Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XXXIX Can the Bagpipe Speak?
The sweet ballad of the
Three Lords and Three
Ladies of London.
THIS raises the whole question of
programme music. Can any instrument speak, in the sense of telling a
story? The old classicists were content to appeal to the feelings in
Form was everything with them. Each
piece was built up according to rule, just as a house or a ship is
built. Beethoven, in his Pastoral Symphony, was among the first
musicians of note to disregard the rules to break away from rigid
formbut he never professed to make music tell a story. He still
insisted that his music appealed only to the feelings.
Since his day, however, men have gone a
great deal farther, and profess to be able to write music up to a story.
A programme takes the place in modern music of form in the old; but
these authors take good care that the audience is supplied with the
written programmethe word storyby means of which only it is expected
to struggle bravely alongin the rear, possibly, but still keeping in
touch with the music.
Richard Strauss has gone one better
still, and insists that music can speak with an unmistakable voice, and
needs no word story. This is programme music.
It is no new claim that Strauss makes.
Long before the days of Wagner, Berlioz, or Strauss, the Highlander
foolishly made the same claim on behalf of Pipe music, and got sneered
at for his pains.
Many stories were told, and believed, in
the old days, of how the piper, in an impromptu, warned his friends of
danger; told the numbers and disposition of the enemy; pointed out the
ambush, or indicated the weak spot in the defence.
The great masters in piping, however,
never adventured beyond the classical Piobroch; never attempted to do
anything more than appeal to the feelings. With them form was
The Piobroch is built upon a plan so
definite so invariable in its formthat, given the theme, groundwork,
or urlcir any good piper with a knowledge of Pipe music, can build up
and perfect the tune.
Descriptive music, such as The Desperate
Battle, Au Daoroch Mhor, The Weighing of the Ship,where sounds and
movements are imitatedthere is in plenty ; but programme music on the
Pipe there never has been. The genius of the old masters, the
MacCrimmons, and others, recognised the limits of the Bagpipe, and
judiciously kept within these ; and so the music suited the instrument
admirably. The programme school of to-day will also sooner or later
have to acknowledge the limits of instrumentalisation, and the limits of
music, and acknowledge that the story is not within these limits.
In a very interesting article on the
orchestral concert given by Herr Richard Strauss in Edinburgh, on
December 22nd, 1902, the Scotsman asks, is the programme really
necessary, and does it not reduce the divine art to the level of the
ornamental border which often decorates the printed verses of our
Richard Strauss is really trying to
succeed at the very game in which Berlioz magnificently failed.
Berlioz, in his Episode from the Life
of an Artist,' had thrown down the gauntlet to the classicists. Here,
he said, is a story; here is a programme, and I shall write up to it.
A young artist, imaginative and sensitive, is in love, and the first
movement represents his pilgrimage of passion. In the second movement he
wanders a-field (literally) and, amidst shepherds pipes and
thunderstorms, communes with Nature. Next he is in a ball-room, watching
the dancers, and eating out his own heart. Finally, in a fit of despair,
he poisons himself with opium; but, instead of dying, he falls into a De
Quincey swoon, in which he dreams that he has killed his mistress, and
witnesses the fall of the guillotine on his own neck. Then comes a
horrible orgie of witches and demons, who dance round his coffin, and
the whole mad medley ends with a mock Dies Irce, delivered by all the
gibbering fiends of hell. All this, says Berlioz, I will say in
music. But strange and moving as the music is, no one would ever be
able to interpret it unless Berliozs own word story were before him.
The music itself may seem clever and appropriate, when joined with the programme';
without the story it is only a mass of condensed sound, alluring,
terrifying, astonishing, yet without form, and void.
This is severe criticism, but none the
less true. Programme music is a failure, and the story in music must for
ever remain untold.
Keeping always before us, then, the
limits of the Bagpipe scale, and the limits of music itself, I think it
may be said that the Bagpipe can speak as well, at least, as any other
instrument, and is understood by the Highlander better than any other,
because it has been his one instrument in the past.
For my own part, I doubt much whether any
kind of music will ever be able to tell a story unaided.
Music, telling its storya simple love
story, say to twenty experts, would receive exactly twenty different
interpretations ; and these would all differ (in the details) from the
Music can express, in a general way, the
coarser feelings of joy and sorrow, as in the Wedding March of
Mendelssohn, and the Dead March from Saul; of war and love, as in the
March of the Men of Harlech, and My Love is like a red, red Rose.
But the finer gradations of feeling, and
the ordinary events of the day, which, combined, go to make up a mans
life, can never be so clearly expressed by music alone that the average
man can read there the story as in an open book.
