To understand cadences in pibroch, it may be helpful to bear in mind the names and notations of French Baroque trills. For example, in the 1780s, French musicians carefully explained the difference between a cadence subite (sudden trill), also known as a cadence jettée (thrown trill); a cadence brisée (trill broken with emotion); and a cadence appuyée (significant / meaningful / leant-on trill). The difference between these varieties of trill lay in the appoggiatura: an optional ‘leaning’ note, played on the beat, from which the cadence would ‘fall’. The pitch of the appoggiatura was always the highest pitch involved in the trill. It was long in a cadence appuyée, less sustained in a cadence brisée, and dispensed with in a cadence subite or jettée.
The special rapport that existed between France and Gaelic Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries may not be as relevant here as the biological need humans have for expressive nuance, particularly musicians in high-status traditions. The range of adjectives applied to cadence in France may help modern pibroch interpreters to broaden the expressive range of their cadences, recovering the extent of nuance suggested by pibroch’s earliest notations.
One option is to adopt the French terms above. This would stimulate pipers to be less isolationist, opening minds to consider parallels between pibroch and Baroque music. However, Edward Bunting documented a Gaelic harp term in 1792 that is apt and culturally closer: sruth (stream). Gaelic harp players differentiated a sruth beag (a three-note falling run) from a sruth mòr (a longer glissando, up or down the harp). These can be studied at www.earlygaelicharp.info/irish_terms/.
In the context of pibroch, I would treat sruth (stream) and cadence as synonymous with Joseph MacDonald’s ‘introductions’: four words meaning the same thing. I would use a range of adjectives to suggest different shades of sruth / stream / cadence / introduction. For example: held, broken and rapid. I would guard against adopting one fixed set and notations that represent these, otherwise rigidities of mind will end up reducing musical beauty.
Whatever words are used to distinguish one stream from another, I would regard them as linguistic and perceptual categories, blurring into one another in reality: theoretical constructs, chasing musical practice rather than leading it. Following Joseph MacDonald’s example, I might describe a sruth as a flash of colour, applied spontaneously by the skilled player, giving a note more or less weight, emotional significance and visceral colour, according to a player’s personal taste and knowledge of the style. Something best not pinned down, otherwise it dies and loses beauty. Or perhaps difficult to pin down on account of its fluid, evanescent nature.
I propose that Donald MacDonald was very practical, writing the sruth the same way throughout volume 2 not because he played it the same way, but because he felt uncomfortable about committing to one interpretation, fixing an element that he understood as inherently variable. By using a single symbol, he handed the responsibility of interpretation over to the reader who, if competent, would know what to do. Unfortunately, his symbol suggests to modern readers something consistent.
If only pibroch’s transcribers were as explicit as their French counterparts. We have to deduce from a wide and deep evidence base what Joseph MacDonald had in mind when he wrote, in 1760:
the learner must be always used with these introductions until he can introduce them properly of his own accord, if he has any taste or genius, without which no kind of music can be well taught him. (MS p. 10)
The introductions which frequently occur (being noted down before each passage) seem to a stranger wild and rude, but will appear otherwise when known, being well applied to the style. (MS p. 42)