Musical Instruments

Fifes and pastoral pipes in 1862

An earlier post examined evidence of the fife and flageolet interchangeably occupying the same niche in the accompaniment of dance in late-16th-century France. The fife was otherwise more clearly associated with military music, leading to a question about whether it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. Evidence of that being the case toward the end of the 18th century is provided by published compilations of Irish and Scottish dance tunes that explicitly list the fife as one of the instruments to which they are suited.

A notice of a forthcoming uilleann pipes festival called my attention to an etching presented below that also provides the banner image for the present post. It illustrates a fife in a manner that bolsters the notion of it having filled the musical role now commonly played by the tin whistle. (The flute is named as a separate instrument in the referenced compilations.) Of perhaps greater interest, the painting also depicts bagpipes of a type that is widely believed to have fallen out of use before the artist was even born.

The two instruments are also seen together in a well-known painting from 1833 by the Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806–1870), titled Snap-Apple Night. It shows a fife and bellows-blown bagpipes together with a fiddle and a bodhrán with jingles (called a tambourine in its day), accompanying the dance at a Halloween party in Blarney, Co. Cork, Ireland. The full painting is online here and the pivotal segment is:

The instruments are portrayed in reasonable detail and the bagpipes are credibly close to what would be expected at this date and location. Keys can be seen on at least one regulator and the chanter ends shortly below the lowest tonehole, terminated with a brass ferrule that facilitates closing the chanter against the player’s leg. The fiddle and fife are shown in similarly good detail but the faces of their players, as the others in the dimly-lit periphery of the festivities, are more caricatured than the central ones.

This may explain the fife-player’s distorted embouchure which, even if shown while taking a breath, does not ring true. However, there is also abundant prior evidence of musical instruments being sketched separately, or in the hands of musicians whose faces are not the ones that appear in the completed painting. A significantly more convincing representation of the player’s embouchure is shown in a painting titled Playing the Flute by Erskine Nicol (1825–1904).

Although he was Scottish, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes the following about his work:

In 1846, having resigned from his teaching post, Nicol travelled to Dublin where he remained until about 1850. He found employment there both as a teacher and as a portrait painter. However, it was Nicol’s keen observation of Irish everyday life and humour that fed his imagination and supplied the material for most of his painting for the rest of his career.

This instrument would be regarded without hesitation as a fife were it not for the key at the little finger of the player’s right hand. It might therefore be identified more correctly as a piccolo. Either way, there can be little doubt that the instrument and the way it is held and blown were painted with an actual performer as the model. Nicol included properly detailed flutes in other paintings. However, one of a Man with Pipe gainsays the suggestions that he painted musical instruments with unwavering accuracy (as claimed in a contemporary narrative below) or had a personal understanding of what constitutes a plausible representation of a woodwind.

A fife player appears in a painting by Nichol from 1862 titled The Trio (here in an etched reproduction). It shows the ensemble illustrated by Maclise minus the bodhrán, in a cottage setting. The instrument hanging on the wall suggests that the venue was provided by the fiddle player. The group appears to be posed rather than represented in a performance situation and can easily be a composite of separate preliminary sketches.

Erskine-Lalause engraving

The position of the piper’s head is strikingly similar to the one in the Maclise painting and the instruments appear in the same order. The earlier work can reasonably have provided Nicol with some degree of inspiration. However, the details of the pipes are entirely different. The most telling visible distinction between the two types is the length of the chanter.

As noted above, by the 1830s, what were most commonly referred to as “Irish bagpipes” were characterized by a chanter that could be opened and closed at its lower end during the course of play. The chanter on the pipes illustrated by Nicol extends significantly beyond the lowest tonehole and its end is always open. It is generally assumed that this was the parent form, with the segment of the long chanter below the ferrule being removed during its subsequent development.

Here is an English-made instrument of the type depicted by Nicol, in the collections of the National Museums Scotland. What appear to be two short drones of the same length are part of a folded longer drone. Such camouflaging is a further attribute of the type of bagpipes this instantiates but is not a visible detail in The Trio.

