A GREAT deal of idle
discussion has centred round the musical instrument called by early
English writers, the “chorus.”
What is a chorus?
The old Greek scholar
would have answered this question by saying, “The chorus is an organised
band of dancers and singers.”
The ninth century
Anglo-Saxon scribe would just as readily have answered, “The chorus is a
musical instrument used by the Britons, and called by them, Piob-mala or
While the twentieth
century musician would tell us that, “The chorus is a body of singers,
singing in concert.”
Now each of these three
answers, although differing the one from the other, would be correct,
and in refusing to recognise this shaded meaning, a good deal of
confusion and misrepresentation has been introduced into the discussion
by writers in the past.
It is the old story of a
word which has acquired different, and apparently contradictory
meanings, at various stages in its march down the centuries. And so,
when one authority tells us that it means “this” and another equally
learned authority tells us that it means “that,” both may be right, or
both may be wrong—it all depends on a date.
The story of the word
“chorus” is, in fact, the story of the Greek word, “sumphonia,” over
again. Curiously enough, too, both words at an early stage of their
history were closely connected. From the chorus came the symphony. And
both words, after many centuries of divergence, came to mean the same
thing—a musical instrument—the Bagpipe.
“Chorus,” however, no
linger means Bagpipe, and has gone through a greater number of
transformations than “sumphonia” which is still the name in Southern
Italy and Greece for the Pipe.
“Chorus” meant originally
a dance, to the accompaniment of singing. Next, a body of singers
without the dance. Then a dance, danced to instrumental music: after
many centuries, a Bagpipe; and now—back to a former meaning—a band of
The two words,
“sumphonia” and “chorus,” are almost interchangeable indeed, and were so
often used together—“Audivit sumphonicum et chorum” said the Master —
that to name the one was to suggest the other; and in history, “chorus”
might well come to mean the Bagpipe. The dance that was danced to the
Bagpipe, became the Bagpipe Dance, and after a time, the Bagpipe itself.
I know that the word has been derived from the Latin for skin, of which
the bag was made, but I prefer the origin suggested here.
We have fortunately more
than one description of the British Chorus on record, and these shew
conclusively that it was not a dance nor a crowd of singers, but that it
was a wind instrument, consisting of two reeds inserted into a bag made
from the skin of a goat, doe, gazelle, or other animal. The reed
inserted into the neck, we are told, was the blowpipe, the second reed
was the chanter, and was generally fixed into the mouth of the beast,
the head having been left attached to the skin for this purpose.
In an old drawing in the
British Museum, a copy of which I have seen, the bag is made out of an
entire pig’s skin, and the chanter comes away from the pig’s mouth.
From another old drawing
we also learn that the bag of the “chorus” stuck out in front of the
player, and was squeezed by both arms against the breast. All the older
forms of Bagpipe, indeed, were held by the players with the bag in
front, and not under the arm like the present Highland Bagpipe.
The idea of the
Pig-Bagpiper, which is so often to be seen in old pictures, and on
sculptured stones, as at Melrose Abbey, has probably been taken from a
“chorus” of this kind—the dead pig played upon, suggesting to the
sculptor, a living pig piping. When “fooling” however, minstrels often
assumed strange garbs, dressing themselves as apes, bears, pigs, etc.
Nothing, indeed, was too grotesque, in pipe or in dress, or in speech,
for die old piper, who, like his neighbours, acted the clown or the
mummer on occasion.
This “chorus,” so often
mentioned in English records, was also a Scottish instrument—one of
three— which Giraldus Cambrensis (b. 1118) found in general use among
the Scots at the time of his visit. It was also the instrument with
which King James whiled away the lagging hours on the night of his
If Ave can prove then,
that this British instrument of the ninth century was a Bagpipe, its
“introduction ” into Scotland must have taken place several centuries
earlier than the earliest date yet fixed upon by the modern antiquarian.
