May 16, 2015

For namesakes

Having a tune named after you is a wonderful gesture. I can’t think of a more thoughtful and kind gift than a piece of music inspired by life and friendship.

I’ve been thinking about this custom for a few weeks now. Pipers, at least as much as any musicians, create music. Based on a recent pipes|drums poll, some 70 percent of us have tried our hand at composing. I think the majority of pipers will write something – usually a simple 6/8 march or slow air – pretty much as soon as they have figured out a few tunes on the practice chanter.

The initial desire to compose is usually, I believe, driven by the desire to do something nice for someone. “Hey, mom, listen to this tune I wrote and named after you!” And mom listens to little Angus’s well-intentioned composition, and, like the dilapidated piece of pottery made as a Mother’s Day present in Grade 2 art, it melts mom’s heart.

I’ve had the great fortune to have two tunes named for, or about, me: “A.W. Berthoff’s Reel” by my longtime friend Michael Grey, and “Berthoff’s Birl” by the legendary Pipe-Major Robert Mathieson. I am privileged, and not a little lucky, that both of these compositions are excellent works by two of history’s most-played pipe music makers. And to actually play Rab’s hornpipe with a Grade 1 band was a rare gift. I believe that both these tunes are good enough to pass the ultimate test of success: they will still be played well, well after I’m well played-out.

But what of the not-so-lucky? I’m thinking of those great individuals who truly deserve to have a great tune named after them, and instead get something they and everyone else would just as soon never hear again, ever. The “composer,” with all good intentions, attempts to honour a famous piper or drummer with what they think is a tune befitting the honouree. They will proudly play them their tune, and then keenly ask if they like it. And because the answer is invariably positive, they will then announce, “Well, I have named after YOU!”

And then there’s two-seconds-feels-like-eternity pause, identical to the pause when a present is unwrapped, the giver excitedly looking on, the recipient finding a horrible hand-knitted hat that will be worn once that day and never, ever again.

“Oh, thank you! That’s wonderful.” [Deep sigh.]

But the difference between the ugly hat and the crappy tune is that, with the tune in your name, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. The unwritten code of piping is that, once there’s a serious –as opposed to little Angus’s first try – tune named for you, that’s it. You’re done. You really shouldn’t have another. (There are exceptions. Peter MacLeod wrote a few tunes named “Donald MacLean.” Apparently some of these originally had different names; MacLeod frequently fell out with folk, and would change the title.)

There is perhaps only one safeguard to getting a quality tune named for you: commission it. Quietly contract one of the several established composers of great pipe music to compose a tune in your name, with a money-back guarantee, and perhaps a non-disclosure agreement that he/she will never divulge that you paid for it. The composer will have to pretend for life that the tune was a consensual act of love, mutually accepted by each party, who just said Yes to the proposition.

Shallow? Vacuous? Shameful? Perhaps. But at least your name and memory will have a lot better chance of lasting forever with a better piece of music, a gift that keeps on giving.



  1. Firstly, you’d have to be slightly up yourself would you not, to commission a tune named after you? Secondly, it’s a bit desperate then, is it not, to pretend you didn’t pay the composer to do it! It’s a bit like firstly saying ‘Please will you be my friend as I don’t have any’ and secondly ‘please pretend you’re my real friend and don’t tell anybody I asked you, or bought you sweets, to be my friend’! If you want people to write tunes about you/named after you, maybe it’s best to forget that, and instead, you write tunes (or not) or do things for other people. Why chase a falsehood when you could be living it for real? Why pretend you’re somebody, when you could accept yourself as you are? Why approach the sun in pretend armour, when you could start in the ocean and lift with your experience and years, taking the truth with you? I read a book years ago – The Icarus Deception—Seth Godin—-I seem to have brought some of it here. LOL! A great read iirc. Something like if you don’t sell art, make more art, but do it for real, be yourself, don’t twist the myths or miss bits out. Write tunes or sell something to raise money for Nepalese children, but don’t waste money shoving it up your own ****.

  2. In case you were wondering, I am joking about commissioning a tune named after yourself. But I do feel sorry for great pipers who have poor tunes in their name. They are such a poor memorial, or, rather, their names could go on with a tune that will be played and played. In reality, great tunes named after great pipers are rarities.

    1. Good tunes tend to be played; poor tunes do not (hopefully), and unless the tunes was written by the music book compiler, not included in any collection. There can be more than one tune with the same name. The poorer on eclipsed by the better. Or the subsequent tune titles modified by the addition of ‘PM So-and-so’, or ‘So-and-so’s Farewell to Maxville’ or some such. So a poor tune does not preclude the possibility of a good tune written to honour someone, even if a poor tune has previously been written. However, tune tastes change. I remember being the first one in the area. playing the ‘Battle of Waterloo’ march in the 1960’s and derided for doing so by local pipers.

  3. Be wary of expressing extreme disfavor for a newly composed tune as well? I refer to Donald MacLeod’s snarkily bestowed hornpipe “Duncan Johnstone”, the “worst tune” the latter had ever heard in his life (or so the folklore goes.) Haters gon’ hate: give them a tune.

    1. I haven’t heard of Duncan Johnstone not liking his namesake hornpipe, but would love to know if it’s true. If he did reject it, well, there’s no accounting for taste. But, then again, he also wrote “Farewell to Nigg,” which people either love or loathe. My prediction is that “Duncan Johnstone” will be played forever. I also think that, in order for a tune to be named for someone, the someone should be given the opportunity to approve of it. One point in the blog is that it is impossible to reject the gift of music in your name. Unless you’re a complete schmuck and choose instead to commission a tune named after yourself. Or maybe even worse, compose a tune and name it with your name. This has happened before. I recall a famous Grade 1 band in the late 1980s playing a tune written by and named after its then pipe-major.

  4. It occurred to me later that the somewhat predictable “Tune Composing Competition” is simply a great way to get a good tune – or at least raise the chances. It’s essentially a commission, with the chance of a prize being the reward. If the prize is attractive enough, then talented composers will submit. These contests are typically for organizations, but I wonder if any person has put on a tune composing competition with the winning tune being named after the person running the “competition.”



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