing them. Now, it’s my challenge to bring the tunes to life. That also means that I don’t worry too much when I struggle to play a tune on a particular instrument. I’m fortunate in being able to play a number of instruments and they provide me with the necessary flexibility to get on top of a tune. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I found many of the tunes to be wonderful played on pipes – Gavotte by JS Bach, Le Retour de Prague, Marcha Procesion Don San Bieito, La Fleurette, The Luxborough, Scornfull Nancy, French ‘75 – but others less so.

Most of the tunes are suited to a D bagpipe, but a few are in keys that at first look seem strange – F, Am. I found that the ones in F work, but the Hornepipe by George Bingham in Am (originally in Em) doesn’t work for me against a D drone.

If you’re a piper, then the pieces are written for a D bagpipe, and one which will play a top Eb. I admit that I didn’t initially know how to produce that note on my pipes, but Dave’s support and advice was helpful in overcoming that omission. It’s fingered like a top Eb on a soprano recorder. Later made Swayne pipes play it well. Other instruments won’t find playing that note a problem.

If you don’t see yourself as an advanced player, don’t be put off from buying the book. Remember to play slowly. Several of the tunes are easier than others – St Bride’s Bells, Rigadoon by Purcell, Air by John Jenkins, Alamaine by William Drew to mention a few. It’s also worth looking out Six Petites Canons (pp 95-97) which provide good practice in playing scales up high. The Gavotte by JS Bach has some good passages with a return to the bottom D, and Le Retour de Prague has something similar. Strike the Bell offers a good practice to get to bottom C. Probably good practice for us all!

The date and style of the pieces vary greatly. Although I recognised some of the composers in the book (JS Bach, Mozart, Thomas Morley, Purcell), I wasn’t familiar with many from the 18th century, for example Braun, Boismortier and Chedeville. He notes that the repertoire for the viol, cello and viola work well for bagpipes. Some tunes were composed for bagpipes in the 17th century French court. I recognised the tune for the Adderbury Morris dance, Postman’s Knock (composed by William Felton). I now know that the music of Chedeville, Gumpelzhaimer, William Drew and John Jenkins is worth further exploration.

Most of the 2nd lines are from the original composition, with others written by Dave as noted in the text. I find that second lines are often easier than top lines. This is the case with many, but not all the tunes, in the book.

Dave has included several canons. These are good fun to play, calling for accurate counting and opening the possibility for more than two people to play the piece. If you’re new to playing canons, Dave advises looking first at Parry (p82) or Torgeson (pp 95-97).

You can hear Dave and Chris Walker play some of these tunes in a concert they gave in St Bride’s Church in London on YouTube at:

I recommend listening to this concert as it gives a good steer to speeds and the harmonies.

I now have another book of good tunes to play with my friends; but not just on pipes. I’ve already performed one arrangement at a gig! I recommend the book to you, whether you’re a piper or a player of other instruments as you’re bound to find something new and rewarding to play.

To purchase -

By Anon Barnard, Peter

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