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Friday 28 March 2014

A New Pibroch: Lament for Calum Maclean

To mark the untimely death of Calum Maclean (1915–1960), one of Scotland’s foremost collectors, at only the age of forty-four, Francis ‘Frank’ Collinson (1898–1984) composed a pibroch in memory of his close friend and colleague. 

Collinson was the first musical Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies (established in 1951) until his retirement in 1962. His name is well known amongst pipers as an ethnomusicologist and as a pre-eminent historian of the instrument as related in his study The Bagpipe: The History of a Musical Instrument, published to critical acclaim in 1975. 

What is not so well known is that he may well be unique or at least one of a very few non-pipers ever to have composed a pibroch. This pibroch, entitled A Lament for Calum Maclean, was given its first public airing in 1961 when it was preformed by the late John D. Burgess (1934–2005). A radio script, entitled A New Pibroch, exists for the radio programme that was broadcast live (but it would seem not recorded) by the BBC. This document gives a fascinating insight not only into the genesis of the aforementioned pibroch but also illustrates the reflections of a non-piping musician into the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe.

The primary significance of the composition of a new pibroch, lies not so much on the merits or demerits of the piece of itself, as in the fact that so few pibroch have been composed during the last 150 years or so. Since the battle of Waterloo, when a pipe-playing officer of one or our Highland Regiments, composed a pibroch-lament for the men of his Company who fell in battle, the number of pibroch which have been composed and accepted into the repertory is said to be less than half a dozen. The composition of Pibroch (in Gaelic Ceòl Mòr, or Great Music) the classical music of the Scottish Highland bagpipe, has come to be accounted a lost art.

There are several possible explanations of this. Partly it is because the composition of pibroch was nurtured as part of the social life and occassions of the Highland Clan under its chief, that now [is] now gone forever. Also, of course, today, any new pibroch had to stand comparison with the old; and the best of the old are masterpieces, hard to approach and impossible to excel. Thirdly the art of pibroch has always been a singularly esoteric one, and so closely confined to its own pipe-playing devotees, that it has even yet almost completely escaped the musician of the outside world, who might become a composer for the instrument, that the Scottish bagpipe is a medium which is capable expressing music of stature. Yet the existence of some four hundred examples of this ancient Highland musical art-form is ample proof that it is such a medium.

This ignorance of the classical music of the pipes among even Scottish-born academic musicians – ignorance that often extends to the very definition of the word pibroch itself, though partly the fault of this attitude of the cult among out pipers themselves, is also I am afraid due to the prejudice on the part of the academic musician, who will say, as I have heard it said, among other things, that the scale of the pipes is “out of tune” and offends the trained musical ear; which is to forget (a) that it needs a good musical ear to play the pipes well, and (b) as a purely melodic instrument, never intended to be played in harmony with any other sound except its own drones, it is perfectly in order musically for it to possess an individual and characteristic scale of its own. Once one realises this, it becomes possible not merely to accept, but positively to savour the individuality and tang of these intervals of the bagpipe scale. Let’s drag it out into the open and see if we can listen to it with an unprejudiced ear.

(Play recording of the pipe scale)

Well, there you are; the drooping lowest note of the scale is made to droop even more expressively by flattening it – a subtly artistic device. The third note from the keynote, the mi of our doh-ray-mi, which is also flat by pianoforte standards, is one of the many varieties of this interval which you find used by the traditional singer, not only in Scotland but anywhere in the world. The scale has other characteristics but that is as far as I can go without becoming abstrusely technical.

Fastidious aloofness would not be understood if it were dance-music that was in question; but Pibroch is an art-form – in its simplest analysis that of variations upon a theme, which is of course an art-form that has been deemed worthy of use by I suppose every great composer who ever lived.

One can indeed find a number of similarities to the pibroch structure in the works of the classical composers. There is the doubling or repeating of a variation with additional ornamentation for instance. You find the very name “Double” or “Double” (French Pronunciation) in Gaelic, Dubailt, Dublachadh, used with a  not unsimilar connotation in pibroch and in the harpsichord music of Bach, Handel, and Couperin. There is also the formal device of recapitulation of the theme. In the earlier history of Pibroch this used to take place after each main group of variations, so allying the whole form to the rondo of classical usage. Now, this recapitulation occurs only at the end. The change is said to have originated as a time-saving device in competition playing of pibroch; but fortuitously, by giving this recapitulation of the theme a greater sense of importance the feeling of return, after the stress of complex development, is even more reminiscent of the recapitulation of classical music. Probably it was these similarities of pibroch to the music of the outside world that gave rise to the suggestion, now I find finally discredited, that the MacCrimmons, said to be the originators of the form, got their name form having come in the train of one of the chiefs of Macleod from Cremona in Italy, the home of the great violin makers, in the country of the great virtuoso performers.

