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About Piobaireachd (Pibroch)


Piobaireachd - anglicised as 'pibroch' - is the term applied to a species of music composed solely for and played solely on the Highland pipe. It cannot be satisfactorily reproduced on any other instrument. The word itself is translated simply as 'piping'.

A piobaireachd consists of a theme, called by pipers the 'Ground' in English, and the 'Urlar" in Gaelic. Urlar means ground or floor. This theme is followed by a series of variations, of stereotyped form. Not every variation is found in every tune, but as a general rule it can be said that the variations begin simply and develop in complexity as the piece progresses. This complexity, however, does not lie in an ever increasing sequence of notes. At some stage in the tune, the main heads, or principal notes, of the Ground will be restated. These main notes will be embellished with clusters of gracenotes of increasing complexity and length which are played after the main or theme note. The impression given by the later variations is therefore that of a limited number of long notes played in a definite sequence, each one followed by a cluster of gracenotes executed so dextrously by the piper that the component parts of this gracenote cluster are impossible to detect.

The air, song, or thread of the Ground can be difficult for the listener to follow. This also applies to piobaireachd players hearing a piobaireachd for the first time. This difficulty lies in the way in which the notes of the Ground are stressed. Because of the nature of the instrument the piper has no control over the volume or strength of sound which the instrument makes, that is, he cannot blow loud or soft. The volume is constant and the sound is continuous. The only way in which any particular note can be stressed is by prolonging it, or by placing on it a gracenote or notes. In ordinary pipe music - marches, strathspeys reels and so on - these gracenotes are executed so rapidly that they do not affect the flow of the music, and the tune is played in a definite and recognisable rhythm or tempo. In piobaireachd, on the other hand, these gracenotes are prolonged to the extent that they seem to hold up the flow of the melody, and can indeed sound as if they were part of the melody itself.

A further difficulty for the listener is caused by the way in which piobaireachd convention dictates that two successive notes of the same duration and pitch are separated. Three notes are in fact played, the first very short, the succeeding two long. These two notes are in turn separated by the insertion of a different note on the lower register of the pipe chanter on which the tune is played. This lower note is given a definite duration, which again makes it sound like part of the melody, which of course it is not. Pipers call these stereotyped movements 'echoing beats'. It is therefore virtually impossible for the conventional musician to follow the melody of a piobaireachd at first hearing, although with familiarity this difficulty disappears. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact those long grace notes, or cadences, and the echoing beats are not counted against the time signature. As a result it is very difficult to pick up a pulse or beat, and the outcome is that piobaireachd is in fact very difficult to play and to express.

But although it is difficult to follow the sense of a piobaireachd, the same is not true of the sound. In the composition of the actual sound of the Highland pipe the drones have an important part to play. The drones are three in number, there being one bass and two tenor drones which are tuned to the tonic of the chanter, the bass drone sounding an octave below, and the tenor drones sounding in consonance with the tonic. It is the effect of the drones when heard against each distinct note of the chanter which gives piobaireachd music its unique appeal. Listeners (to this CD) who are not familiar with the music should begin by trying to hear each piobaireachd, not as a tune against a constant droning noise, but as a series of chords. Once this has been achieved the listener is well on the way to acquiring an appreciation of piobaireachd music.

The origins of this unique musical form are obscure, although it is certain that it began its evolution in the Highlands of Scotland. Although the bagpipe in varying forms is found all over Europe, nothing resembling piobaireachd has been developed for any other form of the instrument. Much of the accepted piobaireachd history is based on conjecture, and it is doubtful if some of the founding fathers ever in fact existed. However, if the names of the earlier piobaireachds are anything to go by, we have tunes which can be dated as far back as the late 15th century, and about this time we have the first evidence of the mergence of the famous piping family of MacCrimmon as pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan in Skye, a connection which endured until the middle of the 19th century. The MacCrimmons are believed to have maintained a school of piping in Skye, as did the later piping family of MacArthur. A similar college existed in Mull, where the teachers were the Rankine family. All these were under the protection of some or other of the leading Highland families, the MacArthurs' patron being the Chiefs of Clan Donald, and the Rankines' MacLean of Coll. A family of Mackays provided pipers to the Mackenzies of Gairloch, while various Campbell families also maintained pipers. It appears however that the apogee of piobaireachd as a distinct Highland art form was reached in the early decades of the 17th century, and that the MacCrimmons, under the patronage of Sir Rory Mor Macleod, were the principal protagonists both as pipers and composers. To this period belong two of the tunes featured on the CD, 'The Lament for Mary Macleod' and 'The Lament for Donald Duaghal Mackay', both composed by a MacCrimmon, the former by Patrick Og MacCrimmon and the latter by his father Donald Mor. 'The Battle of Auldearn' also dates from this period too. It took place during the Great Civil War of 1642-48, and was fought between the royalists under Montrose and the Covenanting forces under Sir John Hurry, although in Highland terms it was a battle between the MacDonalds for the King and the Campbells for Parliament. The Macdonalds won! 'The End of the Great Bridge' refers to a battle fought a century later, a skirmish in fact between the MacDonalds of Keppoch and a party of raw recruits between Spean Bridge and Fort Augustus. It was the first engagement of the '45 rebellion. And it was the '45 rebellion which was to put a stop to the playing and composition of piobaireachd for many years. After the defeat of the Jacobite Army at Culloden in 1746, the Government passed the notorious disarming Act, which proscribed the wearing of the Highland dress and forbade the carrying of arms. It is not clear whether the playing of the bagpipe was specifically banned but enough rough justice was meted out under the terms of the Act to make it extremely risky to rely on the ability of the average English soldier to interpret it correctly. Under the terms of the Act, however, the Highland dress and the carrying of arms were permitted to soldiers enlisted into the Army, in which the earliest Highland regiments were then being formed. No Highland regiment, either then or later, considered itself complete until each company had its piper. And so the music continued to be heard, and piobaireachd continued to be played.

