by J David Hester, PhD
The collection of 10 pibroch scores discovered by Dr. Alan MacAuslan represents one of the most significant, if also completely overlooked finds in our collection.
These scores represent the earliest available notation for the pibroch tunes presented here. The collection dates to circa 1815, approximately 5 years before the justly celebrated McArthur-McGregor manuscript (published, with critical notes and modern typeset scores, by the Piobarieachd Society in 2001; edited by Fran Buisman, performing scores by Andrew Wright, with Roderick Cannon as consulting editor).
In other words, what you are viewing here are the earliest known scores of these tunes.
The initial impression made upon a modern piper when first viewing this collection is one of general, if gentle disorientation. This begins with titles given to the tunes: sometimes they are given in both English and Gaelic, but half the time all one has is the Gaelic. And one of the tunes is given no name at all. Sometimes the English name isn’t exactly how it is known today (Lock on Fingers; the Pursuit of Glenfrooin), while in at least one case the English title is hardly ever used today (MacLachlan’s March, better known today as Mary’s Praise). One song even appears to have been inadvertently overlooked by the initial caretakers who provided us the PDF versions of the collection.
Then, once the piper decides to click on a link of what she or he hopes is the tune they are looking for, they are immediately confronted with yet more oddities: Melody notes are written with staffs pointing both up and down (In contrast, today’s pibroch is written with all staffs pointing down, and only grace note staffs point up). Additionally, lines of tunes are written without respect to phrasing or structure. Sometimes measures are split in the middle across staff lines. A single line of staff can contain anywhere 3-1/2, sometimes 4-1/2, and up to 6 measures. Variations end and begin in the middle of a staff, making it difficult to scan the page and know where one is in the course of listening to or playing a tune.
After spending some time getting oriented, as one begins to settle into a score and test it out on a chanter, still more strange things start to appear: grips without a final G; D-throws of at least three different types; movements not seen in 150 years, long discarded; taorluath movements in compound time; crunluaths with redundant As; fosgailte taorluaths with no rhythmic indicators beyond simple straight 1/8th notes; taorluath and crunluath a mach movement unlike anything played today. (There is much more…)
These can be quite bewildering to anyone first taking up a score, so much so it can be a serious obstacle to adoption.
Once some semblance of reorientation and familiarity starts to set in, though, a much more interesting second impression begins to take hold: one of quasi-familiarity of a tune. Because, in many cases, the rhythmic scansion and melody line of the urlars look only somewhat like what we are accustomed to seeing.
It begins with the absence of introductory Es in measures. Cadences are routinely and carefully notated as straight 1/32nd notes, leaving a notable absence of Es in the melody lines we are accustomed to seeing in Piobaireachd Society and particularly in Kilberry collections.
Then the issue of timing and rhythm is confronted: without the Es, does one give a note the full value indicated by the transcriber? After years of being told that what one sees on a score should never be understood as literal value for pibroch (in particular), how does one actually play the first note in each measure of H-A’s version of End of the Great Bridge (PS 171)? Clearly, Andrew Wright’s dictum does not apply, since we do not see a half cadence to low G, we see a full cadence to low G 1/4 note. What happens when we play it as written is a melodically familiar, but rhythmically strange and excitingly different tune than that with which we’ve become accustomed to hearing.
Or take a look at [Too Long in This Condition] (PS 161) – where did the beginning taorluaths go? Playing what we see, it sounds familiar, but not exactly. Then, after working our way through the urlar to the second variation, we are suddenly confronted with triplets. There is nothing to suggest that the triplets were a mistake by the transcriber: She or he knew very well how to capture dot-cut and compound expression on the page. We must take that very explicit rhythmic indicator seriously. And when we play it, we are immediately reminded of the triplet variation in Desperate Battle of the Birds.
In contrast, take a look at Donald Grummach (PS 102) – those fosgailte taorluaths in the middle of the second page have no triplet indicator whatsoever. Given the clear evidence the transcriber knew how to write triplets, should we play these taorluaths differently than we’ve been trained? Could they make more sense as a gentle(!) dot-cut-cut-dot pattern? Or do we play them straight, but give the tiniest bit more emphasis on the higher, themal notes?
At which point it begins to sink in: the transcriber knew exactly what she or he was doing. The score was written to reflect the core melodic intentionality of the composer, allowing for the creative intervention of the individual and specific performance to bend and shape the music according to inspiration. And yet, the score is different than any you have seen before or elsewhere (with the exception of Donald MacDonald, who appears to have faithfully, though with some slight emendations here and there, to have typeset some, but not all, of these scores in his overlooked book from 1819-20). Here is the old made new again.
And suddenly: you realized that you must take on the responsibility of the decisions you will make as you pick up and play these tunes.
We recommend you take the scores seriously, that you do not try to play the tunes as you know them. Instead, play them as they are written, allowing something new, unfamiliar and exciting to emerge: history, regional variability, musicality and your own responsibility as a musician for researching into and finding the core truth of the music as it has been handed down to you from this earliest known source for the melodies you will produce.
Specific issues, settings, movements and unique qualities will be addressed in other essays in an effort to help you navigate this strange and new terrain. We will provide insight into old, forgotten movements, structural insights and expressions not heard for over 200 years.
But it will ultimately be up to you, as a musician, to bring this ancient music to life in a way that inspires new performances based on ancient history.
As a result of the publication of these settings, along with the other collections offered at AltPibroch.com, something profound is beginning to take shape in pibroch: the return to the traditional, inspired core of any music – the musician.
You have become the creative center.