The Earliest Canntaireachd

There has been some discussion since the publication of The APC Guide to Pibroch, much of it centering around the question of how to classify piobaireachd.  

The contention in the book is that piobaireachd is more akin to folk music (what those of you outside the US would prefer to call “traditional music”) than classical music: it is primarily oral in origin. 

Some have contended, however, that canntaireachd was written and hundreds of years old.

So, I asked our Member and friend Keith Sanger: What is the earliest evidence of written canntaireachd that we have?

This is his reply:

There is an 18th C Gaelic poem by John MacCodrum called Diomoladh Pioba Dhomhnaill Bhain (“The Dispraise of Donald Ban’s Pipes”), which in one verse appears to be mimikcing sung canntaireachd.

The relevant verse in translation (by Wm Matheson) but with the vocables as translated goes:

Is it not a fine laughing stock to sputter away at a theme (urlar) without playing of variation (lutha) or lovely grace notes (siubhlaicheann)
Ramming odroachan in the tail of odrochan , ramming odrochan in the rear of odrovi (o-dro-bhi, in the Gaelic original).
a narrow crooked bag, half full of slavers, a wind like the chill of frost through the squint holes that the fingers cannot cover,
only ohon and ohi can be understood aright. (o-theoin and o-thi).

There is also in one of the Irish Annals the record of the death of someone in 1226. He was described as being an expert in canntairechta acus crotglesa, translated as “Canntaireachd and harp tuning.” Although it was seized on by some harpers, the word is well attested as just meaning “song-chant”, which is what even the pipe version is, and in the case of that orbit is more likely an indication of how the syllabic verse was actually performed and he would have been that elusive creature a ‘recaire’.

But the earliest pipe tune canntaireachd was Colin Campbell.

It certainly appears that the original assertion is correct: insofar as piobaireachd was primarily (until the 19th century) handed down orally, it is a folk/trad music, not classical. Certainly, at the time of the 19th century and later piobaireachds were literately composed. But the earliest art form came from a dominantly oral music culture and setting.

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4 thoughts on “The Earliest Canntaireachd

  1. That ceòl mòr came from an oral culture is certainly correct. But I think dualisms are always dangerous. I agree that ceòl mòr is not classical music in the sense of Bach-Mozart-Beethoven but I think it isn’t traditional or folk music either. Your main reason for calling it folk or traditional music is that it was handed down orally, but to me that doesn’t necessarily make it folk. As far as I know ceòl mòr as panegyric music was performed mainly in aristocratic circles, at court if one may call it that, and could therefore be described as court music. Folk music, on the other hand, is something which is normally performed in a wider circle of people.
    Also, I wonder if a distinction such as the one we’re trying to make existed in a Gaelic society and how much sense it makes if we, as outsiders, try to impose one on it.

    1. Absolutely useful and true, what you are suggesting.

      And yet we also know of a “Common [Community] Pyper”, so it wasn’t only confined to aristocratic circles.

      You also make a good point: not sure whether Gaelic society thought in these terms. Though we do have evidence that they were aware of the growing Italianate influence on their music (at least in some circles).

      On the other hand, for us as musicians and interpreters, I think there might be a profound impact upon how we look at the music. If we say, “classical” a number of interpretive assumptions takes place, perhaps the most impactful being the sanctity of the score (since classical music was a purely literate and authorial act). Whereas, if we say “folk”, then a different approach is taken, not least of which allows one to understand and respect the multiplicity and variability of the performance interpretations recorded in the earliest sources. It helps us understand the fluidity we see

      Lots to unpack and consider. Which we will in the next post.

      1. I am in total agreement with Yves Chapuis. Here are two books that I found particularly illuminating:
        Michael Church (ed.), 2015. The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions. Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.
        Matthew Gelbart, 2007. The Invention of ‘Folk Music’ and ‘Art Music’: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
        For anyone writing about pibroch with a global audience, the ideas and thoughtful use of words in these books provide excellent models. They certainly helped me to escape my cultural preconceptions and see things more clearly. As an antidote to cultural imperialism, colonialism and globalisation, I would make a point of describing pibroch as a classical music and talking of the Western orchestral tradition. In The Other Classical Musics, Michael Church presents “a brief inventory of humanity’s most sophisticated achievements in musical creation” (p. 2). He concludes that “‘classical’ is the adjective best capable of covering what every society regards as its own Great Tradition” (p. 3). Importantly, this brings Western classical music level with the rest.
        Calling pibroch “classical” and every branch of Western music “traditional” enables us to appreciate them all more fully and fairly. All combine popular, folk, elite and dynastic strands of music-making. They also all depend on oral transmission. Just imagine aliens trying to play Rachmaninov…

        1. Alas, I am not in agreement.
          There are reasons we use different words to describe similar things, to lift up for careful consideration the distinctions and their contribution to our understanding.
          Not all cats are gray.

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