Playing ceòl mór from Donald MacDonald’s 1820 printed book

I am intrigued by Donald MacDonald’s arrangements of ceòl mór or pibroch, because on his title page he indicates that he is not setting out the tunes in “pipers tablature”, that cryptic system that looks confusingly similar to staff notation; instead, he describes his work:

A / collection / of the / Ancient Martial /  Music of Caledonia / called / Piobaireachd / as performed on the / Great Highland Bagpipe / Now also adapted to the / Piano Forte, violin and violoncello…

By setting the music on two staves, treble and bass, he intends that the purchasers of his book, price one guinea (£1 1s, or a few hundred pounds in today’s money) to play this music not on the pipes (what wealthy, musically literate book-buyer in 1820 owned or played pipes?) but on the piano; if they had musical guests at their Edinburgh townhouse they may well also try it as violin and cello duets.

Donald writes a single bass line very simply in the bass clef, which looks to me quite old-fashioned for 1820; I think by that date many music arrangers were writing chordal and thicker textures in the bass.  On the other hand the modal, drone-based nature of the music may have discouraged anything more complex.

He writes the melody in a more nuanced way, setting the tune in large notes with their stems all pointing down, and using little notes with the stems up to indicate the characteristic bagpipe grace-notes. I imagine he expected piano and fiddle players to ignore these in performance, but to appreciate them as exotic talking-points read in connection with the “instructions” at the beginning of the book.

How did he decide which notes to make big, and which small? This is the vexed question of all early pibroch scholarship, since there seems to have been a strong movement through the 19th and 20th century to shift the musical emphasis in a big way, with melody notes becoming swallowed up into bundles of gracenotes, and rogue grace notes being held so long that they speak as stressed melody notes.

My opinion is that he wrote the big notes so that when played normally on the fiddle or piano, the melody sounded as he imagined in his head that it should, based on his knowledge of the expected traditional expression of this tune on the pipes (and perhaps also on the fiddle, seeing as the fiddle pibroch tradition may have still been reasonably strong at this time)

More on Ronald MacDonald of Morar’s Lament

Today I tried playing the Lament for Ranald MacDonald of Morar on the harp, and I discovered two very interesting things about this tune.

First, it really does not sit well on the harp.

Secondly, it is a minor-mode tune. The notation gives it in a, as is usual for Highland bagpipe music, as the pipes usually play an a major scale: a b c# d e f# g a, plus low G, with drones sounding all the while on A.

This tune is mostly pentatonic, moving over g a b – d e – g a, with passing notes on f# and on c natural. The c natural is not at all what one would expect to hear in a pipe tune, yet not only does c# sound very wrong but the notation clearly gives only one sharp in the key signature.

Listening to the only pipe recording I have to hand (and ignoring the substantial changes to pulse and accent) I note that the issue doesn’t arise on the pipes, because the sequence that Donald MacDonald writes very clearly as d (G) c (G) b, i.e. a descending series of 3 notes d c b, separated by low G gracenotes, becomes in modern performance d G(c#)G b, i.e. a sequence of two notes d  b separated by a burble on low G. So the tune remains pentatonic on the pipes.

I checked in Joseph MacDonald‘s book, where he has a section on the “keys” in which ceòl mór is set on the pipes, he doesn not really deal with this type of scale; he only talks about laments omitting c# and concentrating on the low end of the scale. Other than that he is mainly interested in music set in modal equivalents of g major, a major and d major.

Cumha Raonuill Mhic Ailein Òig

Today I have been working on Cumha Raonuill Mhic Ailein Òig, the  Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar. It is working very nicely as a fiddle tune. I am following Donald MacDonald’s 1820 printed arrangement:

It continues for three more pages with the variations; so far I have been concentrating on the first variation and its doubling. Donald MacDonald’s setting is strangely assymetrical with startling developments of the melody in the second half of the tune; Angus MacKay’s manuscript seems to be the same though I don’t know if MacKay was just copying MacDonald or whether he had the tune independently from oral tradition. All the later sources hack about with it and remove bars to make it four-square and much less dramatic.

I’m tuning the fiddle a-e’-a’-e” (though as usual I keep it one note lower than modern pitch), as this allows the tune to be played mainly on the two highest strings, with the two lowest acting as intermittent drones. I’m finding this tune sits very well on the fiddle, with pleasant string-crossings and open intervals.

I’m not planning to play this on the harp, out of respect for Ranald – if he was, as tradition says, one of the last of the old harpers, whoever composed this fine lament after he died would not have been a harper, though they may well have played fiddle as well as pipes.

Hopefully I will put up a Youtube of it at some point though I already have a backlog of things to record!

