Mac Mhic Alister’s Dead Lament – Part 2

Featured in the APC Guide to Pibroch, I am currently working through the piece in order to perform it next year at a number of venues. And, in the spirit of Learning Living Pibroch, I wanted to step through the score study here, in order to demonstrate the APC process I’ve adopted, and to solicit feedback from the community.

This piece is found here, on the Musical Materials site. It is only found in the Campbell Canntaireachd (among the materials prior to 1854), and so there is no staff notation from the time to give us an idea as to how it might have been played.

Last week we laid out the urlar, show Campbell manuscript, an exact transcription, and then staff notation (with very minimal rhythmic indicators, only reflect Joseph and Donald MacDonald motif rhythms, which you need not employ).

This week, I’m going to add recording(s) of the Urlar. I say “(s)”, because I have not yet decided how best to interpret the score. Campbell more-or-less clearly demarcates phrases (which is why we do not transcribe him vocable at a time), so that provides a framework. But that is as close as we come to knowing “how to play” the music.

First, we note a number of crahinins, which we know are meant (in laments) to be keening. Since this is entitled a “dead lament”, it seems natural we perform them as keening – rather potentially freeform. But “freeform” also needs to be musical and move the musical phrase forward. I might opt to play them MacDonald style.

Also, we can take advantage of the ending phase hioendam by interpreting the “hio” as receiving a streaming cadence and turning this into a MacCrummen run-down.

I have also decided to use streaming cadences to introduce each phrase.

The result will look something like this:

Peter McCallister, 2018 Gold Medal Winner at Inverness, alternatively, has interpreted the canntaireachd differently. Here are his notes:

This tune is only found in the Campbell Canntaireachd. The tunes in the two volumes of the Canntaireachd were arranged in order by the writer, Colin Campbell, depending on the opening vocables of the first phrase. This tune is followed immediately by “Roaigs Lament” (Lament for MacSwan of Roaig), to which it bears a certain resemblance.

Mac Mhic Alasdair was the patronymic of the MacDonalds of Glengarry, so an alternative title for the tune could be “MacDonald of Glengarry’s Lament”. 

The Canntaireachd is deficient in many places in this tune, and only Variation 1 is complete. Attempts to fill the gaps have been made, based on evidence from other parts of the tune. Other pipers might have different, and equally valid, suggestions for how these bars should be completed. The use of cadence E’s is not common in the Canntaireachd, and these have been added to fit with what pipers might play today.

2012 Notes by Peter McCalister

This is his staff notation transcription of the Urlar:

And here is quite beautiful interpretation of it:


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