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.


Nathaniel Gow Dance Band

Having just been awarded funding from the SGSAH to set up a PhD training workshop on research blogging in the arts and humanities, I think it’s about time I started posting in this blog! Expect to see more regular posting over the next few months.

Over the last month, I’ve been playing in Concerto Caledonia’s new project Nathaniel Gow’s Scottish Dance Band, an exciting collective of trad musicians and early music specialists, playing on period instruments and performing music mostly taken from late 18th-century Scottish dance music collections.


This has emerged as an output of the Glasgow University-led research project, Bass Culture in Scottish Musical Traditions, which explores the harmonic basis of Scottish traditional music. As well as overseeing the project, David McGuinness has been building a massive database and digitisation of Scottish printed sources of fiddle music from 1750-1850 (due to go ‘live’ at hms.scot in October I believe). These represent a substantial amount of (often overlooked) material, and even the more familiar tunes are very different to the versions played today. We’ve been exploring a range of different approaches, styles, and instrumental combinations (including five fiddles, pipes, octave flute, cello and fortepiano). Our job has been made easier by returning the music (at least in part) to its original function through collaboration with a team of period dancers.


In the premiere performance with the full band at Glasgow’s Cottier Chamber Project on June 19th, our team of period dancers (led by Talitha Mackenzie) demonstrated and taught a number of 18th-century country dances to some unsuspecting (but eventually very keen) audience members! Earlier in the month, Alison, Mairi Campbell and I also played for the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland’s Quadrille and Contradanse day at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, looking mostly at regency-period dances, and exploring the influence of French dance forms in Scotland from the late-18th century onwards. Our little band performed in the most common 18th-century dance-band set up – two fiddles and a ‘bass fiddle’ [ie cello]. (In David Allan’s paintings, the piper is usually helping himself to a drink while the fiddles play!)

Earlier this month David, Alison and I also highlighted some of the more ‘domestic’ music from the same period on Radio 3’s In Tune. (You can still hear it for a day or two – I even got a word or two in, after some coaxing by David) This included Nathaniel Gow’s ‘The Cries of Edinburgh’, containing two pieces based on ‘Hot Pies’ and ‘Kale and Leaks’ and ‘a favorite new medley’ performed at the annual ball on 14th March 1830. Last week, we recorded this at the beautiful Ardkinglas, making use of their excellent square piano for the smaller-scale ‘domestic’ parts of the album (we ended this session with a trip to the superb Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, just round the corner!)


The week before, we were at Chrichton Collegiate Church to record the full band. We talked our way into a visit to the impressive remains of Chrichton Castle next door, where Alison and I discovered some graffiti dating from the same period as the sources we were performing from.


I think I’ll need to write a separate post all about how we brought together different approaches and playing styles in this project. The so-called ‘historically informed’ approach – using period instruments, original source material, and information on period performance style from iconography and treatises – was brought together with musicians that live and breathe this music as part of a living tradition, mixed in with our collective musical intuition. Often long discussions about the best way to play a tune were immediately answered (and superseded) by the involvement of the dancers, with the steps suited to particular tempi or dotted feel. The main realisation was that this repertoire is so rich that a variety of approaches will work, and that there are endless possibilities with performing these tunes.

Alexander Munro: Highland music master?

Munro (Recueil des meilleurs airs eccossois) (website)

New evidence on the 18th-century Scottish composer

One of the most enigmatic figures in 18th-century Scottish music is Alexander Munro, composer of the the Recueil Des Meilleurs Airs Ecossois published in Paris in 1732, and described by Hawkins as a ‘native of Scotland’. This volume was not only some of the first Scottish music written for flute, but was very influential to 18th-century Scottish music, arguably creating a new genre: the Scottish variation sonata. Here a single Scots air is transformed into a set of Italian dances, blending Scots fiddle-variation style and the Italian sonata da camera. As well as Munro’s ‘sonatas’ appearing in numerous fiddle manuscripts through the 18th century, other composer-performers such as McGibbon, McLean and Mackintosh took up the form and the work may even have had an influence on Geminiani.

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Apart from a single piece of music ascribed to Munro in the 1740 MacFarlane manuscript, musicologists have struggled to locate any real evidence of the composer and his background. David Johnson speculated that this was the work of an amateur musician: Alexander Monro primus, the anatomy professor at the University of Edinburgh.

The missing Munro?

I have recently located a better candidate: while looking through records at the National Archives of Scotland, I came across a reference to ‘Alexander Munro, teacher of the music school at Tain’ dated 1730. With a couple more days of digging, I’ve found a number of other references to this individual and now have a fairly substantial account of his career as a music master in the Highlands between 1709 and 1736.

Munro is described variously as ‘music master’ at Inverness (before 1709), Elgin (1709-11), Fortrose (1713-16) and Tain (1730-1736). As well as these four teaching posts, he also appears to have branched out as a writing master or professional scribe, writing a document for the Ross family of Pitcalnie and making a manuscript copy of Robert Gordon’s 1630 historical text ‘Earldom of Sutherland’.

So this individual appears to be enterprising, well educated, and connected to landed families. Not a bad contender so far for the composer of the Recueil Des Meilleurs Airs Ecossois.

The remaining issue is that of Paris for the publication of the 1732 volume. However, music publishing was still in its infancy in Scotland at this point, with only a handful of different volumes published by 1732. It’s possible that Munro the music master could have had his own connections in Paris; a number of 18th-century Scots left to study music or work abroad. In particular, Munro’s contemporary William McGibbon studied in London with William Corbett c.1709, may have travelled to Italy, and later published his own work both in Edinburgh and London.