About bagpipe / gaita






Far from making a literal translation of our original website –in Spanish- but trying to keep the essential ideas we have decided to start with an interesting document found in the net from the Ulster-Scots agency site. At the end of this section, we have included an excellent work edited by Manuel Alberro and Bettina Arnold published on: http://www4.uwm.edu/celtic/ekeltoi/


It is not known exactly when bagpipes in general and gaitas in particular appeared. However some paintings and engravings have been found in ancient Egypt representing musicians playing an instrument similar to our present bagpipe.

The antiquity of the Great Pipe seems to be a problem for many historians. Bagpipes are so old that they fell out of favor with the fashion minded upper classes very early on and so were not well chronicled in the written histories but they are found quite readily in the culture of the folk.

Increasingly, music and language are found to be profoundly related in many cultures. It is very interesting that the Great Pipe can be found along with Gaelic related languages in pockets all over Europe. You can quite readily follow the line back from the Highlands where piobaireachd was the savior of the Great Pipe in Scotland as it was fading from polite society throughout Europe, back through Ireland with the Scoti tribe, down through Spain with the Gaita De Fole, which is said to be the most ancient form of Gaita by the Spanish pipers, up through France into Brittany with the Veuze which was beginning to be revived in post war France, also said to be very ancient by Britton pipers, and into Germany where the Galls, as the Romans called them, first began their migrations.

A huge mistake made by many is to discount what the people in these areas say in favor of an academic’s view. Many a historians “well researched” writings have been found wanting in fact along side the oral traditions of those who live the tradition. An example of this is calling the Irish Great Pipe a War Pipe. In Irish it is the Pib Mhor, Piob Mhor, Piobh Mhor, (the lenition changes for many reasons and I have to admit I don’t understand it) pronounced Peev War, translating to Pipe Great not Pipe of War. Yes, the Great Pipe has proved its self in war as a great mover of men all the way back to Roman times when troops were moved to the sound of the Utriculum not the drum. But the heritage of the Great Pipe is much wider than that.

I welcome this chance to talk about the Pib Mhor because it is my passion to play this beautiful, emotive instrument and to debate its heritage as a profound influence on the development of traditional Northern European, American, and the world’s music of today.




Ancient history


The Greeks tell us that the pipe was invented by Athena to embody the cry of Medusa’s sister at the gorgon’s beheading.  Later as she played it near a pool she caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the water and became unhappy with the way it distorted her beautiful face.  She throws the pipe away in distaste. 


Marsyas the Satyr finds the pipe and learns to play them.  His fame spreads till Apollo hears of it.  The God challenges the shepherd to a contest.  The winner can do whatever they want with the other.  The pipes are judged the best until Apollo turns his lyre upside down and plays it.  Marsyas can’t do the same and so looses.  Apollo hangs Marsyas from a tree and flays the skin from him.  The skin is hung where the wind blows and fills it as a sort of foreshadowing of the bagpipe to come.  The pipes and flutes associated with rustics and shepherds modulated during the sixteenth and seventeenth century into the varieties of the bagpipe, and Marsyas begins to be represented as a bagpiper.  And so the rivalry between harp and bagpipe begins.

From Greece we move to Rome to our next noted piper Nero.

Dio Chrysostom wrote in 115 AD “They say he can...play the aulos both with his mouth and also with his armpit, a big bag being thrown under it, in order that he might escape the disfigurement of Athens,".  

Some say he piped as Rome burned.  One of the few early depictions of the bagpipes is the one Nero put on Roman coins.   The bagpipe was the instrument of the Roman infantry.  I recently saw a video of Roman re-enactors marching to the Utriculum. 

Bagpipes proliferated throughout civilization.  If you think about it the technology is quite simple and readily available.  All that is needed is a reed, a chanter and drone of bone or wood, and a bag.  Bagpipes existed in many forms in many places around the world. In each country the basic instrument was the same, a bag with a chanter and one or more drones. Some of these were mouth blown while others used a bellows attachment to supply the air. The bag provided a sustained tone while the musician took a breath and allowed several tones to be played at once. 

Logic dictates that the pipe and it’s mode of play developed in very early civilizations.  Pipe music has been appreciated by people since the first goat was skinned and a chanter stuck in it’s mouth by some shepherd in ancient Gaul.    

Because in most times and cultures bagpipes were peasant instruments and associated with persons of low social status such as shepherds and farmers and even (gasp!) Gypsies - not much seems to ever have been written about them. Writers tended to concern themselves with matters of interest to their more sophisticated audiences - courtly concerns, politics, philosophy, warfare and of course religion. Bagpipes, unlike some other instruments, played little or no role is these arenas and so were no more likely to be chronicled than was peasant footwear. Furthermore, music historians could (and still do) conveniently all but ignore bagpipes when tracing the development of other wind instruments, because most of those instruments do not seem to have passed along the same paths as bagpipes, which can be viewed as offshoots of the apparent main branches of woodwind evolution - it is possible and common to trace the development of, say, the oboe from the earliest one-piece cane reed-pipe through the modern orchestral version without ever stumbling across a single bagpipe. 

