Published: May 31, 2000

Grounds for Dismissal

[Originally published as an Editorial]

William Donaldson’s astoundingly good and important book, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1850, (see Jim McGillivray’s review in this issue) has made us once again ponder where our music has been and where it is today. One paragraph, discussing the Piobaireachd Society’s annual general meeting of 1913, resonated particularly long:

“J. P. Grant was also anxious to use the Society’s resources to promote piobaireachd as a living art, and to this end, the Music Committee [of the Piobaireachd Society] proposed to the AGM of 1913 that a competition in piobaireachd composition be held. But the Hon. Elspeth Campbell moved that the proper publishing of the older tradition was more important and the moment passed. The Great War intervened and the proposal lay dormant for fifty years.”

This passage in particular struck a chord with us for several reasons. As the Piobaireachd Society moves towards its hundredth anniversary, everyone would agree that piobaireachd is being played – and played well – by more pipers in more places than ever before. The Piobaireachd Society has compiled and published hundreds of compositions along with their various settings, and the organization is heading in an exciting and adventurous direction. In short, the Piobaireachd Society has fulfilled its fundamental mandate to preserve piping’s greatest music.

A central theme of Donaldson’s book centres on the effect that the various “societies” have had on the music of the Highland pipe. His book raises the paradox that the very organizations that were meant to preserve the music have in fact stifled it. So, is piobaireachd, the way it is played today, a truly “living” art? Do not the vast majority of pipers who enjoy playing the music simply attempt to perform the music as it is somehow supposed to be, rather than developing it, as their forefathers did hundreds of years ago?

Anyone familiar with piobaireachd will see and hear variations that are totally unique. For example, in the entire idiom there’s nothing like the 1st variation of “In Praise of Morag.” The variations of “Lament for Mary MacLeod” have a completely unique rhythm and structure unseen anywhere else in piobaireachd. Of the tunes set for the 2000 Gold Medal competitions is “The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy,” an extraordinary piece that is as incomparable as it is creative.

In truth, from piobaireachd to piobaireachd there is more substantial musical variety than anywhere else in the repertory of the Highland bagpipe. Largely because of the advent of the pipe band medley, light music has seen significant experimentation and expansion. We dare say that the bold creativity that light music enjoys today piobaireachd enjoyed for hundreds of years before 1900.

To be sure, very good piobaireachds have been composed over the last century. Donald MacLeod, John MacLellan, Archie Kenneth and others have made significant contributions. But overall there has been very little musical ingenuity and exploration in piobaireachd composition. Most attempts at new piobaireachd simply try to adhere to “rules” of piobaireachd structure.

Yes, piobaireachd is being played everywhere the Highland pipe is. But, considering the way the music is being played, is it truly “living”? Is an art that’s merely a depiction of what’s expected to be played – and heavily criticized when it isn’t – in a healthy state? Is it good that most pipers are taught to consider the interpretation of old piobaireachd taboo? Now that the music has been revived, transcribed, recorded and analyzed, is it not now time for piobaireachd to enjoy again a creative explosion like it gained for at least 300 of the last 400 hundred years?

By no means are we suggesting that the great piobaireachds of the past should be shunted aside. They are magnificent pieces of music made even greater by the pipers who have studied them from past masters and diligently passed them on to new generations. Long may this tradition continue and thrive. But, in the same way that the classic pieces of Beethoven and Mozart are interpreted and performed everywhere from young high school orchestras to great metropolitan symphonies, so too does symphonic music encourage and embrace new composition. It is simply an artistically healthy and natural thing for any art to do.

In past issues of the Piper & Drummer we have discussed the new Age of Piping Enlightenment currently gathering. As we reflect on the last hundred years of piobaireachd, of light music, of pipe bands, we are increasingly considering our art from a different perspective. Clearly, the structure imposed on the music by competition is being broken down, and piobaireachd, we are certain, will benefit from a new musical, rather than competitive, approach.

It’s remarkable to imagine where piobaireachd might be today had the Piobaireachd Society put Sheriff Grant’s proposal of 1913 into effect. We dare say the entire direction of the art might have changed from being one of historical revival and preservation to one of musical creation and expansion.

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