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Bagpipes

Bagpipes are both a face-saving and a labour-saving device. Face-saving because the Roman Emperor Nero is said to have ‘played the aulos with his arm’. Assuming that this meant that he was squeezing a bag under his arm with the aulos fixed into the bag, it would mean that he could avoid any risk of distending his cheeks too far while he was using continuous breathing, so preserving his facial vanity. And labour-saving because using a flexible bag as an air reservoir avoids the need for continuous breathing.

The aulos in a bag is still an aulos; the shawm in a bag is still a shawm; the single-reed pipe in a bag is still a single-reed pipe. It is these that have been, and still are, the basic bagpipes around the world.

An additional advantage of the bag is that extra pipes can be added to it. These are most commonly a drone pipe, or even two or three drones as with the Highland Great Pipe, or the court musette, or the Northumbrian, or the Irish uillean pipes. An extra chanter, the melody pipe, is unusual because one only has one pair of hands with which to cover the fingerholes, but double chanters, with the pipes parallel and fingered across both pipes, as with a number of geminate single-reed pipes described elsewhere in this series, are very common, especially around the Mediterranean.

The reed usually stays with the instrument, a double reed with the expanding-bore instruments and a single reed with the cylindrical ones. Drones are usually cylindrical, so as to get a pitch below that of the chanter, and so usually have a single reed, though the Italian zampogna has expanding bore drones and therefore double reeds. The French court musette was unusual in this respect, having cylindrical pipes and double reeds.

Most bagpipes are mouth-blown, and the more advanced ones have a non-return valve in the mouthpipe so that one can take one’s mouth away, either just to breath or to sing while playing; for how long one can sing before refreshing the bag, depends on the size of the bag. Where there is no non-return valve, as on my Tunisian example, the player has to put the tongue over the end of the mouthpipe to stop the air from escaping (it tastes revolting!).

Today the Highland Great Pipe has usurped the territory of many other bagpipes, but there were and still are many indigenous pipes. We have many church carvings and other evidence that there was a considerable variety of bagpipes in other parts of Britain in mediaeval times, and some of these are being revived today; there is still a number of regional bagpipes in France, though the Breton biniou has mostly succumbed to the Highland, and the Spanish gaita gallega still thrives, though the Maltese zaq has become rare. Many eastern European bagpipes such as the Polish bock, are still going strong, as are the southern European geminate bagpipes. Even in countries where the military bands use the Highland pipes for greater swagger and show, the local folk musicians may retain their own pipes. The biniou and the Italian zampogna retain the practice of having a shawm playing with bagpipe.

We also have still a wide variety of parlour pipes, which are quieter instruments with cylindrical bores. Outstanding among these are the Northumbrian small pipes and the Irish uillean pipes. These Irish pipes are unique in having extra drones called regulators, with a series of keys along them which, when opened with the arm, can provide a full harmonic accompaniment to the melody of the chanter. This is a highly skilled process and by no means all players that I have heard seem to have mastered the technique, for one sees players with pipes that have the registers but who seldom use them.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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