September 04, 2020

William Donaldson’s Set Tunes Series continues on pipes|drums

Dr. William Donaldson

Since 2001, pipes|drums has brought readers our exclusive “Set Tunes Series” by Dr. William Donaldson, who delves into each composition, analyzing and including every known published setting and offers his critical interpretation of their histories and controversies.

Currently numbering more than 160 tunes, the Set Tunes Series is the world’s most exhaustive single compendium of piobaireachd freely available to pipers on via the Internet.

We are delighted to bring readers eight additions to the Series, investigating a few of the piobaireachds that had been set for the 2020 major competitions, namely those held at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban and the Northern Meeting at Inverness.

With contests cancelled around the world, the Piobaireachd Society recently announced that the same requirements would be applied to events in 2021, assuming they will take place.

Since most of the tunes set by the Piobaireachd Society for next year have already been covered in the Series, Donaldson picked out a few still not done, plus several interesting compositions that could or should populate any piper’s repertoire.

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 great piobaireachd players and teachers of the last century, including Ian Duncan, Malcolm McRae, Jack Taylor and Andrew Wright. Donaldson is one of the world’s great piping scholars, the author of, among other books, the seminal work The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society – 1750-1950, and has recently retired from teaching Literature and Traditional Music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

William Donaldson writes:

In recent years, the Piobaireachd Society has increasingly permitted free choice in selecting tunes for the major public competitions, so it seemed time to widen the scope a little, and this year brings a blend of familiar pieces in slightly unusual settings, and lesser-known but interesting tunes that ought to be heard more often in public.

The eight tunes this year: “The Gathering of the MacDonalds of Clanranald,” “Struan Robertson’s Salute,” “The Aged Warrior’s Sorrow,” “The Battle of Balladruishaig,” “The Marquis of Argyll’s Salute,” “The Men Went to Drink,” “Too Long in this Condition,” and “The Tune of Strife” bring the Set Tunes Series altogether up to 169 titles.

The favoured settings include Colin Mór Campbell’s Nether Lorn Canntaireachd for “The Clanranalds’ Gathering,” with its spectacularly elaborate crunluath fosgailte variations; “Struan Robertson’s Salute” from David Glen, with its interesting “up” and “down” timing in adjacent variations; “The Aged Warrior’s Sorrow,” with its lovely lyrical siubhal, from Donald MacDonald; “The Battle of Balladruishaig” from Angus MacKay’s MS, with a treatment of the ground in duple rather than triple time; and “The Marquis of Argyll’s Salute” once again from Glen, with its contrasting “down-pointed” taorluath and “up-cut” crunluath breabach variations.

“The Men Went to Drink,” here appears in an attractive syncopated setting from General Thomason, probably the most interesting and rhythmically plausible of the all the surviving scores.

In a first for this year, I have played rather than sung the accompanying sound files. This was not just because some of these scores have not been heard in public for centuries, but to illustrate still more emphatically the range of choice open to the thoughtful performer in what to play, if he or she cares to exercise it – as would be taken for granted in any other field.

At the time of writing, public performance of piobaireachd continues to be dominated by competition, and what is played in competition continues to be prescribed by the Piobaireachd Society. It is a century since Lt. Iain McLennan, editor of two published collections and the father and teacher of the great G. S. McLennan, complained that

other writers as well as myself wrote as we thought proper, and forced no man to play our setting. The [Piobaireachd] Society, on the other hand, put out their tunes as the ancient music of Scotland, and bind pipers with chains of gold to play them…The piper may have a far better setting of the tune, but he dare not play it, and his own natural abilities are curbed; he must simply play note for note what is put before him; he is simply a tracer or a copyist, and is not allowed to become an artiste.’ (Oban Times, 14/05/1910, p. 3, 23/10/1920, p.3)

Why any self-respecting body of musicians would continue to allow themselves to be dictated to as to precisely which settings to play, and consent to time these to the last semi-quaver exactly as written, when it is by now public knowledge that the Society’s scores are seriously inaccurate and corrupt, remains an open question.

How much longer will the performer community permit this situation to continue?

Stay tuned to pipes|drums for regular installments of the 2020-’21 Set Tunes Series by William Donaldson.



Ready, get set, stay: piob requirements for big 2021 events unchanged
July 14, 2020

Piobaireachd Society issues 2020 requirements
March 30, 2019





Forgotten Password?