Under the above limitations, the Bagpipe
speaks to the Highlander with no uncertain voice.
Old associations, of course, have much to
do with this gift of being able to read a meaning into Pipe music.
The sounds which filled the childs ear
as it lay nestling in its mothers arms, and enlivened the spare moments
of his boyhoods days, and cheered his spirits when he drew his virgin
sword on the field of battle, could hardly fail to have a special
meaning for him in his old age, or to be understood of him ; but beyond
this, there is no speech in the Bagpipe.
I would close this book, which is already
too long, with a storya poor thing, but all mine own, in which,
perchance, an answer may be found to the question put at the head of
this chapter, Can the Bagpipe Speak?
One glorious afternoon in September,
1902, I stood inside the old castle of Inverlochy my daughter for
company. It was only natural that the historic pile should revive
memories of the stirring days of old, and I thought of Donald Balloch of
the Isles, with his regal ways, Ego Doncildus Rex Insnloram of Lochiel,
the dark; and Montrose, the brave boy-soldier; and Argyll, the grim, the
pusillanimous; of Ian Lorn, the Bard, and of his answer as he stood on
the battlements of the old castle with his leader, watching the battle
of Inverlochy, as it raged down by the river side.
Ian was asked by Montrose why he did not
join in the fray?
And if I did fight, and were killed
to-day, who would sing your praises to-morrow?
Was it not a good answer for the royal
bard to give? It might not sound well, coming from the lips of a coward,
but Ian Lombard though he was was a fine swordsman, and had proved his
courage in a hundred previous fights.
The whole scene rose in imagination
before my eyes as the old tune rang out, and I could see the great
soldier smile as he put the question to Ian, the question that would
have been a deadly insult to any other Highlander. Now, Montrose was the
last man in the world to hurt the Highlanders feelings, but he knew the
bravery of the man he was speaking to; moreover, his practised eye saw
that the battle was practically decided before he spoke. Argyll had
taken to his galley, and his rowers waited with oars poised ready for
flight; and the Argyll men, brave as they were, deserted by their
leader, lost heart and were already as good as beaten. So that Ians aid
was not needed when Montrose spoke, and both men knew this ; it did not
require a soldiers eye to see that Argyll was beaten. And so, when Ian
Lom, looking up into his leaders face, saw the quiet smile playing
round the beautiful mouth, and the spirit of gentle humour looking out
of that eagle eye, he jested lightly in reply, And if I did fight and
were killed to-day, who would sing your praises to-morrow?
It was in such a mood, as the above
thoughts suggested, that I took up my Pipe and played The Battle of
Inverlochy. Soon I had quite a little gathering inside the old walls
listening to my piping. First came some children from the neighbouring
cottages. These were soon joined by the workers on a farm close by ; the
milkmaid left her cows, the herd his cattle, the ploughman his team. As
I played, I could swear that other players invisible played along with
me; from every corner came a different echo, until the warm air within
the great square vibrated and danced to the measure.
When I had finished, I said to the oldest
person present: This is a fine old place; Yes, and a fine old tune
with the sound of the battle in it, was his answer.
You knew the tune, then? I asked.
That I did, he answered promptly.
I heard it out yonder, pointing to the
field by the river, and knew it in a minute.
My Pipe spoke to the listener out in the
meadow, and this ploughman, I could see by his face, got out of, or
should I say read into, the music the old story of the battle of
This is how the Pipe spoke to the
Highlanders in the old days. It is in this way that the Bagpipe voices
the feelings of the Highlander better than any other instrument, and
because of this it may be said to speak. It is the instrument of rude
wild nature, and interprets the elemental passions if I may so call
themof human nature, in a way that no modern instrument with its
refinement and niceties of scale can ever attempt.
And in the old days, when the Pipe was
the one solace of the Highlander in his leisure hours, and down in the
glen, Pipe-call answered to Pipe-call the long summer day through; and
when every clan had its own distinctive clan tunes; and when nearly
every man was a playerpiping being contagious in the Highlands in those
daysand when every tune had a history, I have no doubt that the
language of the Pipe was a verity to the old Highlander, and was
understood by him almost as well as was his mother-tonguerousing him to
a sense of danger, or lulling him into a happy security; reminding him
continually of the brave deeds of his forefathers, and thus keeping
alive within his breast a strong sense of emulation; speaking with no
uncertain voice of love and hate; of joy and sorrow; of revenge and
death; and after death, of the reunion with his forefathers, whose
spirits hovered nearwatchful, silent, sympathetic.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.