Image © National Museums Scotland

The catalog record for this instrument reflects widespread uncertainty about its proper label, calling it “a union or pastoral bagpipe.” The first of these labels became an increasingly common synonym for Irish bagpipes in the 19th century and yielded to the neologistic “uilleann” pipes during the first decades of the 20th. The term “pastoral bagpipe” is attested in a single contemporaneous source, published in 1743.

It also calls the instrument “new” and unequivocally designates bellows-blown bagpipes with a long chanter. The frontispiece (not included in the cited copy) shows a straight rather than folded bass drone, which is of typological but not musical significance. More extensive variation that is of the latter consequence is also recognized in what are now referred to collectively as pastoral pipes.

I haven’t been able to locate Nicol’s painting but the etching seen here was made from it by Adolphe Lalauze (1838–1906). It is the frontispiece of The Magazine of Art, vol. 4, 1881, which includes two narrative adjuncts to the image. The first is the painter’s appraisal of the etching.

For, apropos of the etched frontispiece in our last number, “The Trio,” Mr. Erskine Nicol, A.R.A., the artist, writes: — “I like it very much — it is so clear, so full of character and of thorough artistic feeling, and it renders my touch so well.”

The second is an article about the image, written by Johnston Forbes-Robertson.

“THE TRIO.” By Erskine Nicol, A.R.A

The Scottish school of painting, like the Scottish school of philosophy, is notable for its love of concrete fact …

When we turn to figure-painting, we find the same determination on the part of the artist to stand by simple Nature, and to subordinate to her his own individual inspiration. …

As an example of thus working within one’s own scope and power, we would point our readers to Mr. Erskine Nicol’s “Trio” (see frontispiece), a piece of character-painting not easily to be surpassed. Each figure is a veritable portrait, and very little imagination would be required to furnish each with a biography. The fife-player is evidently a Connaught man; but the fiddler and the blind old man with the Union pipes — whose sweet note is very different from the wild blare of the Highland bagpipes — are probably from Ulster; but whatever differences there may be in race, politics, or religion, the three become one under the influence of music.

Mr. Erskine Nicol, when a young man, spent several years in Ireland, and ever since, her peasantry have found in him a faithful delineator of whatever is touching in their humour, or characteristic in their habits. Mr. Nicol is no caricaturist, and he never produced an Irish group towards the individual of which the English heart did not warm.

The accomplished etcher Adolphe Lalauze…has for the sake of colour, carried his art in this instance as far as he possibly could and the result is a plate of peculiar richness without any sacrifice of sharpness in general effect.  J.F.R.

There is no reason to expect the author to have recognized the differences between union and pastoral pipes. However, this also means that the romantically interpolated detail about the piper probably being from Ulster is unfounded. The pastoral pipes had no particular association with Ireland. It therefore becomes significant that Nicol returned to Scotland and moved onward to England well before he painted The Trio. The pastoral pipes had a clearer nexus with both of those countries.

The Maclise painting from 1833 unequivocally links the union pipes, fife, and fiddle with the native performance of Irish dance music. The illustration of the pastoral pipes in near-photographic detail 30 years later is noteworthy in itself, if not to say astonishing. Their use had largely waned by the time of Nicol’s birth and the possibility of his having sketched them in an Irish cottage significantly earlier than the date of The Trio can be discounted. However much “keen observation of Irish everyday life…supplied the material for most of his painting for the rest of his career” the explanation for pastoral pipes appearing in the The Trio remains to be sought elsewhere.


Further reading:

Ross Anderson, The Pastoral Repertoire, Rediscovered, The Lowland and Border Piper’s Society, Dec. 2005, pp. 24–30.

Nicolas Carolan, Courtney’s ‘Union Pipes’ and the Terminology of Irish Bellows-Blown Bagpipes, Version 1.0, Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin, 2012.

Hugh Cheape, The Pastoral or New Bagpipe: Piping and the Neo-Baroque, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 61 (April 2008), pp. 285–304, 245.

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