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How does it work?A set of bagpipes consists of a chanter, which is something like a small shawm, and one or more drones, which are effectively shawms without fingerholes, so that each drone plays only one note. Chanter and drones are plugged into stocks (bits of wood with holes drilled in them). The stocks are sewn into a sealed leather bag, which is made airtight with the application of seasoning compound, so that air can escape only through the stocks, and therefore through the drones and chanter. (Don't ask what goes into seasoning compound. You don't want to know). Another stock houses the blowpipe. When the piper blows into the blowpipe, the bag inflates. When it's fully inflated, a little more lung pressure will start chanter and drones sounding together. That's the reason for plugging them all into the same bag - ingenious, eh?
The piper begins by tuning the drones. He does this by sliding bits of them in and out to make them longer or shorter, until they are perfectly in tune with each other and with the chanter. Now he fingers the holes on the chanter, and you get shawm tunes with drone accompaniment. When the piper runs out of breath, he stops blowing and squeezes the bag with his arm, still playing the chanter. The blowpipe has a simple valve (just a leather flap, but it works), which stops air being pushed back out of the blowpipe, so the sound just keeps going by arm pressure until the piper has breathed in and is ready to start blowing again.
HistoryThere is some evidence that the Roman emperor Nero played bagpipes. Between Roman times and the late medieval period, evidence is very sparse, but what there is suggests that bagpipes were introduced to Northern Europe in the fourteenth century, and gradually diversified into various shapes and sizes. The simplest, and possibly the earliest European form is the bladder pipe, which is more or less a bagpipe without drones. Medieval pipes usually had a single drone - see contemporary illustrations of Chaucer's "Canterbury tales" for English single-drone pipes. Around 1500 (give or take 50 years), most shepherd-style pipes acquired a second drone. See paintings by Brueghel and the illustrations in Praetorius' "Syntagma Musicum". The Renaissance (we believe) also saw the advent of small, quiet chamber pipes such as Praetorius' Hummelchen or the French shuttle-drone models, some blown with bellows under the arm rather than with the mouth. Beyond these general landmarks, the bagpipe story consists of a bewildering array of many different types of pipe, many of them local variations enjoying a brief spell of popularity.
Many distinct types of bagpipe are currently played throughout Europe and beyond. From the British Isles alone, we have the Highland Pipe, the Scottish Smallpipe and the Border Pipe, the Northumberland Pipe, the Leicestershire Smallpipe, the Cornish bagpipe, the Irish Uillean pipes, the Welsh bagpipe and the English Great Pipe. The historical authenticity of these regional forms varies from genuine survivals to pseudo-historical types based on little more than conjecture. But the list reflects the large number of bagpipes that are still played, either as living traditons or as revivals.
The Scottish Highland Pipes are now the only ones commonly known worldwide. They, and the publicity, are both a product of the nineteenth century. Scotland was not particularly famous for its pipers until comparatively recently. The three-drone Highland pipes were a development of an earlier two-drone pipe - the Irish Great Pipe, or Piob Mhor. This was itself probably a development of an older single-drone pipe.
The modern Highland pipe, and probably its ancestors, were designed as war pipes, the main requirement of which was absolute maximum volume. To achieve these sound levels, they were inevitably made rather raucous, and they require unbelievable amounts of lung pressure. If you're thinking of taking up bagpipe playing, I'd advise you start with anything other than the Highland. You'll be doing yourself and your neighbours a favour.
On the other hand, the Highland Pipes come with a big folk repertoire and a superbly virtuosic technique which is the envy of many other pipers. This piping tradition was also originally Irish. Scots who became particularly adept at piping were sent to "finishing schools" in Ireland. It's perhaps appropriate that Irish Uillean pipes are now becoming better known, thanks to shows like "Riverdance", and a general interest in all things celtic. My own favourite, though, is the Northumberland pipe, which is the one I would play if I didn't have to remain historical.
The members of Diabolus in Musica all play bagpipes. They're mainly copies of 16th century shepherd's pipes from England, Flanders and Italy. We love to play two or three sets in harmony - it's a gorgeous sound that's rarely heard, because the ubiquitous Scots usually play en masse and in unison. Three sets of drones and three intertwining melodies produce a thick, rich texture that's uniquely satisfying.
I love the pipes!