Published: July 03, 2014

pipes|drums announces 14th Set Tunes Series by William Donaldson

laborious, plodding official style fostered on the competition platform during the past three generations, based on a note-for-note-rendering of the scores of the Piobaireachd Society. People have gotten used to hearing the music played this way and think it normal; but it is anything but normal. The way the music has been passed down to us in the twentieth century is very problematic.

p|d: So, what has gone wrong?

WD: Well, the Piobaireachd Society’s own scores, from which the competition scores are chosen every year, were the work of basically four people, from the Society’s early days onwards: these were J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, James Campbell (son of Archibald Campbell), Archibald Kenneth, and – above all – Archibald Campbell, Kilberry. This Archibald Campbell, in addition to putting together his own personal anthology, The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor, single-handedly edited the central core of the competition repertoire in the Piobaireachd Society Collection, volumes two to nine. He worked alone without reference to the Music Committee in whose name the series was published, and he routinely (but silently) altered note values in the grounds of the tunes in a way that seriously affected rhythmical and melodic coherence. And so this is how the tunes have been played ever since he changed the scores.

p|d: But what prevented players from offering other more musical and authentic settings?

WD: Well, the same people who produced and backed Campbell’s edition were sitting in judgment all over the competition circuit, and they penalized departures from the Society scores. This could affect not only you, but your pupils as well; a consideration which I am sure influenced many senior players. In addition, the Society used to hire top professional teachers to directly teach their scores in the winter months, and such was their social power, that although we know a number of top professionals like John MacDonald of Inverness and Pipe-Major Willie Ross were very unhappy about this situation, only G. S. McLennan absolutely refused.

p|d: And, so, gradually over the years . . . ?

WD: . . . we ended up with the present mess.

p|d: But the notes to the Piobaireachd Society scores often say the settings are those of Angus MacKay and similar great old masters. Is this not so?

WD: Well, no, alas, it isn’t. Archibald Campbell’s editorial papers are now in the National Library of Scotland, and if you have a look at them you can see him altering note values in ground after ground–probably in the misplaced belief (quite common in his age and class) that piobaireachd should have no regular pulse. When he saw signs of regular rhythm in the sources, he edited it out. Unfortunately, he then claimed that the crude, unmetrical results corresponded to the settings of Angus MacKay and similar old authorities. But they didn’t.

p|d: But surely he must have been aware of this? Didn’t he have copies of MacKay and MacDonald and available to him as he worked?

WD: Yes, he did. We have talked in the past about serious issues of musical taste and accuracy; but when we consider the probity of the editing, then the picture looks even darker. The editorial notes explicitly encourage you to believe you are playing Angus MacKay, or Donald MacDonald or similar, when in fact you are playing Archibald Campbell. And this doesn’t just affect the odd tune here and there; it happens on an extensive basis. As a result, the claim to traditional authority of the Piobaireachd Society scores for which Campbell was responsible, is largely fraudulent. The modern style of piobaireachd playing that flows from this is not only flawed musically, but rests upon the most dubious historical foundation.

p|d: So what can be done about this?

WD: Well, the old scores are still there, and there is an abundance of musical talent in the present generation. It will be interesting to see if sufficient interpretational flair and confidence exists to overcome the inertia of the present system, and allow the players to resume control of their own heritage.

Stay tuned to pipes|drums for the first installment in the 2014 Set Tunes Series by William Donaldson.


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