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.


Musical adventures in Hastings and Tuscany

I’m just back to sunny Glasgow from my musical adventures over the past few weeks, which have taken me to St Mary in the Castle, Hastings for the Sotto Voce Arts Festival before a residency in the stunning Castello di Potentino in Tuscany. Beautiful weather and surroundings aside, these have been interesting experiments into different ways of performing and interacting with audiences.

Vineyards at Potentino: it's a hard life!

Vineyards at Potentino: it’s a hard life!

The Hastings gig was put together very last minute under the banner of the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Their planned programme was to be the first performance of the material from their recent Aldeburgh residency looking at the musical experiments of Francis Bacon. Due to illness of one of the regular lineup, Gabi Maas and I were drafted in (on nyckleharpa and treble viol respectively) to play with regular “Strange and Ancient” performers Alison McGillivray (lyra viol and violone) and Jean Kelly (bray harp, triple harp).

Our ‘experiments’ mostly concerned our slightly unusual grouping of instruments (and also how quickly we could put together a programme and cross the country from Glasgow to Hastings and back!) We managed to stick to the planned theme of Francis Bacon and Gallileo, performing some repertoire probably known to Gallileo, some music by Bacon himself, alongside music by early 17th-century Italian-English composers (such as Giovanni Coperario, otherwise known as John Cooper), as well as a selection of 17th-century tunes from England, Ireland, Scotland and Sweden. Both the lyra-viol and nyckelharpa have resonant strings underneath their playing strings, which coupled with the twangy sound of the bray harp and the full-bodied triple-harp, made my treble viol feel quite weedy! The real magic of these instruments (much like instruments with a drone such as bagpipes or hurdy-gurdy) is to create an acoustic, a sound-world for the rest of the music to sit comfortably in. Once you adjust to hearing a lot of this on stage (and not much of yourself!), it becomes a rather enjoyable, if surreal experience.

St Mary's in the Castle, Hastings

St Mary’s in the Castle, Hastings

This concert also featured the talents of Kinetic light sculptor Paul Friedlander. As well as opening the show with a lecture and demonstration of his work, Paul provided the backdrop for our concert – a light tableau, which rather than responding to the music per se, gradually evolved throughout the performance. This looked beautiful, though when my music stand light faded half way through I wished I was more familiar with the music!


Gabi, Callum, me and Laura at Potentino

After a day or two to catch my breath (and play gigs with Erskine Quartet and It’s No Reel) we went from Glasgow’s pitiful 11ºC to a sweltering 35ºC+ heat in Tuscany, for a week-long residency at Castello di Potentino with Callum Armstrong (various bagpipes, recorders and aulos), Gabi Maas (baroque violin) and Laura Sergeant (baroque cello). Potentino is one of those places where all the right elements come together and wonderful things happen as a result. It was restored by the Horton-Greene family around 15 years ago, who now combine running the castle with a vineyard and olive grove, producing award-winning wines and olive oil. Parts of the castle date from the middle ages, including a 13th-century chapel, and the valley is surrounded by mountains, rivers, the sounds of crickets and the smell of lavender.


Potentino chapel

The idea behind the music at Potentino isn’t really a festival, but for musicians to become part of the culture of the place: for Alexander and Charlotte (the brother & sister duo that run Potentino), the regular concert series is only as important as us being there to rehearse and experiment with the space, meet people and make music on a much more informal basis. For us, it was incredible for our newly formed ensemble to have the time and environment to play lots of music, put together new arrangements, test out different instrumental combinations, and enjoy the delicious food and wine on offer! Most of our audience was made up of the 25 or so people staying at Potentino at any one time, with the remaining filled up by other people that lived nearby and stayed for dinner and drinks, meaning that we personally knew most of the people that we performed for (not to mention informally playing tunes after dinner, and leading some dancing on a couple of occasions). My favourite moment was when one of the castle’s dogs (Ottie, a miniature Jack Russell) started licking Callum’s foot during an aulos solo, before Callum followed the confused creature round the room. This sense of community is something we’ve been striving to achieve with West End Baroque in Glasgow, which has involved early music concerts in Glasgow bars – we’ve had one or two dogs in the audience, though I think the wine in Potentino has been slightly better!


Callum serenades local Great Dane ‘Minnie’