Prof. Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Music: An overview of the linguistic and documentary evidence

Professor Fergus Kelly presented the 2013 Statutory Public Lecture of the School of Celtic Studies on Friday 15th November at 8pm, Thomas Davis Theatre, Arts Building, Trinity College Dublin.

You can now get a video of the entire one-hour lecture plus a PDF of the handout with lots of further reading references, from the DIAS website

Playing position of medieval Gaelic harp

When I was in the National Museum of Scotland earlier this month, I was looking at the Queen Mary harp, and I noticed the wear on the lower back left corner of the soundbox. The corner of the box is quite worn away, and there is a wooden patch nailed on to the back of the box at this point, an old repair.

The wear on this corner was mentioned and drawn by R.B. Armstrong in his book The Irish and the Highland harps (David Douglas, 1904), though he talks mostly about sliding the harp along the floor when it was put down, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird in their book Tree of Strings (Kinmor 1999), p.57 repeat Armstrong’s observations. Karen Loomis in her MMus dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2010), p.49, includes a photo and a mention of this wear, but she is mostly concerned with the cracks from the repair patch nails.

I realised that the shape of this worn area is not just caused by general sliding of the harp, but instead it forms a flat surface which seems to me to be where the harp was stood on this corner when it was being played. You can see in my photo how the flat worn patch lines up with the projecting block of the bottom of the soundbox:

A long time ago I realised that if you sit on the floor to play a replica of the Queen Mary harp, then the harp naturally tips to rest on its projecting block and also this corner of the soundbox.

The angle of the flat panel therefore gives us a quite precise evidence for the angle that the harp was held at.

I propped my replica up on a hard surface, and adjusted the angle until my photo of my replica matched my photo of the original in the Museum:

And then, without moving the harp at all, I photographed the orientation of the harp, from floor level, at right angles to the plane of the strings, and also in line with it:

I think this gives a fair estimation of how the Queen Mary harp was positioned when it was being played.

Obviously there is some margin for error; the bottom of the projecting block would wear away and the corner of the box would wear away, so the angle in the front view would change over time. Also the flat worn surface is not entirely flat, but curves up towards the replacement piece. My positioning of the harp matches the most upright position. I would estimate that there could be 5 degrees either way since I was just doing this all by eye. The curving probably represents the harp being slid down to rest on its back as Armstrong suggests.

You’ll see that the strings are pretty much upright in the side-view photo.

The harp rests back quite a way behind its balance point. My replica won’t balance on that line between the box corner and the projecting block – if you tip it far forward enough to balance, it falls over sideways.

I looked again at Paul Mullarkey’s photos of the Trinity College harp. The soundbox is much more eaten away than the Queen Mary’s, especially at the bottom. However, the back bottom right corner of both the soundbox and the back panel are preserved, whereas the back bottom left corner is completely gone and is replaced now with extensive resin filler.

Eskimo violin / Inuit fiddle / Tautirut

I have finally acquired a copy of archive recording of tautirut playing from 1958 held by the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

Tautirut is the Inuit word for the bowed harp or box zither played in the area around northern Quebec and southern Baffin Island. It has strong connections to other bowed-harp traditions in Scandinavia and further afield. For more on the wider bowed-harp and bowed-lyre traditions I have made a bowed-harp web page.

The collector Asen Balikci was visiting Povungnituk in Quebec in 1958, and he seems to have commissioned the people there to make a couple of “reconstructions” of the tautirut. I assume the “reconstructions” were necessary because the tradition was moribund there by that date.

Cariola, then 38 years old, played tunes on the newly made instruments. Balikci recorded her playing and took the instruments and the tape recordings back to the Museum.

The instruments are similar to each other; each has three sinew strings. The bow is strung with a willow root. They have only one bridge, so the strings must be fingered where they come off the soundboard, not into the air as on the Icelandic Fiðla and earlier Tautirut.

Here are the catalogue entries for the two instruments:
IV-B-648 made by Peterussie
IV-B-649 made by Krenoourak

Krenoourak’s instrument looks better; it is longer (though still not as long and slender in shape as the late 19th and early 20th century instruments), and it includes two little bits of wood which are now separate but which I presume are connected to tuning the instrument. These things have no tuning pegs; the strings are just attached to the ends, or in Krenoourak’s case, to leather straps attached to the end. Peterussie’s instrument is extremely short and fat, but it does have an ivory nut at each end where the strings pass over the ends.

Here is the museum catalogue entry for the sound recording:
Control no. IV-B-46T 

Cariola’s playing is very interesting, fast and obviously improvised. She uses different tunings; in the earlier tracks she has the instrument tuned with the drone a 4th below the melody note; in later tracks the drone is dropped to an octave below the melody note. I am particularly interested in the track that sounds like a trumpet fanfare, with the melody on 1st, 3rd, half-sharp 4th and 5th of the scale, with the octave bass drone. Her intonation drifts; sometimes it is clean and deliberate, while at other times it is rather wayward.