I will present the theories I have developed through the study and research I have conducted.


Three traditions


Today’s musicologist separates the piping world into 3 traditions. The Nordic, Eastern, and Celtic traditions.  Today we will focus on what I call the Celtic Configuration bagpipe.  This tradition is the pipe configuration of a conical chanter with a split reed and one to three drones played with a mouth blown bag. 


The pedigree of the Great Highland Bagpipe


The Celtic configuration great pipe seems to be inextricable from the Celtic culture it’s self.   The Gaels or Keltoi or Celts, as others called them, were a pre-Roman civilization that stretched across Europe and the British Isles for many years before the Roman legions rolled across the lands they had called their own.  The Celts were a semi-nomadic herding people that ranged from Germany down through France and Spain and up through England and Ireland. Caesar himself writes of stopping the Great Celtic migration, which seemed to occur periodically throughout the Celts reign in Europe.  Scholars never learned the Celtic civilizations alphabet and so the writings of Celtic historians have been lost.  Most of the culture was oral and passed on through song and verse.  The saying “The pen is mightier than the sword” is played out with sad consequence when it comes to Celtic history and culture.  But if we take the evidence available to us today and carefully compare it and follow its clues we can begin to piece together the pedigree of the Piob Mhor. 


Veuze: Breton Great Pipe

  Traveling as far west in France as you can, you come to a peninsula whose north coast is just across the English Channel from Cornwall. Wales, the Isle of Man, Ireland and ultimately, Scotland are not very far away. This is Brittany, "Breizh" in the Breton language, a Celtic language related to Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Scottish and Irish Gaelic. The Breton people are close cousins of the Welsh and Cornish.  In their migration to the far western peninsula of what today is France, the Bretons retained a Celtic heritage, which had once stretched across the European continent, before Roman and Germanic expansions.


After the Second World War and during the cultural revivals of the 1970’s a bagpipe called the Veuze is rediscovered and studied.  The veuze is a one-drone bagpipe found traditionally in southeastern Brittany and in the northern part of the Vendée. Played alone or with the accordion or fiddle, this instrument is perhaps the oldest of the bagpipes found in Brittany and has changed very little in form since the Middle Ages. Those who are familiar with other bagpipes will find that the tone of the veuze is similar to that of the gaita of Galicia, Spain, or the cabrette of the Limousin and Auvergne areas of southern France. The veuze disappeared from Brittany for several dozen years before pipers began to research it and locate old instruments. It was only in the mid-1970s that the instrument saw a real revival thanks to the work of the organization "Sonneurs de Veuze".


In Brittany the Great Pipe retains its place as the instrument of choice for the Fest Noz, a dance party that retains its regional flavors in the music and dance performed there. 


Piob Mhor: Irelands Great Pipe


In the Leabhar Gahbala (Book of Invasions), a mythological history of Ireland; The Sons of Mil, the immediate ancestors of the Irish people are sent by their father to check out the misty Isle he can see from his tower on the shores of Galicia.  King Mil’s sons bring the Celtic culture to Ireland and I believe they bring the Great Pipe with them.    The history of piping in Ireland extends over a span of thirteen centuries. The earliest references are in the ancient law tracts and annals. Some high crosses have carved depictions of early pipes (10th century) and from the 15th century onwards references become more frequent. All of these pipes were mouth-blown instruments.

The Piob Mhor had a profound effect on the music of Ireland.  Many of today’s authors attribute the Irish traditional musical aesthetic to the Piob Mhor.


Grey Larson--  The píob mór, like the pastoral bagpipe, had no capacity for momentary interruptions of the flow of air. Thus, their melodies were constant, unbroken streams of sound. Any articulations, by necessity, were created solely by movements of the fingers.  The implications of this can be understood most clearly when imagining the player of such a bagpipe playing two consecutive melody notes of the same pitch. Since the flow of air cannot be interrupted, you can see that the second note can only be produced by articulating it with a fingering technique. The varied use of these fingered articulations became an integral and sophisticated element of Irish bagpipe music.


The Fiddle Music of Donegal by Michael Robinson-The fact that many of the tunes come from the (great) piping repertoire has influenced this style.  The range of the Piob Mor is nine notes—a single octave A to A, plus the G below.  Any tune confined to this range can be played in two different octaves on the fiddle without leaving first position. —These players prided themselves on their technical abilities, which included playing in higher positions, and sought out material, which would demonstrate their skill. —Although such virtuoso pieces are elsewhere played nowadays in a semi-classical style, the Donegal fiddlers never lost sight of the folk tradition and successfully adapted these tunes to the traditional playing style.


