Understanding cadences

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: heldbroken 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)


6 thoughts on “Understanding cadences

  1. To put this into a broader context: what you are talking about here is something even more expressive than what Andrew Wright has talked about in his work General Principles of Piobaireachd, where he identifies single-note, three-note “step down”, the “step up” (which seems too fine a point to my mind), and the 5-note “run down” cadence.

    The first three are what I have called “held” cadences, where a single note (typically the E) is emphasized. Even in the “run down”, that high E is held. David Glen called these cadences appoggiatura. Joseph Campbell suggested that, despite the written evidence in the manuscripts that suggests otherwise, the appoggiatura was, in fact, played quite broadly.

    Unfortunately, this style of cadence is the ONLY style played by performers. Which is a problem. Musically, it can be extremely disruptive of the melodic line. But also, and just as importantly: it eliminates far more expressive options that had been available to the pibroch player.

    You see, David Glen also mentions acciaccatura cadences – ones that did NOT take time away from the melody note. They were played much like movements in light music are played: for ornament and emphasis upon the theme note.

    Immediately that doubles the options for the performer. Based on David Glen, alone.

    Barnaby Brown is here suggesting that there are even more, as evidenced in both French Baroque music, Gaelic harp player’s sruth and Joseph MacDonald’s introductions: “held”, “broken” and “rapid”.

    I think these are fine, suggestive terms, and are a good start for performers to begin exploring a far richer palette of expression than what we hear today.

    1. Sruth beag is only given in one version, but there is no damping / articulation information, in contrast to most of the other harp gestures which have detailed instructions for damping and articulation.

      Sruth mor is given “stopped, or allowed to sound”, but I don’t see such a connection between sruth mor and piping cadences. In particular I am very suspicious of the descending form of sruth mor.

      The held E in piping cadences may be connected to fiddle, if you play a descending run then you will naturally come to a halt when you get to E since that will be the open E string. If you want to continue descending to a note lower than E you have to cross to the A string.

  2. Thank you, Simon, that’s a very interesting suggestion about the fiddle E string. Not only would it be natural for a fiddler to pause on an open E string, mid-descent, but it would ring (or continue to be bowed) when the fingers crossed to the A string.

    In my first article, in 1998, I suggested that pibroch cadences might once have imitated the spread chords of harpers, which Bunting records were played down the way rather than up. A master harper would certainly have spread chords at different rates, pausing more – or less – or not at all – on the highest note before tumbling down. I’d also raise the possibility of a double sruth beag played with one hand, i.e. 8-7-6-5, 4-3-2-1. This idea came to me when rehearsing with Siobhán Armstrong last April.

    Two weeks ago, I was in Strathpeffer rehearsing with Bill Taylor for a CD we will be recording in June. I filmed the results, not for publication but for Bill’s reference, capturing what we worked out together lest we forget it! These videos are not listed on YouTube, but I think they add something valuable to this discussion.

    Responding to David, who raises David Glenn’s and James Campbell’s appoggiatura/acciaccatura distinction, I’m not sure that this concept from Italian tradition gets us any closer to understanding pibroch cadences. More helpful, I suggest, is to imagine that there were many shades of double beats, just as there were many shades of cadence. Rather than a simplistic, black-and-white scenario, with double beats always timed long-short-long in Joseph MacDonald’s time, I think there is compelling evidence for regarding the modern timing as one end of a broader spectrum of 18th-century practice. As with cadences, the range of expressive nuance reduced over time, and I wonder if the hegemony of notation played a part in that.

    Finally, I can’t predict what I’ll say next time I teach, but it might include: “rapid stream”, “broken stream” and “emotional stream”. Playing pibroch on the lyre, that would be: “rapid strum”, “broken strum” and “emotional strum”. I’d use any adjective that helped to convey a particular musical idea. It might be “running”, “flowing”, “trickling”, “supple”, “mode-sensitive”, “leisurely”, “weighty”, “heavy”, “loaded”, “poignant”, anguished, etc. The list is endless. This is about articulating structure and meaning, shaping the music eloquently.

  3. Cadences have been a mystery in that when I learn it to get perfectly length E in one tune from my teacher , I then subconsciously play the movement the same in another piece and I am wrong again – having a written notation to suggest how the cadence is to be played in each tune would be a reminder for when a tune is put down for a while – the long , medium, short phrases seem ideal
    – I presume it is too simplistic to say in Laments the E in Cadences are long, In Battle the E is Short and some tunes are in between
    Are cadences played same one in all variations in same tune ? this seems to be effort to play exactly same in every line of a variation in Competition mode: but is a bit mechanical and variety adds interest if done musically?

  4. Your questions strike at the heart of a bigger question: What constitutes good musicianship? Consistency can be good, variety can be good – there isn’t a simple answer. Both are powerful in their place. Just as there isn’t one correct way to read a passage from the Bible, there isn’t one correct way to read a passage from the Book of Pibroch.

    It has, however, been found over the ages and across cultures to be valuable – if not essential – to learn how to do something well by imitating masterful examples. This is like learning a foreign language, initially reproducing details of expression without understanding why it is done that way. Only once it has become a ‘mother tongue’ are we capable of supplying good expression naturally. That takes years of immersion, there is no short cut.

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