Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter V The Critics and the Bagpipe
THE Humourist does not
always shine as a wit when poking fun at the Bagpipe, but he is as a
There is nothing
spiteful; nothing giving just cause for offence, in the allusions to
the Bagpipe just quoted.
The modern critic,
however, stands on a different platform in this respect from the wit.
The judge is lost in the carper or faultfinder. The critic in short
becomes the finic, and in his findings there is none of that Mercy that
boasteth over judgment.
He seems to me always to
approach his subject in an atrabilious frame of mind. He is at once, and
strongly antagonistic. The Bagpipe acts on him like the proverbial red
rag on the bull. Anger sits at his nostrils. He lays about him like a
man with a sledge-hammer ; caring for nothing, not even for truth, so
long as he can strike and wound and bruise.
And, as might be
suspected, in his criticisms good-nature and humour are both conspicuous
by their absence.
Here are a few choice
specimens, culled at random, from these flowers of speech! An
instrument of torture, writes one; As vile an instrument as it is
possible to conceive, writes another; A sorry instrument, capable only
of making an intolerable noise, says a third; A barbarous instrument,
harsh and untunable, writes a fourth; A squeeling pig in a poke, and
A portable screech owl. These last two make up a wandering Jews
genial contribution to the criticism of the carpers.
This is mud-throwing
quite worthy of Mr T. W. Crossland at his best, but it is not fair
criticism. It is Billingsgate pure and simple.
It is the voice of
unreason and querulous discontent. This is the sort of criticism that
suggested once to Disraeli the famous saying : You know who the
critics are. The men who have failed in literature and art. And the
failures are as a rule a discontented and a supercilious lot.
Let us now take and
examine for curiositys sake one of those typical magazine articles on
the Bagpipe, from the pen of the musical expert, which crop up
The critic on this
occasion is one Mr John Storer (Mus. Doc.). He it is who called the Pipe
in his own elegant way An instrument of torture. Surely, A Daniel
come to judgment! Can we expect fair play for the Bagpipe from a judge
who condemns before the case is well begun? It is a little difficult to
imagine so: but let us see. Mr Storer, having given his readers a taste
of his pretty wit in these words, the Bagpipe is an instrument of
torture, proceeds gravely to his task of critic,Heaven save the mark!
I waded through what
turned out to be a dry and barren rigmaroleI do not wish to be
disrespectful, but no other word is so truthfully expressive of the
articlehoping, alas in vain, to pick up some crumbs of knowledge from
this experts lore.
He is powerful in gibes
and flouts and jeers, but in nothing else. His knowledge of the subject
is surely of the flimsiest ! His facts are travesties of truth.
Although to most
cultivated ears, he says, The Bagpipe is not a thing of pleasure or
joy, it is nevertheless a curious fact that it has a fascination for
those who have little or no ear for the music of any other instrument,
and no less a man that Dr Johnson, whose musical knowledge was in his
own words limited to being able to distinguish the sound of a drum from
that of a trumpet, and a Bagpipe from that of a guitar, seemed
nevertheless to take pleasure in the tones of a Bagpipe. He loved to
stand with his ear close to the big drone. The picture thus conjured up
of the great lexicographer is, to say the least of it, most diverting ;
certainly there is no accounting for taste.
This is the sort of
rubbish which a certain type of musical critic palms off as criticism
upon an unsuspecting public.
Now, bad taste, which is
the taste Mr Storer refers to here, and which he illustrates by his
article, is easily accounted for. It is generally due to ignorance. Mr
Storer also says it is a curious fact that the Bagpipe has a fascination
for those who have no ear for music.
Where and when did Mr
Storer learn this fact? Did he first prove it for himself before he gave
it to the world?
Did he take a census of
the many thousands who love the Bagpipe? And then, did he test their
If not, what of his
curious fact? He must have taken it on trust from some Highland
humourist, who was perhaps coaching him on the subject before he wrote
his article, or it is but the figment of his own brain. The latter is,
in my opinion, the more likely hypothesis of the two.
Mr Storers reasoning,
however, is no sounder than his fact, when we come to examine it, and
summed up in a nutshell it amounts to this :
Dr Johnson had no ear for
Dr Johnson loved the
All who love the Bagpipe
have no ear for music.
The Bagpipe is an
instrument of torture ; Therefore No one with an ear for music loves
A great many people love
A great many people have
no ear for music.
Now, as a matter of fact,
within most peoples knowledge the Bagpipe is not an instrument of
torture when well played any more than is the fife, or flute, or
fiddle, or organ! And it is simply not true to say that only persons
with little or no ear enjoy its music.
We have a good example in
the Unspeakable Scot," of how a whole nation may be traduced by a
writer who snaps his fingers at truth, and makes facts to suit himself.
In the same way to
ridicule any musical instrument is an easy matter.
Take for example that
prince of instruments, the fiddle. We all know what a delight it is in
the hands of a Sarasate playing on a peerless Stradivarius. But
Sarasates are as rare as great pipers, and a Strad is not in every
fiddlers hand: so if we are to judge the violin fairly, some allowance
must be made for the indifferent player, and the cheap badly-made
The caterwaulings of the
budding violinist, or the unmusical scrapings on the catgut of the
drunken street fiddler are no doubt disagreeable, and lend themselves to
The fiddle in such hands
may be even more painful to the cultivated ear than Mr Storers
London Bagpipes ; but no fair-minded critic would on this account call
the fiddle an instrument of torture.
It seems, however,
impossible for a certain class of critics to review the Bagpipe in an
Tuning up the
Northumbrian Small Pipe of Six Reeds.
Even Mr W. Chappell
in that otherwise delightful book of his, Popular Music of the Olden
Times, cannot resist having a quiet fling at it in passing.
Formerly, he says, the
Bagpipe was in use among all the lower classes in England, although
happily confined to the North. From which remark we may infer that Mr
Chappell, the Englishman, would willingly see it consigned not only to
the North, but to the back of the North Pole as well, or, in fact,
kicked over the edge of the world into everlasting perdition, if that
Take heed of critics,
said Dekker, they bite, like fish, at anything. And so it is with
musical critics, when they get on this subject; they both bark and bite
at the Bagpipe. The above statement by Mr Chappell might well lead the
incautious reader to think that the Bagpipe was confined to the lower
orders in England.
This is not the case,
however. It was patronised by Royalty from remotest times. The early
kings of England kept Pipers, and on one occasion at least, the Kingas
the exchequer rolls showpaid for his Pipers musical training, and sent
him, at his own expense, to visit the famous Continental schools. It was
also a general favourite at one time with the upper classes, as well as
with the common people.
But it has been so long
silent in the South that there is some excuse for the Englishman who,
after listening to and enjoying a Highland pibroch, asked the piper to
play it over again in English. There is no excuse, however, for the
learned ignorance which some musicians display when writing on this
Dr. Storer and Mr
Chappell are both Englishmen, I presume, and are probably, on this
account, unacquainted with the peculiar and old-fashioned scale of the
chanter which the piper has to contend with.
They cannot surely have
heard any of the great masters play.
At all events they seem
to have taken their ideas of pipe music from the incoherent ramblings of
the London street piper, the Whitechapel Highlander? a creature with
nothing Highland in him, unless it be the whisky that is oozing out of
every pore of his dirty body?a huge sham of a Highlander who takes the
ill-tuned, ill-made affair, called by courtesy a Bagpipe, out of the
pawnshop, along with his kilt, every Monday morning, and with hideous
noises, kills the quiet places, which are already all too few in our
great cities. I readily acknowledge that this class of piper is beyond
the pale, and is a fit subject for ridicule, if any critic care to stoop
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