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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXXIX — Can the Bagpipe Speak?

“The sweet ballad of the Lincolnshire Bagpipes.’'—(1590).

“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 their works.

“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 “form”—but 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 programme—the word story—by means of which only it is expected to struggle bravely along—in 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 everything.

The Piobroch is built upon a plan so definite— so invariable in its form—that, 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 imitated—there 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 exquisite poets.

“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 Berlioz’s 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 story—a simple love story, say —to twenty experts, would receive exactly twenty different interpretations ; and these would all differ (in the details) from the intended story.

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 man’s 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 child’s ear as it lay nestling in its mother’s arms, and enlivened the spare moments of his boyhood’s 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 story—“a 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 Lom—bard 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 Ian’s aid was not needed when Montrose spoke, and both men knew this ; it did not require a soldier’s eye to see that Argyll was beaten. And so, when Ian Lom, looking up into his leader’s 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 Inverlochy.

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 them—of 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 player—piping being contagious in the Highlands in those days—and 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-tongue—rousing 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 near—watchful, silent, sympathetic.


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