0.01 per cent bagpipe chanter?

The violin playing of Norman MacCaig, Dolmetsch & Geminiani


On Wednesday night I attended a fascinating talk given by Stuart Eydmann on the prequel to the folk music revival in Scotland (as part of the RMA colloquia at Glasgow Uni). Stuart’s work delves into some unexplored threads somewhat outside the received wisdom of Hamish Henderson and others, and he’s discovered a number of unsung heroes, including the poet Norman MacCaig. The discovery of a photo of MacCaig playing fiddle led Stuart to search the School of Scottish Studies for archival recordings, locating a recording of MacCaig’s fiddle playing made in the 1950s, wrongly labelled as being performed on ‘chanter’, as well as another recording made by Alan Lomax in Edinburgh in 1951 (you can listen this one online here).

This has fired my imagination for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is MacCaig’s rather individual, uncompromising style and his adoption of Highland bagpipe music – in repertoire, ornaments and temperament. As Stuart pointed out, MacCaig’s style is somewhat different in character to the (very beautiful), but also more violinistic piobaireachd of Bonnie Rideout and others which have a closer relationship with 18th-century violin pibroch sources (such as this one from 1740).

But what really got me thinking was the mistaken label of ‘chanter’, which reminded me of Robert Donington’s description of the baroque violin playing of Arnold Dolmetsch – one of the pioneers of the early music movement in the early 20th century, which itself has overlap with the folk music revival.

‘Dolmetsch’s basic tone on the violin was of a more fiery colouring and a less refined texture than we generally associate with this most versatile of instruments (almost as if 0.01 per cent of bagpipe chanter had got blended in). He played more into the string, and with a more slowly moving bow, than is general nowadays. His accentuation was almost entirely of the crisp variety (sharp attack, often preceded by silence of articulation) rather than of the massive variety (by arm- weight and pressure). His cantabile was exquisitely sustained; but the rest of his playing was highly articulated. Not only were the expressive silences numerous; notes not separated by silences were kept articulated by an incisive little bite of the bow-hair on (not off) the string. The result was piquant and cleanly-etched; it combined intoxicating lightness with solid strength and virility. It was at once vital and relaxed.’

[Robert Donington, ‘The Interpretation of Early Music’ (London, 1963) p465]

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Elements of this match up with descriptions of the playing style of 17th and 18th-century violinists: Francesco Geminiani described Corelli’s playing tone as ‘firm and even’, ‘resembling a sweet trumpet’. In his own treatise of 1749, Geminiani stresses the use of silence, both in terms of a crisp articulation in allegro passages, and in beginning long, arching notes with silence, before a mezza di voce (swelling on the same note).

MacCaig’s fiddle style (at least in the one recording I’ve heard) has the more constant sound of the pipes, but there is also overlap with the Dolmetsch description: playing into the string, with a slow bow, and crisp accentuation (made both by sharp attack and ornamentation) on the string. The element of ‘silence’ doesn’t really apply – the idea here is imitating the more constant sustain of the bagpipes, with accentuation made through ornamentation.

These performers are obviously separated both in terms of period and the style of music they were performing, so what’s the point I’m trying to make here? I guess I’m both pointing out the overlap between these three descriptions (the chanter, or Corelli’s ‘sweet trumpet’) and the need to consider different sound worlds in my own exploration of repertoire from Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. The performing style of Italian violinists was known in Scotland in the 18th-century, with many resident and visiting Italian performers (including Geminiani, who visited Scotland in 1760) and with local performer-composers fluent in the style. But this existed side-by-side with localised musical traditions (including lowland and highland pipe music, harp music, dance, variation and song idioms). There was a great deal of interaction, but many communities must have been somewhat cut off from developments in Edinburgh; in 1703, Martin Martin reported 18 inhabitants on Lewis, who could play violin ‘pretty well without being taught’.

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Local traditions must also have influenced some of the ways Italianate music was performed in Scotland. In 1760, Joseph MacDonald described (admittedly in quite a derogatory manner) a style of performing music by Corelli, Festing and Handel on the Lowland pipes, complete with drones, and cuttings (ornaments) from highland bagpipe music. I wonder about the elderly Geminiani’s reaction to this style if he experienced it during his 1760 visit to Edinburgh.

‘…they imitate Scots Tunes & Minuets &c & Some Italian Musick, while they have nothing for another part but their Drones … Whilst they play this Scots or Italian Composition with Pipe Drones for different Parts they must Cut & divide the Notes in a way that destroys both the taste & style of the Composition – viz by Pipe Cuttings…’

[Joseph MacDonald, A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe (c.1760). Edinburgh University Library, MS La.III.804; Available online here]

More on performance practice in my next post I think, but one of the aspects I’m interested in is collaboration between musicians with a background in ‘historically-informed performance practice’ and traditional performers, and the different reactions and approaches to performing on period instruments and working with early sources. This is of course the inspiration behind the Nathaniel Gow Dance Band project with Concerto Caledonia, which will return on February 11th for a performance and album launch in Café Oto.


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