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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXIV — The Classics and the Bagpipe


IN that grandest of all Classics, the Bible, we find A the earliest historical reference to the Bagpipe.

The Bagpipe is mentioned in both the Old and the New Testaments, under the titles of Sumponyah and Sumphonias respectively—the accent being upon the y and the u.

'ZviuKpoovla—a Greek word which had been in use for nearly three hundred years before the advent of the Bagpipe in Greece, and which meant harmony—was the name which the Greeks gave to the little Shepherd’s Pipe when they had enlarged it, and made various improvements upon it, and fashioned it to their own mind.

These improvements were so considerable, and altered the tone, and, indeed, the whole complexion of the little Pipe so completely, that they entitled the makers to call the instrument thus transformed by a Greek name, although they were only improvers and not the inventors of the Bagpipe: and in this way the diminutive Pipos became the great Sumphonta.

Nor were the Greeks selfishly disposed to keep the knowledge of the new instrument to themselves, but on the contrary, they freely spread its fame abroad, and so brought the hitherto little-known Bagpipe into repute among the different peoples with whom they came in contact. And if philology be at all a safe guide, they introduced it into Syria, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, and the countries to the east and south-east of the Holy Land ; for in those different countries, in the second and first centuries B.C., we find it always called by its Greek name of Sumphonici.

The Greeks then, it must be acknowledged, were great disseminators of the Bagpipe, but this is not equivalent to saying, as some writers quite recently have said, that the Greeks invented the Bagpipe, and that Arcadia was its home. The Greeks were receivers, before they became givers. Civilisation and all that this term implies—Celtic music, for example, and the different arts and sciences in their rude and primitive forms—first flowed into Greece, ere she gave the world its own back again, disguised, it is true, often beyond recognition in its new and beautiful Greek dress.

In short, these gifts from the outside became ennobled and purified in their passage through the alembic of the Greek mind, and the delighted nations received their own once more, but enhanced in value a thousandfold.

In this way the Bagpipe, although only an adopted instrument, fared well at the hands of the Greek. The simple single-reeded Shepherd’s Pipe, with its scale of three or four notes, and its bag made of the stomach or bladder of a goat,—the original Piob of the Celt—became the many-sounding, many-reeded powerful Sumphonia of the Greek, with a whole goatskin for a bag. This enlarged Pipe, which soon became the favourite instrument of priests and kings, the Greeks endowed with a surpassing vitality, so that it has survived the choppings and changes of time for two thousand years and more, and we can see it to-day in all its pristine glory, perambulating our streets and alleys, still a very real live symphony, voicing for us in these degenerate days—but only very occasionally, I grieve to say—the old Greek music.

This Bagpipe, a fine specimen of which is shewn in the photograph opposite, and which is called by the Italians in the south of Italy Zampogna—the old Greek word, but slightly altered—is better known as the Calabrian Shepherd’s Pipe. The set in the photograph was unearthed—after a good deal of trouble— in Rome some eight or nine years ago, and presented to me by a Falkirk friend, and is said to be very old. The drones were crumbling into dust when I first got them, but a liberal application of oil and eucalyptus checked further decay. Its neighbour is said to be in the Oxford Museum.

The ancient Greek Sumphonia, then, was a Drone Bagpipe in the strictest sense of the word. It was simply a collection of drones of different lengths— several of them pierced with holes like a chanter—in harmony with each other, and inserted into an airtight bag ; the chanter when present being a separate entity. When the chanter-player was absent, the real piper droned along pleasantly by himself. This ancient form of Drone Pipe is still to be seen and heard in Southern Italy, in Sicily, and in Greece; and nearly every summer our own country is visited by one or more bands of strolling Italian pijferari, as these pipers are called. The photograph opposite is one which I took in front of my own house. It shews a characteristic group of these Italian performers, and also shews their method of playing upon the Zampogna. The chanter is in the hands of the pompous-looking individual on the extreme left of the picture, and next to him is the zampognatore, or piper proper. Notice the enormous size of the drones; they are the largest that I have ever seen, but in spite of this they gave forth low soft music. The woman with the tambourine, and the little rogue with the bird-cage, are unnecessary accidentals.

I took a photograph of another group of Italian pipers some weeks earlier than the one shewn here. It was to complete a series of magic-lantern slides which I was anxious to shew next evening at a Bagpipe lecture. Being in a hurry, I sent the film to be developed by my daughter, knowing that she would do it quicker than the average photographer, and set off hopefully on my afternoon’s round. When I got back in the evening, all impatient to know the result, the first question I put was, “Has Nelly done my pipers?”