The astonishing thing is that his relatively highly organised and spacious music of pibroch, possessing these parallels with the music of the outside world as it does, should have been composed without the knowledge and assistance of staff notation. It is equally astonishing that composed, with no knowledge as far as we are aware of the accepted rules of musical composition as we know them, we find in fact that, this Highland music conforms extraordinarily closely to these rules both in the contour of its melody and in the implied harmonic progressions which underlie it.

I made my first extensive acquaintance with pibroch about ten years ago, in the company of my late friend and colleague Calum Maclean, Gaelic folklorist, in memory of whom my pibroch is named. He took me to hear the playing of William Maclean, ex-pipe-major of the Cameron Highlanders, a player of pibroch who could trace his descent of teachers in remarkably few steps back to the MacCrimmons. At his house in Kilcreggan, in a series of daily visits that extended over a period of weeks, I entered upon a whole fascinating new world of music; all of it absorbing, some of it great; some like “The Lament of the Children” of Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon, sublime. I determined that one day I would try my hand at the composition of this music myself.

In the spring of last year, I found the theme for my pibroch in the five-note call of a blackbird which I heard singing in the trees of George Square in Edinburgh. This is by the way quite in keeping with tradition, for one of the fabulous “lost pibrochs” was said to have been composed upon the song of the lark. This is what it sang:–

(Theme on the piano by F[rancis] C[ollinson])

On this five-note theme I wrote this tune of three phrases (six and six and four bars) that was to form the ground or “Urlar” to use the Gaelic term, of the pibroch.
(Theme of the ground on the piano F[rancis] C[ollinson])

On that “Urlar” or ground I wrote a pibroch of eight movements, each following as nearly as I could the prescribed form of variations increasing in complexity of grace-note figuration, a process that is partly stereotyped and partly free. I don’t play the pipes myself, and so, as every composer must do who writes for an instrument he doesn’t play, I took it to a piper to edit it technically. Pipe-major John Burgess, who gave the pibroch its first performance on the air a fortnight ago, kindly did this for me. In the form in which it came from his hands, some interesting differences emerged. My blackbird’s call, in the idiom of the pipes for instance, was translated from this (play on piano) to this (play on piano). Also the first phase of the tune was repeated, making three phrases instead of four, and so giving it greater substance. Let us listen to the whole ground as is sounds on the pipes of John Burgess.

(Play recording of the Ground by John Burgess)

We haven’t time of course to go through all the variations, but you might like to hear a snatch of the final variation the doubling of the Crunluath which leads to the recapitulation of the simple theme that brings every pibroch to its end.

(Flash from recording to be selected)

One is tempted to ask at this point what course the composition of Ceòl Mòr could take in the future. That depends I would say on whether accomplished composers, as well as players of pibroch who are tempted to compose, can be persuaded that the Highland bagpipe is an instrument worthy of their skill. The fact of the matter, I feel, is that the composition of this great music for the pipes is not so much a lost, as a completed art in the now stereotyped form in which it exists – in the same way as the classical dance-suite for the keyboard became a completed art in the hands of Bach and Handel. But though the composition of the classical dance-suite ceased with those great composers, the writing of music for the piano by no means did so, and still continues to develop.

Can we find a parallel here? If we follow out the line of reasoning to its conclusion, it would mean I think that for art music for the pipes to develop further, it would have to find a different form. I suspect that any such idea is unrealistic, for the acceptance of it must depend on the piper himself, and our Scottish pipers are a musical aristocracy notoriously conservative. I am inclined to think that the piper would probably and perhaps rightly prefer to keep to the completed and closed form of his own beautiful pibroch tradition rather that that its boundaries should be burst asunder and expanded by the thrusting modern musical mind.
(Play last four bars of pibroch recording to finish if desired).


A review of the performance was published by Christopher Grier (1922–1997), a principal music critic at The Scotsman, and here reproduced in full:

Bagipes and Bach
New Collinson Pibroch
By Christopher Grier

Less than half a dozen pibrochs have been written since the Battle of Waterloo. Whether that reflects the demoralising influence of a great tradition upon later traditions of player-composers, creative inertia, or simply the lack of anything to write about in the piping days of Victorian peace I don’t know, but it is a startling fact. Hence the significance of the small but knowledgeable gathering the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh, on Saturday evening to hear Pipe-Major John Burgess introduce a new pibroch by Francis Collinson, Lament for Calum Maclean. But there was more to it still, for it seems likely that it was the first pibroch composed by a professional musician reared in the urban, main-stream, concert-hall and theatre world.

Versatile and experienced as he is, Mr Collinson has, of course, latterly been working for the School of Scottish Studies, which has given him unusual opportunities of studying this ancient Highland art form at close quarters. That is an important consideration, for the average position is apt to be alarmed by the occasional rumbles of internal dissension that issue from its midst. Whereas its air and variation principle is simple enough, its niceties are very much more complex.

