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  1. #1
    Join Date
    18th October 09
    Orange County California
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    History of the Bagpipe

    The title is a bit misleading perhaps because about the bagpipe there's very little history per se, that is, very little in the way of written accounts.

    There are plenty of ancient accounts that mention instruments, the problem being that in many cases we don't know exactly what instruments various words in various languages refer to, often generic words meaning "tube" or "pipe". It's all too easy to make the leap to bagpipes from these words, a leap not supported by any evidence.

    The earliest references anywhere on earth that unequivocally mentions bagpipes are both connected to the Emperor Nero, first century AD.

    Dio Chrysostom, writing in Greek, says

    A certain King of our time... could paint and fashion statues, and play the aulos, both by means of the lips and by tucking a skin beneath his armpits, and so avoiding the reproach of Athena.

    Another account (in Latin) says that Nero promised a music festival at which he would perform upon a number of musical instruments including a filled animal-skin bag.

    Then, hundreds of years of silence on the topic until bagpipes suddenly appear all over Europe, in the distribution we see today.

    We don't have an exact "when" as to the appearance of bagpipes in various parts of Europe, and we have little clue as to "why". But we can examine the "what" in detail, the typology or organology of bagpipes which have survived to modern times. Just as the study of the DNA of modern populations can offer clues about the spread of humans around the world, the study of bagpipes suggests possible connexions, enabling us to group various species of bagpipes into families of presumed common origin.

    What most European bagpipes have in common is a chanter (melody pipe) and single drone, a "bass drone" that plays a note two octaves below the main chanter note.

    The main divide between Eastern European and Western European bagpipes is the type of chanter reed. Eastern European bagpipes have single reeds in both chanter and drone, like this:

    They're basically a length of cane with a "tongue" cut into them.

    Eastern European chanters have a cylindrical (straight-sided) internal bore, or in some cases a gently conical (tapered) bore.

    Western European bagpipes have the same single-reed in the drone (or drones) but a double reed in the chanter.

    A double reed is a sophisticated affair, being two shaped blades tied onto a "staple" (metal tube). Orchestral bassoons and oboes also have double reeds. Here's a Scottish Highland bagpipe chanter reed:

    The chanter bore of Western European bagpipes is more strongly conical, especially in the so-called "Celtic" bagpipes.

    So, what are the types of Eastern European bagpipes?

    In Bulgaria, Macedonia, and parts of Greece the bagpipes are like this, a full sheepskin with blowpipe, chanter, and bass drone

    In north-eastern Europe you can see bagpipes like this, once again a chanter and a bass drone

    Instruments are meant to be played and listened to, so here we go, the Slovak bagpipes, fairly representative of central eastern European bagpipes


    Here's the Bulgarian bagpipe, the largest of several sizes, called Kaba Gaida, an incredibly soulful instrument for singing


    Now about Western European bagpipes. The more steeply conical bore and double reed in the chanter gives a brighter tone.

    What many regard as the best survival of a typical Mediaeval bagpipe is the Gaita Galega from northwest Spain (their dialect lacks the double-L).

    Here it is; the older style had only the blowpipe, chanter, and bass drone. At some point a tenor drone started being added; sometimes the tenor drone (sticking out the side of the bag) has a shutoff valve. The affinity to the Scottish Highland pipes is obvious, especially to the oldest surviving Highland sets.

    And here you can hear the Spanish pipes; this is slightly rare, in that instead of both gaitas being in the usual high key, one is a lower-pitched gaita.


    There's a so-called "Celtic group" of bagpipes including Spanish pipes, Highland pipes, and these, the traditional bagpipe of Brittany, in effect a tiny Spanish or Highland pipe, called the Biniou

    Here's a Biniou with the traditional pewter inlay ornamentation, also found on Bulgarian and other pipes

    And here's the traditional Breton dance music, played on Biniou and Bombarde


    (more to come)
    Last edited by OC Richard; 6th September 18 at 07:03 PM.
    Proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; son of the Revolution and Civil War; first Europeans on the Guyandotte

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  3. #2
    Join Date
    18th October 09
    Orange County California
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    I've painted a straightforward picture, East and West having chanter & bass drone pipes.

    But the situation is far more complex: in various places in both Eastern and Western Europe there exist (or formerly existed) species of bagpipe with a double chanter.

    In Eastern Europe these species usually have both chanter-bores in a single piece of wood. One chanter plays more or less the same as a normal single chanter, the other chanter has only one finger-hole, for the little finger of the lower hand. That side of the chanter has an extension at the bottom so putting down the little finger produces a note a fourth below the chanter's keynote; the resulting "counter-drone" goes tonic to dominant, in theory-speak.

    Here's a closeup of a Hungarian chanter. You can see one side having fingerholes in the usual way, the other side having only the fingerhole for the little finger of the lower hand. The thickness surrounding the top fingerhole is to make a narrow but deep hole, which has the effect of raising notes below a semi-tone, making the chanter chromatic. Bulgarian chanters have a similar feature (called the mormorka, or "flea-hole").

    There are numerous "counter-drone" species in the Balkans, in Romania, in Hungary.

    Here's a group of Hungarian Duda players, when seen like this they appear to be ordinary Eastern European bagpipes


    The real beauty of the Hungarian bagpipes is when they're heard solo, as here, a lovely bagpipe & vocal piece. It's so effective when the counter-drone goes down to its low note:


    In Italy the standard bagpipe has two separate chanters and two drones, all emitting from a single "stock" (the part of the bagpipe that's tied into the leather bag) all the pipes having steep conical bores and double reeds in the typical Western European way.