GHB: Great Pipes in Scotland

It was in the year 503 AD that an Irish tribe called the Scoti came across the Irish sea to establish the kingdom of Dalriada in what is now Argyle, Scotland.  They came from a land that was well known in this time for "music and poetry, as well as learning in general, cultivated by a highly skilled professional class."  During the 12th century, the Scots had three "art," or high-class instruments.  There were the cithara, timpanum, and chorus. The chorus was an early type of bagpipe.  It consisted of a simple wind bag, or other wind-chest, with an inflation pipe and a drone, or chanter. 

Even though southern and continental influences were heavy in most Scottish courts, Irish musicians remained popular in the Highland courts, and documentary evidence suggests that Irish and Scottish music remained similar at this time, and were indeed considered the same. 


Historians may speculate on the origins of the Scottish clans' piob mhor, or great Highland bagpipe, but the Highlanders were the ones to develop the instrument to its fullest extent and make it, both in peace and war, their national instrument.

As bagpipe use faded throughout most of Europe, a new form of music was starting in the Highlands. Beginning with Iain Odhar, who lived in the mid-1500s, the MacCrimmon family was responsible for elevating Highland pipe music to a new level, according to historians. This music is called piobaireachd (pronounced piobroch). This classical music is an art form which can compare to the music of any other country and most of it was composed 100 years before the piano and without written notation.



Gaita De Fole: Galicia’s Great Pipe


On the North West corner of Spain on a piece of land that, interestingly enough also juts toward the British Isles is the Ancient land of Galicia.  This area is also proud of its Celtic cultural underpinnings and promotes, as its national instrument the Gaita.  This bagpipe has sprouted many forms but the original was a conical bore chanter with split reed, a large skin bag and a drone over the shoulder.  The most popular today is the Gaita Gallega, which has a bass over the shoulder, and one or two drones across the chest.  The Band Gaita has three drones played in the familiar manor on the shoulder.  Galician’s use the pipes in grand processions of Saints through the towns and in parading the Giants.  The pipes are also used in dance music and to play with drums through the streets as a kind of town crier telling people when to get up and other parts of the day. 


 Historical Review Galician gaita

Producing even a brief chronicle of the gaiteiros (bagpipers) in Galicia is no easy task. The sources of information from past periods are limited, and many have been lost throughout the years. Centuries ago there were gaiteiros  whose fame was transmitted from generation to generation. Though most of their names may have been forgotten, their memory and work remain in each and every town and village of Galicia as a timeless testimony of past cultural traditions. There is no parish in Galicia that has not had, in living memory, a gaiteiro (bagpiper). This is the reason why we have to say that the personages referred to below are just one indication of the continuing life and social significance of the bagpipe in Galicia.

The Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula had a high appreciation for the gaita. Fernando III el Santo (1201-1252) supported and protected the troubadours and minstrels in his kingdom. In this context we can establish a relationship between Alfonso X el Sabio (1221-1284) and the medieval tradition of Allariz, which the king visited during his childhood and where thirty gaiteiros (Galician bagpipers) would gather to play during the annual celebration of the Festa do Boi. This can be seen as setting a precedent for the later Galician bagpipe bands. To elaborate further on the idea of the instrument's vitality in royal society, we reproduce a verse of Alfonso XI (1311-1350) below:

La gaita que es sutil

(The fine bagpipe is

con que todos placer han.

everybody's delight)

Union and Guild Galician Bagpipers

There are references to gaiteiros in numerous old documents, some of which are discussed below, especially those that illustrate the role of the gaiteiros in these societies. For example, in 1374 the Galician bagpiper Johan Gonçalvez acted as a witness to a property sale contract for the Abbey of Monfero. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Galician bagpiper was a professional musician, often hired for life; for example, in Ourense in 1458, the gaiteiro Gomes Mouro was hired for life before a public notary.

The governor of Tuy on December 13, 1418 refers to Constança Gayteyra moller que foi de Martin Gayteyro morador que foi ena vila de Ponte Lima do Reino de Portugal (The bagpiper Constança, wife of the bagpiper Martin, resident in the village of Ponte Lima of the Kingdom of Portugal). The same governor, on June 7, 1497 refers to the gaiteiro Rodrigo Eans.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gaiteiros and tamborileiros (tenor drum players) in the patron saint and sacramental ceremonies were hired by public contract. In 1579, Juan de Recarei (tamborileiro), was hired by the Saint Nicolas Guild of Noia to play with the guild's titular gaiteiro for the rest of his days. In 1579 and 1597, the council of O Caramiñal hired Juan de Tourís (gaiteiro) and Juan de Tourís "el Viejo" (tamborileiro) to play at the Corpus ceremonies.