“There is a note from Nelly: it has just come: you can read it! ” said my wife. And what I read, with sinking heart and falling face, was this—

“Dear mother,—Break it gently to father. He has drowned his pipers.” I read no further, but turned to the picture. The explanation of the phenomenon flashed upon me in a moment. Taking sea-waves in Tiree the week before, I had omitted to turn off the last film, and there, in the midst of the angry waters, with nothing but their heads shewing through the salt sea-spray, the poor pifferciri looked out at me with reproachful eyes. Sure enough, I had drowned my pipers. But to return to the Greek Bagpipe ! The chanter, which still remains divorced from the drones, has a much wider range of notes now than it had in days gone by. This is partly due to a peculiar method the player has got of pinching the reed with his lips when playing, and partly due to the addition of extra notes ; and although it has very little music of its own, and that little of a very ancient order, the extended scale unfortunately lends itself to all kinds of modern airs, which are accordingly played upon it by these strolling players with great vigour, to the inglorious accompaniment of tambourine, triangle, cymbal, and drum, and to the utter disgust of all genuine lovers of the Bagpipe. But as to the thing itself—the Sumphonia !—modern improvements have passed it by, leaving it untouched and primitive as when it was played upon before the golden image set up by the great King Nebuchadnezzar, and when at its call the princes and the mighty of the land bowed down and worshipped.


Italian Pifkerari.

As a good deal of misapprehension has arisen over the meaning of the word Sumphonia—a misapprehension which has acted prejudicially in the past to the claims of the Bagpipe — a few words of explanation may not be thought amiss at this stage.

Sumphonia is first met with in Plato (b 429 B.C.), where it means harmony, or symphony. For over two hundred years it retained this meaning. The harmony might be one of voices, or of instruments, or of a combination of these two. But about the end of the third, or beginning of the second century, B.C., the word came to mean a specific musical instrument—the Bagpipe ; it being the thing which produced the harmony; and this latter meaning it has ever since retained.

Polybius, who flourished exactly one hundred years after Theocritus, is the first writer next to Daniel to use the word in its new meaning. To those classical scholars who did not recognise when the change took place, or did not perceive that the change was a permanent one, the word became a stumbling-block, and so arose those misconceptions in the Bible and elsewhere which have gathered round Sumphonia. In this way Sumponyah in Daniel iii. 5 (which is just the Greek word for Bagpipe transcribed into Aramaic) was translated dulcimer—a stringed instrument. “To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer”—i.e., Bagpipe—“and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up.”

There was some excuse for the old divines going astray on this occasion, because when the Bible was first translated, the Book of Daniel was supposed to have been written in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over Babylon some six hundred years before the Christian era, and at that time if the word Sumphonia existed at all, which is more than doubtful, it did not mean a musical instrument, and could not therefore be the Bagpipe.

But the context shewed those old divines that a complex instrument of some sort was intended, and taking the first meaning of the word,—a concord of sounds—what instrument was more likely to be meant than a many-stringed instrument like the dulcimer, which gave to the sweep of the fingers or to the tappings of the plectrum a harmonious combination of sounds?

It was a very good guess on the part of the old translators, but it was nothing more than a guess, and one which we, to-day, know to have been misleading.

All classical scholars are now, however, agreed that the Book of Daniel was not written for at least three hundred years after the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, and this knowledge, which was not available to the earlier critics, has cleared up many dark problems in the book, including the true meaning of the word Sumponyah. It is quite incomprehensible to me why, under these circumstances, the translators of the revised Bible should have left the word duicimer in the text, and only timorously inserted “or Bagpipe” in the margin.

Now, arguing from this word alone, and seeing that it is a Greek word, which only came into use some one hundred and fifty years after Nebuchadnezzar’s time; and that it was first used by the Greeks in the sense of Bagpipe about 170 B.C., I am at one with those Biblical scholars who believe the Book of Daniel to have been written—in part at least during the reign of Antiochus (175-168 B.C.), and, in corroboration of this view I would point out that a large part of Daniel is devoted to an account of the Syrian monarch and his doings,—he is the “Little Horn” in the book—and it is in connection with this same Antiochus, King of Syria, that Polybius first mentions the Bagpipe. Polybius thus divides the honour with Daniel of being one of the two first writers to mention the “Pipes” in history, and both give it the same title of Sumphonia, which shews that the Jews were familiar with the Greek Bagpipe in very early times. It is also more than probable that Antiochus, who was a great propagator of everything Greek, first introduced the Pipe into Palestine.