It will take more than
dogmatic assertion, or an antiquarian’s reputation, to explain a way the
following facts, which, to my mind at least, prove conclusively that the
Saxon "chorus” was no other than the British Bagpipe, known as the
And now for the proof.
In a Latin “Commentary on
the Scriptures,” written in the ninth century, the “chorus” is described
as a musical instrument consisting of “a single skin, with two pipes—a
single-reed Bagpipe —the description is perfectly clear, and fits no
other instrument of ancient or modern times.
In a second “Commentary
on the Bible,” written about 1320, the writer is arguing on this very
point, and he says that the word “chorus” in Psalm ch., verse 4 (Psalm
cl., verse 4 in the modern edition) —means a concert of singers, and
“not a Bagpipe The words in italics clearly shew that there was a
Bagpipe known to this writer, and to others in his day by the name of
“chorus.” The denial also shews that some previous translator had read
the word “Bagpipe” into the psalm—a translation from which our writer
very wisely differs.
Now, when one reads the
psalm carefully, it really looks as if the Psalmist, when he used the
word “chorus,” had meant a musical instrument. It is of instruments that
he is speaking. “Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet; praise Him
with the psaltery and harp; praise Him with the timbrel and chorus;
praise Him with stringed instruments and organs; praise Him upon the
high-sounding cymbals.” The French seem to have recognised this, and
have translated the word as “flute,” while we have turned the same word
I do not myself however,
for a single moment believe that the “chorus” of David, the Psalmist,
was a Bagpipe, although the word meant a Bagpipe in the ninth century.
This would be as illogical as to assert, with some, that “chorus” never
meant Bagpipe, because it now means a choir of singers.
That there may be no
mistake, however, about the fact that the word, “chorus” meant a Bagpipe
at one time, I will give you the learned commentator’s own words,
literally translated :—
“Some say,” he writes,
“that ‘chorus’ is an instrument made from a skin; and has two reeds, one
through which it is inflated, and the other through which the sound
(music) is emitted, and is called in Gal lice, chevrette.”
Now there is no ambiguity
about the above description of the “chorus”: it can mean only one thing:
but it proves also that the “chorus” of the early fourteenth century,
was one and the same instrument as the “chorus” of the ninth century :
an instrument composed of a skin (or bag) with two pipes: that it was,
in short, a Bagpipe.
The further fact that it
was called by the Gaelic peoples “chevrette” also strengthens the proof.
Because the word ‘‘chevrette" comes from chevre, a she-goat, or from
chevrette, a doe, the skin of both these animals being most commonly
used for the bag. Now Chevretter—the name given to the man who played
upon the “chevrette,” was a common name for Bagpiper in the fourteenth
In the reign of Edward
II., for example, the Exchequer Rolls shew a payment to “Jauno
Chevretter’,” or to John the Bagpiper.
This last is another link
in a chain of evidence which is, to my mind, complete, and which leaves
no doubt that the instrument called “chorus” was a Bagpipe.
It was a droneless
Bagpipe, and very primitive: the more advanced Pipe was known as the
“Drone Bagpipe,” or simply “the Drone.”
I do not deny that this
term “drone” may at times have meant a Bagpipe without a chanter: the
melody made by perforations, or vent holes in the drone itself, as we
have it in the Italian Zampogna of to-day—of this I am not quite sure.
But from ancient drawings, we learn that it generally meant an ordinary
one-drone Bagpipe. Take the two following as examples out of many, from
a period, when drawings and cuts tell us that the Pipe was a one-drone
“Forming part of King
James’s household were Jame Wedderspune Fithelar, and Jame that plays on
the drone.” In 1505, there is also mention made in the Exchequer Rolls
of a payment to the “Inglis piper with the Drone.”