As time went on, the Disarming Act was enforced less and less ferociously - we have a piobaireachd composed during the proscription - and in 1782 it was finally repealed. This had been achieved largely by the efforts of the Highland Society of London, formed for that purpose, and even before the repeal the Highland Society had taken steps to revive what it called 'the ancient martial music of Caledonia'. By that it meant piobaireachd, and the result was the first of an annual series of competitions for the playing of the ancient music, which must imply that piobaireachd had continued to be played and taught during the period of proscription. The competition was held at Falkirk, in October during the great cattle sale attended by drovers and farmers from all over the Highlands as well as buyers from the South.

This was the first of the great piobaireachd competitions, and it was through the competition system that piobaireachd was to survive. Appreciation of the music was confined to a very few, and there was little public interest in a form of music which had little entertainment value. Although Highland Games began to proliferate throughout the Highlands, particularly after Queen Victoria took up residence at Balmoral during the summer, the piobaireachd contest was the one to be got over first. This was the case for many years, and indeed to this day whereas many games hold piobaireachd competitions they are mostly begun and completed well before the crowds begin to gather, an exception being the South Uist Games on Askernish Machair where the audience, steeped in Highland music and lore, will listen enthralled while the pipers play their piobaireachds. The tide began to turn in the early years of this century, which saw the emergence of what has been called the skilled amateur player of piobaireachd, largely through the influence of the Royal Scottish Pipers Society, formed 'to encourage the playing of the bagpipe among gentlemen' in Edinburgh in 1881. At the same time collections of piobaireachd music were being published, containing hundreds of tunes, many of which were thus rescued from extinction. This resurgence of interest continued during the inter war years, fostered by the Piobaireachd Society, which published standard arrangements of piobaireachd tunes, and arranged for them to be played at the principal competitions for which the Society also provided judges.

But nothing in those years prepared the relatively small and closeknit world of piobaireachd aficionados for the explosion of interest in the music which has occurred over the last twenty years. Beginning after the Second World War, the entry lists of competitors grew steadily until the stage was reached where it was found necessary to restrict the numbers competing. A piobaireachd takes on average some 12-15 minutes to play, and allowing for the time taken by the piper to fine tune his instrument three tunes in an hour is good going. It can be seen that an entry of thirty pipers is as much as can be handled in a day.

The standard of piobaireachd playing has also increased. Whereas thirty years ago the stage was dominated by a few star performers, competent players now abound, a players compete for the big competitions from all around the world..

Intrigued? Ready for more classic piobaireachd playing?

Here is where you find it. Most solo bagpipe albums are not exclusively piobaireachd but, with the exception of P/M Robert Mathieson (who plays a very straight piece but with an atmospheric, modern accompaniament), all of the albums of unaccompanied solo bagpiping normally include at least one piobaireachd.

This is only for the Great Highland Bagpipe, not Uilleann, Lowland, Northumbrian etc.. Also 'Laments' and 'Airs' are simply that, not piobaireachd.

Click 'Bagpipes' or 'Piobaireachd' in the 'Genre' box.

A 'Variation on the Theme'

Canntaireachd is the old 'vocal' version of 'playing' pipe tunes, when the bagpipes were banned following the Jacobite risings. The style of 'mouth music' was also used to teach piping, and pass the ancient tunes down through the generations. This method of teaching is still used today in piping circles. On LCOM5261 Michael Grey 'Cuts from Traditional Cloth', Michael plays part of "The Prince's Salute" assisted by three singers intoning the canntaireachd related to the tune.

You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.




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