Now this Antiochus was a grevious thorn in the side of the Jewish nation, and there is no doubt that he treated it badly on more than one occasion. The Jews could only retaliate upon him by giving him a bad character, which they accordingly did. In spite of this bad character, which has stuck to him ever since, the king was a strong man in many ways, and a good ruler over his own people. He was also a good soldier, and a man of refined tastes, and energetic to his finger tips. He was, however, an undoubted mischief-maker: a genius run to seed, and his prototype is to be seen to-day in the person of a very high and mighty European potentate who is also a constant “thorn in the flesh” to his neighbours.

Epiphanes, he called himself, or God manifest. “Yea, he magnified himself even to the Prince of the host”; but his contemporaries called him Epimanes, or the madman, playing in Greek fashion upon the word Epiphanes.

Now in reading Polybius, one is left in doubt as to whether the Syrian monarch did not himself play upon the Bagpipe, as well as keep pipers. The Bagpipe which his piper proper played upon was a Drone Pipe, exactly like the present Greek and Calabrian Pipe, and a second player blew the chanter. This much we learn from one passage, where we are told that the king was in the habit of stealing out at night with his pipers, and if he came upon a band of young men enjoying themselves in a quiet place, he would creep near them, unseen, and with a sudden blast upon “the chanter and Bagpipe,” so startle them that they fled as if the devil were behind them. Which latter statement also points to the fact that the Bagpipe Avas of very recent introduction into Syria, and but little known as yet among the people.

In another passage of his book, Polybius tells us that Antiochus danced to the music of the “Pipes.”

Antiochus, you will perhaps remember, had established games at Daphne, on a scale of unparalleled magnificence, so as to eclipse the world-famed Roman games held in Macedonia; and on this occasion, the ceremonies were opened by a procession headed by the king in person, which took a whole day to pass a fixed point, and which even to-day beggars description in its magnificence.

It was during this festival, which lasted thirty days, and at one of the costly banquets given nightly by the king,—and when men had well drunken—that the incident about to be related occurred. I will give it in the words of Polybius, as translated by Shuck-burgh, who, clever scholar and great authority though he be, misses the meaning of the Greek word Suenphonia.

“And when the festivities had gone on for a long time, and a good many of the guests had departed, the king was carried in by the mummers, completely shrouded in a robe, and laid upon the ground as though he were one of the actors. Then at the signal given by the music”—he leapt up, stripped, and began to dance with the jesters, so that all the guests were scandalised and retired. In fact, every one who attended the festival, when they saw the extraordinary wealth displayed at it, the arrangements made in the processions and games,”—all conducted by the king in person— “and the scale of splendour on which the whole was managed, were struck with amazement and wonder both at the king, and the greatness of his kingdom ; but when they fixed their eyes on the man himself,”— stripped!—“and the contemptible conduct to which he condescended, they could scarcely believe that so much excellence and baseness could exist in one and the same breast.”

So much for Antiochus and his “ Pipes.”

Mentioned once in the Old Testament, the Bagpipe is also once mentioned in the New Testament. This occurs in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Now the Master always illustrated His object lessons from the daily life around. His illustrations, which were addressed to the poor and the illiterate, commended themselves to the simplest intelligence, and were forcible in proportion to their simplicity. The very titles of these parables shew this. We have, for example, the parable of the Sower and the Seed ; the parable of the Lost Sheep ; of the Unjust Steward ; of the Marriage Feast; of the Prodigal Son. He spoke of things which were familiar to His hearers: of things which were being enacted daily under their very eyes; and for this reason any inaccuracies would at once be detected by His audience. When, therefore, He introduces the Bagpipe and the chorus or dance as the outward signs of the joy felt over the return of the prodigal, we may take it that the Bagpipe and the dance in conjunction were well known to the common people among the Jews of Christ’s time : a fact which has been boldly denied by more than one writer. Those responsible for the revised edition of the Bible, which I do not wonder has “fallen flat,” have here again failed—it seems to me—to do their duty. They have translated the words, as they read in the Latin, “andivet symphoeiiam et chorum,” into the emasculate sentence, “and he heard music and dancing,” when it should have been “and he heard the Bagpipe and dancing.” Not as a scholar—which I do not profess to be—but as a lover of fairplay, and a Highlander who has some regard for this old and “semi-barbarous” instrument, I must enter my protest here, and assert that the Bagpipe deserves better recognition in the future from critics and translators than it has had vouchsafed to it in the past.

It should no longer be entirely slurred over in the New Testament, or marked only by a marginal reference in the Old ; and Greek scholars should recognise by now, that Sumphonia in the pages of Polybius, means a musical instrument, and only one musical instrument, the Bagpipe.


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