If further proof is
wanted of the fact that the “chorus” was a Bagpipe, you can get it from
the pages of Dauney, where there is an argument, which proves that
Choraulesy or players on the “chorus,” and Pythaules, or players on the
Pythaulos and Utricularii, or players on the Roman Pipe, always mean
Ten years ago, I wrote to
a friend in Newcastle, to see if he could buy or borrow for me, an
African Bagpipe which had been exhibited at a meeting of some learned
society—I forget what—by Dr. Bruce, the great antiquarian of Newcastle.
I got back a letter, with
some notes on the Bagpipe taken at the meeting. The Pipe itself had gone
amissing, to my great disappointment.
The letter said :—
“May 31, 1895.
“I only got your letter
yesterday, and have had to rummage my MSS. to find the information you
ask. I perfectly remember the Bagpipes (sic) which Alderman W. H.
Richardson of Jarrow gave to Dr. Bruce. I made a full examination of
them at the time, and enclose you a copy of the notes I took.
“1 do not know what
became of them. The last time I saw them was at Backworth, at a Pipe
contest, after which we supped at Mr Forster’s, where the Doctor and I
both tried to play them, but were unsuccessful in getting notes fit to
hear, and they had an abomiyiable smell.—Yours sincerely,
The Pipe contest here
referred to, was for players on the “Northumberland Sma’ Pipes ” : a
competition which Dr. Bruce initiated, and which was carried on for
several years with considerable success, but which is now—I
Whether the supper at Mr
Forster’s, or the “ abominable smell,” had to do with the disappearance
of the “Pipe” on this famous occasion, I cannot tell, but it has not
been heard of since.
I hunted Newcastle
everywhere for the Pipe on three or four separate occasions, but was
always unsuccessful in my search.
The notes kindly sent me
I give below :—
“Alderman W. H.
Richardson, of Springwell Paper Mills, Jarrow, presented to Dr. Bruce a
set of African Bagpipes which he had purchased from a band of itinerant
negro musicians when on a journey about Oran, in Africa, for esparto
“I had the opportunity of
examining and trying them, and found that the bag was made of the skin
of a doe gazelle, which had been cured with castor oil, and had a most
rancid smell. The tail hole and the skin of the hind leg's had been
turned inside and fastened up, the two udders left untouched. A small
part of the skin of the fore legs had been left, and the ends closed by
affixing the extremities of the gazelle’s horns therein, between which
was an aperture for the blow-pipe, the latter made from the thigh bone
of a flamingo. The end of the neck was closed by a wooden patrass with
two holes, into which was inserted two reeds, each about five inches
long, with four holes each.
“The reeds played in
unison, and as near as could be were F, G, A, or B b and C of our scale.
The ends of the reeds had portions of a gazelle horn for the bell, and
were ornamented with beads, small coins, brass chain, a shirt button,
and a small leather case, empty then, but supposed to have held a charm,
which would be probably a verse of the ‘ Koran.’”
Four weeks ago, while
working up the subject of this chapter, I was fortunate enough to
acquire two sets of African or Egyptian Bagpipes. The larger of the two
faces this page, and you can compare it with the clear description given
above of the lost Newcastle set.
At the same time the
notes might well stand for a word-picture of the old British “ chorus,”
the instrument which we have just discussed, and which history tells us
was in common use in the early centuries throughout Great Britain.
In some parts of Africa
the negro plays his Bagpipe in a peculiar fashion. He plays it while
lying full length on the ground, with the bag under his stomach.
He utilises the weight of
his body to force the wind through the chanter. This leaves both hands
free to manipulate the reeds, and in this he has an advantage over the
old piper of the “ chorus,” whose hands must have been much hampered by
the bag, which stuck out in front.
African or Egyptian Bagpipe
The bag made from the entire skin of some small animal ; consisting of a
blow-pipe and double bdl-mouthed chanter. It is decorated with two rows
of coloured beads.
Hay—now, I hope, Major, or Colonel Hay—who, at one time, was Adjutant to
the 4th V.B. Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, once promised to get me
a set of African Bagpipes. He learned that the Africans had a Pipe, when
out in the bush on a six weeks’ shooting expedition with a friend. '
One hot, sultry evening,
the two friends were seated, one on each side of their tent, tired of
each other’s company for the time being.