This particular lament was based on a blackbird call overheard in the George Square gardens, but its flavour and pattern was to be dictated by the death of Calum Maclean, a close friend and associate of Francis Collinson. Expert opinion declared afterwards that it was a very good pibroch and a fine tribute to its subject. Pipers have conservative tastes, and it will be interesting to see whether the lament is generally accepted with the same approval as was bestowed upon it on Saturday.

In his memoir of Maclean, Collinson left a vivid impression of his late friend and colleague as well as making mention of the inestimable fieldwork that he had carried out with particular relevance to piping. Indeed, judging by the following extract, along with the Irish ethnomusicologist Séamus Ennis [Séamus Mac Aonghusa] (1919–1982) and renowned piper in his own right, Maclean and Collinson may be viewed as pioneers of recoding pibroch with modern equipment:

It was Calum who had the happy idea of visiting Pipe-Major William Maclean to record piobaireachd. We went over accordingly to Kilcreggan and there commenced the first of our long piobaireachd recording sessions with him—a series which eventually reached the impressive total of fifty-four piobaireachd. Piobaireachd had never been recorded in its entirety before, and such recordings in those days were quite unique. With William Maclean’s line of teaching tradition that stretched by way of ‘Calum Pìobaire’ (father of Angus MacPherson, Invershin) back to the MacCrimmons, these recordings may be said to be one of the finest roses in the School’s chaplet of achievements. Willie’s talk about the MacCrimmon canntaireachd, the system by which he was taught, was interesting enough to bring Col. Grant of Rothiemurchas down to Edinburgh to hear the tape. Calum, be it said, loved piobaireachd. Thereafter, he liked nothing better than to listen by the hour to the School’s piobaireachd recordings, and always with closed eyes!

In his only major publication, The Highlands, published a year before his untimely death, Maclean wrote down some of his own recollections of piping, and in which he makes mention of some very famous names of the piping world:

It was in the Glen Hotel I had one of the greatest pleasures that has come my way in recent years. On the evening of the Kingussie Highland Games I met Angus MacPherson of Inveran, son of the late Malcolm, King of the Pipers. Angus had adjudicated the dancing events at Kingussie that day and had come to spend the week-end with his niece. For over sixty years Angus MacPherson has attended Highland Games, first as a competitor and latterly as an adjudicator of piping and dancing. As a piper he won the highest honours, while his son, Malcolm, was said to have at times equalled the late Pipe-Major John MacDonald of Inverness. In an age so dedicated to materialism and its standard of values, it was an experience to have met Angus MacPherson, for he is about the most refined idealist I have ever met. In his veins there flows the blood of generations of artists from the sixteenth century onwards, and to him only the beautiful things in life mattered. I spoke to him about the stories and legends about his father and hoped that they would not be forgotten. By that time Angus had made up his mind to write down his memories of his father and his methods of teaching. He has since done so in his delightful book, A Highlander Looks Back. A great deal of the material about his father he has recorded viva voce for the Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies. The problem was to have permanent recordings of his father’s style of playing made by pipers whom his father taught. Angus himself was then too old to play the pipes again, and the late Pipe-Major John MacDonald was bedridden. There remained only Pipe-Major William MacLean of Kilcreggan who received his tuition along with Angus himself. Pipe-Major MacLean was then seventy-six years of age but still active. The following winter Pipe-Major Maclean began the recording and played almost fifty pibrochs as he was taught to play them by old Malcolm MacPherson. Six months ago I arrived in Lairg, Sutherlandshire, one fine summer evening. I telephoned Angus almost as soon as I got to Lairg. “Have you got your recording machine?” asked he. I told him I had. “The pipes are going well,” said he. I knew that there was something in the wind. I went to see him the following evening, and in the gathering darkness he tuned up and we recorded the “Prince’s Salute”—a lovely pibroch composed in honour of the Old Chevalier in 1715. When we finished, I had it played back for him. He was not quite satisfied with his performance. I decided to come back to see him the following morning. The pipes were going really well by the time I reached him. We re-recorded the “Prince’s Salute”. This time he was satisfied, and went on to play the ground or theme of three other pibrochs. He played them all as he was taught to do by his father. A few days previously he had gone into his seventy-ninth year. He had made up his mind that he would play his pipes again.

Christopher Grier, ‘Bagpipes and Bach: New Collinson Pibroch’, The Scotsman (27 Feb., 1961), p. 12
Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (London: Batsford, 1959)
National Library of Scotland, ‘A New Pibroch by Francis Collinson’, Acc.8985/136
Various, Tocher, vol. 39 (1985) [a volume dedicated to Calum Maclean’s fieldwork]

Calum Maclean, taken by Dr Werner Kissling, Kirk Yetholm, Roxburghshire, 1956
A New Pibroch composed by Francis Collinson
John Lorne Campbell (L) and Francis Collinson, c. 1980s

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