Her instrument is tuned higher than Sarah Airo’s (see my earlier post) but the general style of playing and the sound is similar. Cariola seems to use the drone more sparingly, touching it at the same time as playing the stressed melody notes, whereas Sarah is more often alternating between the melody and drone strings so the drone becomes a rythmic part of the tune. I wonder about this being a woman’s music, and about the style – it does seem to be connected to other bowed-harp styles from Scandinavia. And the players were 200 miles apart – though perhaps that is not very far in Northern Quebec.

Now to listen and learn some of the motifs and playing techniques!

Ceòl mór or pibroch for the clarsach

Right from the very beginning of my harp studies I was fascinated by the idea of ceòl mór on the harp. I started studying the first tunes (Fair Molly, the Butterfly and Burns March) from November or December 1999, and I think it was just a couple of months later that I found a cassette tape copy of Ann Heymann’s Queen of Harps in an Oxford Celtic/New Age shop. That recording, apart from eternally smelling of patchouli, of course has Ann’s 30 minute performance of her version of the pibroch, Lament for the Tree of Strings.

I think I was taken by the intricate repetitiveness of the music, like a journey through a landscape, or perhaps more pertinently like the folded geometric patterns in medieval manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. I was also interested in the abstract nature of the tunes, which are very different from the more “tuney” tunes more commonly found in traditional music nowadays.

I made a page on my old website about ceol mor, where I searched for inspiration and information.

The first ceòl mór tune I played on the harp was Cumh Easbig Earraghaal, the lament for the Bishop of Argyll, the manuscript source for which is reproduced in Alison Kinnaird’s and Keith Sanger’s book Tree of Strings. I think it took me a long time to get to grips with this tune but in some ways it made perfect sense to me – this is exactly what ancient harp music is meant to sound like, the contrasts between the different variations, and the opportunities for exploring different timbres and idioms as the variations progress. I continued to play and develop this tune and included it on my first CD, Clàrsach na Bànrighe, in 2008.

Ceòl mór is a genre of music that is best known nowadays as pipe music, played on the great highland bagpipe, where it is known as pibroch or pìobaireachd. I say “best known” though in fact you rarely hear pipers playing this type of music; it is rarely included in concert programmes, living instead in a rarefied world of piping competitions. I worked for a while with historical piper Barnaby Brown, on projects including promoting both piping and harping on the internet and developing online teaching resources. His unusual insight into the historical pibroch traditions gave me some useful understandings of the nature of this music and how it might live nowadays. Traditionally it belongs to the pipes and the fiddle and the old Gaelic harp with metal wire strings, and I feel each of the three instruments brings something different and unique to the music. None of them is “imitating” the other, each wholly owns the music and expresses some true deep spiritual essence of it in its own way.

I have continued to work on Gaelic harp ceòl mór; my latest CD Tarbh is entirely pibroch tunes (and I wonder if it is the first CD ever to be 100% harp ceòl mór). It is hard to market; it is serious music but it does fall between stools – too serious for traditional music followers, too traditional for classical and early music people. Pipers who play pibroch seem intruiged by it. When I perform concerts and include a big 10 minute ceòl mór tune, I am always nervous as to how the audience will react – will they be bored and restless? But afterwards I find people come up and say, that was the best piece of the whole concert!

Ceòl mór is such a huge world for me, I think I could spend the rest of my life just studying and playing this repertory. There is something truly meditative about the power of the music. More than one person has said how it is reminiscent of Indian Raga music, and I think it is the way that it selects just two or three notes and then cycles meditatively around them. There are points in some of the pibroch where a new tone appears and hits you with the force of emotion and power – I find it fascinating that such emotional intensity can be built up from such apparently simple material. Perhaps it has that intensity because of its deliberate, austere simplicity.

The Guthrie Bell Shrine

I was in the NMS yesterday and amongst other things I looked at the shrine of the Guthrie bell. This is a medieval silver confection which encases an early medieval iron bell – no-one seems to know which early saint the bell belonged to, but the silver decoration was made and applied in the West Highlands in mid-late medieval times.

My photo shows a late 15th or early 16th century figure of a West Highland bishop, and beside him some embossed silver panels of decoration which are a good match of the forepillar vines on the Queen Mary harp. The inscription is upside down and says “Iohannes Alexan/dri me fieri fecit”. I am not sure who John mac Alex was, though these are common manes amongst the Lords of the Isles who are likely patrons for the remodelling of the shrine in the late 15th century.