    The overall technology of the Italian bagpipe places it in the Renaissance period.

    Italian bagpipes are seen in a variety of sizes, some quite huge.

    Here's what they sound like, lovely harmonies; the Italians call their bagpipe zampogna, related to our word symphony, which means "sounding together"


    Further west, all over Britain, and especially in Cornwall, ones sees Renaissance-era carvings of double-chanter bagpipes such as this pew-end carving in Altarnun Church

    These species have not survived into modern times but several bagpipe makers have re-created them.

    Here's Julian Goodacre playing his own reproduction of the Altarnun double-pipe


    I should mention that Central French bagpipes are often mistaken for double-chanter pipes, due to having a small drone parallel to the chanter and in the same stock. Various species have survived in Auvergne and Limousine. Here you can see the ornate pewter inlay decoration that crops up on bagpipes all over Europe

    Here's a duet of these lovely bagpipes. This French music often has a quite Mediaeval sound to it, the music pointing East while the instrument's technology is firmly in the west.


    As with all bagpipes sometimes their distinctive beauty is best heard in mixed-instrument groups, such as this Central French ensemble


    Last edited by OC Richard; 7th September 18 at 03:46 AM.
    Proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; son of the Revolution and Civil War; first Europeans on the Guyandotte

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  5. #3
    Join Date
    18th October 09
    Orange County California
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    So what about Irish and Scottish Highland bagpipes?

    Surprisingly there's very little to go on, as far as documentation goes. It does appear that Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, being on the fringe of Europe, were rather late to the party regarding bagpipes. In the Middle Ages when bagpipes were becoming all the rage across Europe the Gaelic peoples were playing harp and an early form of fiddle.

    The first image we have of a Gaelic bagpipe is from John Derricke's The Image Of Ireland written in 1578.

    The bagpipe pictured appears generally similar to the type which was popular at the time in The Low Countries, seen in the 16th century paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

    The Irish warpipe, though, had the large trumpet-shaped "bells" giving it a more archaic look.

    Modern reconstructions suggest that the extremely long drones, close in length to each other, were possibly a bass drone and a second drone a fourth lower, a contrabass drone if you will.

    Now what did these sound like? We're not 100% sure but it might have been like this


    The fact is that no "ancient Irish warpipes" have survived, and we just don't know exactly what they looked like, or what they sounded like.

    The Irish warpipe in the Derricke illustration looks so little like the Highland pipes that it's hard to imagine them as being from the same species. Yet there are accounts of early Highland pipers being sent to Ireland to complete their education in piping.

    What are we to make of it?

    There are other north-western European bagpipes of the period that begin to look a bit more akin to the Highland pipes, though the long narrow chanter is quite unlike the shorter steeply conical chanter of the Highland pipes.

    But the evidence of the instruments themselves, our earliest images of Highland pipes and earliest surviving instruments, suggests a connexion to the bagpipes in Brittany and Spain rather than to central or northern Europe.

    The iconography of the Highland pipes is so very late; our earliest clear depiction dates to 1714

    And truth be told we just don't know what the Highland pipes looked like before that.

    The brown wood (possibly local hardwood) and pewter ornamentation fit right into what's seen across numerous species of European bagpipes.

    As to actual specimens, here's one of our earliest surviving Highland sets

    The similarity of the bass drones on the two Highland sets above to the bass drone of the Spanish pipes is quite striking and simply could not be mere coincidence IMHO.

    People who are only used to the Highland pipes may not realise that they have an extremely unusual feature: a redundant drone.

    As I mentioned all Eastern European and many Western European bagpipes only have a single drone, a bass drone. This was the universal feature of bagpipes in the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance period the popularity of bagpipes greatly increased especially in France, Germany, and the Low Countries and there was much technological experimentation with multiple chanters, keyed chanters, extra drones, even keyed drones. Adding a second drone, a tenor drone (playing one octave higher than the bass drone) or a baritone drone (playing a fourth or fifth higher than the bass drone) became popular.

    And one sees bagpipes with both the tenor and baritone drones added, making a total of three.

    What one doesn't see is the addition of a redundant drone, such as the Highland pipes having two tenor drones.

    Except the extremely interesting old illustration of a set of Danish bagpipes, which has only two tenor drones and no bass drone.

    (This is a reconstruction, I'll try to find the original image.)

    What's interesting is that there were early Highland pipes like that, two tenors and no bass.

    Also interesting is that in some early Highland pipes the two tenors shared a common stock (seen in the 1714 painting above) while in other sets the tenor drones were turned in a style rather different than the bass drone (seen in the old museum set above).

    This almost has the appearance of the bass drone of the Spanish pipes added to the tenor drones of the Danish pipes to create the modern Highland pipes. It does make one wonder.
    Last edited by OC Richard; 7th September 18 at 05:19 AM.
    Proud Mountaineer from the Highlands of West Virginia; son of the Revolution and Civil War; first Europeans on the Guyandotte

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  7. #4
    Join Date
    12th February 08
    Spokane, WA USA
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    The "Image of Ireland" (1578) brought to mind the name of a tune: The Firing of the Piper's Hut. Now, people only yell at me.


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