Suddenly both got up, and
made a simultaneous rush for the bush.
This display of energy
was called forth by the sound of the Bagpipe in the distance.
Surely there must be some
Scotsman at hand; and the sight of a new face, and the sound of a new
voice, was yearned for at that moment by the two friends.
But alas ! when they got
to a small clearing in the midst of the forest, from whence proceeded
the welcome sounds, there was nothing but, as the Captain put it, “A
dirty nigger lying on his belly on a dirty pigskin, and grinding forth
unintelligible noises, not unlike the real thing at a distance.”
“If I had known you
collected Bagpipes,” he added, “I would have secured that one for you.
But I am going back to Africa in a year or two, and I will get you a
set, although I have to shoot the nigger.”
To which I have only to
add, that neither of the sets in my possession has come from the gallant
This chapter was written
early in 1905, and I believed that the subject, so far as I was
concerned, was finished; but in the autumn of 1906 I was called suddenly
to Ireland, and picked up some fresh information there.
Mr Kennedy, of Baronrath,
Straffan, near Dublin, at whose house I stayed for a few days, on
learning that I was interested in the Irish Bagpipe, kindly shewed me an
article on Irish music and musical instruments—an eighteenth century
article, written by one Ed. Ledwick, LL.D., author of a voluminous work
(which quickly went through two editions) called “The Antiquities of
This article is
interesting, and is worth quoting from if only for its clear description
of the Irish Pipe. But it is also strongly confirmatory of the above
views on the “chorus,” and it is the work of a scholar.
The learned Doctor opens
up in no unhesitating fashion, thus :—
“The Piobmala or
Bagpipes, the ‘chorus’ of the Latin writers of the Middle Ages, do not
appear of great antiquity in this island. Cambrensis does not mention
them among the Irish musical instruments ; though he asserts that both
the Welsh and Scots had them.
“The ‘ chorus,’ so
denominated by the Latins from having the bag" of skin, seems to be a
very ancient instrument. It was probably introduced into Britain by the
Romans, and among the Saxons by the Britons. In England it retained its
original form and power to the eleventh or twelfth centuries. In
subsequent ages it received several improvements, a ‘chorus’ was added,
consisting of two side drones, in which state it still remains among the
Highland Scots, and in this state it probably was introduced into
Ireland, some time prior to the fourteenth century; for we find it is a
martial musical instrument of the Irish kerns, or infantry in the reign
of Edward III,, and as such continued down to the sixteenth century.
Having obtained this instrument from Britain, the Irish retained its
original name, and called it Piobmala, or Bagpipe. It had the loud,
shrill tone of the present Highland Pipes, being constructed on the
ancient musical scale.
“The chanter had seven
ventages as at present. The lower sounded the lower D in the treble, and
the upper C. The first drone was in unison to E, the second hole in the
chanter, and the large drone an octave below it. This seems to have been
the state of the Bagpipes throughout the British Islands to the close of
the sixteenth century, when considerable improvements were made, by
taking the pipe from the mouth and causing the bag to be filled by a
small pair of bellows on compression by the elbow. This form, Mr Walker
(Hist. Mem. of the Irish Bards), asserts they received from the Irish,
by whom they were no longer denominated Piob-mala, but Cuislean or
Cuisleagh-Cuil, i.e., the Elbow Pipes, or Elbow Music. Under this
denomination they still remain among the people, and are at present much
improved, having no longer the loud martial sound of the Erse Piobmalu,
but more resembling a flute, and are reduced to the modern scale. . .
Their component parts in the Irish language are the Bolgov Bag; the
Bollogna Cuisli or Bellows; the Feadaiti or Pipes; and the Anan or
Drones, so denominated from their resemblance to horns, whence anan
sometimes in Irish signifies the Base in music.