January 11, 2023

New ground to be broken in 2023 instalment of Donaldson’s Set Tunes Series

Dr. William Donaldson delivers a discussion on piobaireachd at the Piping Live! festival.

Since the year 2000, Dr. William Donaldson has contributed his Set Tunes Series to pipes|drums, making available to all readers the authentic older manuscript and published sources of ceol mor. The series now runs to more than 170 tunes, and forms the largest online edition in the world of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.

We’re pleased to announce that his 2023 contributions to the Series will comprise 10 more piobaireachds, each instalment including every known published score and, apart from one tune, a sound file of Donaldson’s interpretation.

William Donaldson was a pupil for many years Robert Urquhart Brown and Robert Bell Nicol – the legendary “Bobs of Balmoral” who, as pipers to the royal family, taught many of the highest achieving piobaireachd players and teachers of the last century, including Ian Duncan, Murray Henderson, Jack Taylor and Andrew Wright. Donaldson is one of the world’s great piping scholars, the author of among other important books on piping and traditional Scottish music, the seminal work The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society – 1750-1950. In 2020, he retired from teaching Literature and Traditional Music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After two decades of work, we thought a short interview with Willie Donaldson would help define for pipes|drums readers the importance of his work.

pipes|drums: What prompted you to compile the Set Tunes Series and why is such an exhaustive and free compendium invaluable to those who play and study piobaireachd?

William Donaldson:  From the outset the pipes|drums Set Tunes Series recognized the power of the internet to realize a long-held dream, almost impossible to achieve in print media: namely the creation of a variorum edition including all the significant versions of a given tune. The expansive nature of bagpipe music, tunes with many variations and high degree of ornamentation has long meant restrictive printing costs and considerable bulk. Digitization banishes such problems, hugely reducing the cost of publication, and the Set Tunes Series is the result.

p|d: So what has the effect of this been?

WD: Most of us piobaireachd players have been forced up in a musical monoculture where a richly varied traditional form has been reduced to a single standardized version. This single source has been presented as the only one possessing “authority.” The result has been that everybody plays exactly the same score in exactly the same way. This would have astonished –and dismayed – the traditional masters and mistresses of the art. Even with tunes where only a single historical setting survives – as is the case with many pieces in the Nether Lorn Canntaireachd – an internet-based resource such as the pipes|drums Set Tunes Series allows us to examine the variety of ways in which such material might be realized musically, and not be forced to rely on a single prescriptive setting, which may in fact have been compiled in so doctrinaire and inaccurate a way as scarcely to deserve the “authority” it claims.

It all goes back to the early days of the Piobaireachd Society, which began to issue annual lists of set tunes for the great public competitions and prescribe the Society’s own settings as the only permitted scores from which the competitors would be judged.

For some of the would-be “reformers,” the damage that resulted must surely have been unintended. After all, it sprang from a wholly admirable motive: namely, encouraging a wider selection of tunes to be heard in the public arena. But for others: the regulators, the prescribers, and authoritarian standardizers, the Society’s rise to power represented an opportunity of a very different sort. They assumed that the variety of styles apparent in the written tradition must be evidence of mistakes and confusion, and the adulteration of a once unitary authoritative text springing from the mind or pen of its original composer and subsequently mangled in transmission by bungling pipers.

The future could still be bright, if we were willing to reach out and embrace the promise of the past.

The Society’s task would thus become to restore the authority of a single score, and this was what its long-time editor, Archibald Campbell, claimed to have produced. It is now well known, however, that because he believed that musicality as normally conceived was alien to piobaireachd as a form, he silently re-wrote the scores he found among his sources, undermining their rhythmical coherence and disrupting their melodic content.

As a result the Piobaireachd Society’s scores, and those in Campbell’s other publication, The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor, cannot be relied upon as an accurate guide to the music. The validity and accuracy of these works was long taken on trust. That trust was misplaced.

The move back to the old authentic sources becomes ever more compelling as the evidence accumulates. pipes|drums pioneered this movement to make available the old manuscripts and early and rare published editions on the internet, along with enterprising sites like Jim McGillivray’s and Steve Scaife’s Ceol Sean.

The Piobaireachd Society was compelled to follow suit, and now hosts numerous of the older manuscript sources on its website. These are behind a paywall, of course; the independent sites are – quite deliberately – free. But it creates problems for the Society, because they were forced to make public the original sources on which they claim their scores are based. It only takes a little comparison to see that their published versions routinely differ, usually without acknowledgment or explanation, from these original scores.

The “authority” the Society claims has little foundation in reality. Indeed, the Society scores are the least accurate or trustworthy of any of the published collections. The end result has been that generations of performers have grown up believing they were playing Angus MacKay or some other old master when they were actually playing Archibald Campbell, a man of limited musical ability and extremely casual standards of accuracy.

p|d: What’s your solution to the problem you outline?

WD: The story has elements of heartbreak, but it’s not over. We still have the old scores that, when you take them all together, give a pretty fair idea of the original musical intention. We can add to this a historically unique body of commentary from contemporary players preserved in the press from the late Victorian period onwards on matters like expression, tempo, and style. Piping seems to be the only traditional musical form that has preserved so much of this kind of contextual information. We can undo the reverses of the twentieth century, if we want to. The future could still be bright, if we were willing to reach out and embrace the promise of the past.

Stay tuned for the 2023 edition of William Donaldson’s Set Tunes Series to start in a few days.




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