Ross & Cromarty War Memorials

 

PIOBAIREACHD
&
Canntaireachd

What is Piobaireachd
Let me say, in my biased opinion, that piobaireachd is one of the world's oldest, and greatest, music forms. I say this from a considerable background in the 'classical' world; also, as a piobaireachd-playing piper of modest talent. But what of the origins of the both the pipe and piobaireachd. On the pipe I believe we (Highland Region) got the pipe from the Roman Army, as did most of Europe. The structure of modern bag-pipes is well-enough known. What of its musical characteristics. Much of its music is defined by its two lowest notes - low G and low A. Many of its tunes are in the pentatonic scales of G and A, with some others in D. See below for more on that. On piobaireachd, which is simply the gaelic word for 'piping', and unique to Scotland, is now practiced world-wide. It was formalised by Donald Mor MacCrimmon in Skye who may have got the idea from harp music in the late 1500s. He adapted and refined the 'piobearchd' of the day which was probably just a rudimentary form of folk music until then. Before that, there is weak historical evidence for piobaireachd at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 and even back into the 1300s where the modern piobaireachd 'The Desperate Battle' is thought to refer to the Battle of the North Inch of Perth in 1396. I remember reading about some form of piping at Bannockburn in 1314. Up until the 1400s, the national instrument of Scotland had been the harp, but this changed to the bagpipe about that time. That was when the Irish took up the harp, and there is archaeological evidence in Ross-shire for that. But on to piobaireachd and may I repeat my opening sentence.

Firstly, it has structure
This is what the MacCrimmonds did - gave it a framework. Basically, that frame is a theme, called the ground (urlar in gaelic), followed by a series of variations. These become more and more elaborate by being ornamented first by just one grace note, then two, three, then four which has the name of Taorluath, and lastly the Crunluath which is a structure of five to seven grace notes. Some piobaireachd include a further even more ornate movement called a 'Crunluath a Mach' or a 'going out crunluath'. By modern standards this is not as complex as that description implies, because pipe music is based on a pentatonic scale (five notes), not the modern octave. For example, the pentatonic scale of G would be [G, A, B, D, E, high G], and A is [A, B, C, E, F, high A] which is that of the 'Lament for Mary MacLeod' (below). Here is the ground of that piobaireachd which may well be the most popular of all. Listen to 'III VAR I: DOUBLING' which has been said to rival anything in the classical repertoire. I agree with that - what do you think?

Next is the complete tune - takes 14 minutes. Listen for the first variation, then its doubling which has been said (above) as rivalling anything in the clasical reportoire. At the end is a wonderful rendering of the beautifully rippling crunluath and finally the recapitulation (first line of the urlar again).



The illustration below shows the urlar, first variation, and doubling of 'Mary MacLeod'.

Single, unadorned notes are not common in piping. Most are 'ornamented' by what are called 'grace notes' which precede them, and are usually shown as demisemi-quavers. The number of such notes can vary from one, to as many as seven in a 'crunluath'. The illustration below shows both a taorluath and a crunluath. (See Acknowledgement 6 for source and follow-up.)

It is traditional to play piobaireachd from memory which is all the more remarkable in a 30 minute complex tune such as 'Lament for the Harp Tree'. There is an amusing tale about the title of that tune. The original title may have been 'Key' and not 'Tree'. The change may have occurred because a lewd and ribald gaelic peom came out ('') which mocked 'a lost harp key'.

Sometimes the urlar is simple, sometimes quite complex, and the same goes for the variations. Here is an example from one of my favourites, 'His Father's Lament for Donald Mackenzie', a Ross-shire tune from Munlochy, by the way, and it has a monument. Although not a perfect recording see and listen to the whole video, or part of it here. Remember, to come back here, you must click the curly (C-shaped) figure at the bottom of the screen.

What is Canntaireachd
Literaly 'chanting' and pronounced as 'canterich'. It is a system of non-lexical vocables which define piobaireachd in a form which can be written or spoken while maintaining the precision normally offered only by written music. Although described as 'chant' as may be apparent from the word itself, it is much more than that. The system has the capacity to tell us not only which note to play, but also how to play it, that is, how the note is ornamented. However, it does not indicate how fast the tune is to be played which comes from the vocaliser or performer. This may be how ancient musicians passed on their tunes before the advent of printing. The 'printed word' cannot do what canntaireachd does without considerable elaboration. See this illustration to see how the system is applied. For an excellent treatise on Canntaireachd see Acknowledgements 8 and 11 for the Lament for the Old Sword excerpt.

It is fitting to end this brief introduction with some spoken/sung canntaireachd by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE, and what better than my memory of him with part of his tutorial (see Acknowledgements 11) on 'The Lament for the Old Sword'.



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