Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXII — The Chorus

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 Bagpipe.”

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 singers.

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 assassination.

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 Piobmala.

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 into “dance.”

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 century.

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 Pipe.

“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 Bagpipers.

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,

J. S.”

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 fear—defunct.

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 grass.

“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.

Captain Dalrymple 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 Captain.

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 Ireland.”

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.

Return to our Book Index Page


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.

comments powered by Disqus