In 1587, Juan Pérez, gaiteiro of Ribadulla, was hired for three years by the Council of Villa O Caramiñal to play at the Corpus fairs. In 1597, Antonio Gonzalez de Loiro (tamborileiro) was hired for life to play in the guild's ceremonies and dances during Corpus Cristi and Pascua de Flores, as well as to assist in the dance rehearsals in Ourense.

In 1618, Pedro das Casas (named tamborileiro of Vilanova dos Infantes) was hired to play at the guild's dance on Corpus Cristi and at the dance rehearsals in Villa Bentraces (Ourense). In 1628, the Guild of Saint Michael gave a similar contract to Bartolomé González of Sobrado do Vispo. On October 20, 1658, at Saint Miguel de Tabagón, boys and girls got together to dance in a procession to the sound of the Galician bagpipes to celebrate the return of the Santísimo's statue that had been carried away by a Portuguese soldier during the recently concluded war with that country. There was a similar situation on May 8, 1661, when the tamborileiro Pedro González from Santa Cristina de Vilariño was hired. In 1609, Bartolomé Germade (a famous gaiteiro) was hired at Portonovo to play at important celebrations throughout the year. In 1627, the gaiteiro Juan García agreed that he and the gaiteiro Domingo Cobas (Cacheiras), a guild brother, would play free at the guild's ceremonies. In 1631, Juan Conde (gaiteiro of Vilaboa) was hired along with the tamborileiro to play before and during the day of the Corpus at Bouzas's village, receiving in exchange 34 reales as well as food and drink. In 1725, in a protocol document from O Carballiño in the Provincial Historical Files of Ourense, Alexandre Álvarez was referred to as músico de gayta Gallega (Galician bagpipe musician). There are interesting references to the salaries of the gaiteiros as well. On December 17, 1458 a yearlong contract was signed before a notary for the amount of eighteen maravedíes between the gaiteiro Gomes Mouro and the council of Ourense to play at the San Martiño fairs for the rest of his life. Also, in 1700 a gaiteiro received eleven reales for his performance at the festivity of Nuestra Señora de Tebra (Tomiño). At Santa María de Chaín (Gondomar), in 1711, a gaiteiro received six reales. In 1726, at Santiago de Malvas (Tuy), a gaiteiro received eight reales.

The profession of gaiteiro during this period enjoyed high social prestige, as demonstrated in the historical documents. There were, however, regional variations within Galicia regarding the manner in which the gaiteiro was contracted. For example, at Ribadeo, an open committee chose the gaiteiro on the first day of the year, and the contract could be transferred from father to son, creating long dynasties of gaiteiros in this area.

The Gaita as a Symbol of Galicia

Since 1700, the gaita has changed from a simple accompaniment for ritual dances to an instrument accompanying secular dances, as can be seen in the rich pictorial manifestations after this time, which depict loose and noisy dances of a playful nature.

During the dark centuries of Galician culture, the shepherd-gaiteiro appears playing to the infant Jesus, with the Maestros de Capilla (Chapel Masters) of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries producing wonderful Christmas carols inspired by the gaiteiros' music. A good example of this is Melchor López, master at the Cathedral of Compostela (1759-1822), conveyer of the wonderful melody "A Nosa Gaita". Moreover, we must emphasize the grand contribution of the Maestros de Capilla of the Catedral de Mondoñedo (Chapel Masters of the Cathedral from Mondoñedo), the birthplace of Pascual Veiga, who was the most outstanding Galician composer of the nineteenth century.

During the long "stone night" of the Galician culture from the fifteenth century until the nineteenth century's Rexurdimento (revival) in Galicia, the gaita survived thanks to its popular appeal. In France, by contrast, the Musette de Cour was mainly appreciated at the French Court. In 1738, Hortteterre would write the first didactic treatise on how to play this instrument. In fact, the bagpipe bellows were created for the first time at the French Court in order to prevent female musicians from distorting their faces by blowing into the instrument. In a fable from Samaniego (1745-1801) there is a reference to the Galician bagpipe, which means that the gaita was already established as a typical Galician instrument by that time.

In the early 1800s, coinciding with the Rexurdimento (revival) of Galician culture, Galician popular poets and singers such as Pastor Díaz, Xoán Manoel Pintos, Rosalía de Castro, Curros Enríquez, Cabanillas, among others, dedicated poems and made many references to the figure of the gaiteiro, with the Galician bagpipe and the Galician flag both used as symbols of the Galician cultural revival. In the nineteenth century, the gaita was not only the muse and main theme of the earliest manifestations of Galician literature, but in the popular tradition many gaiteiros were mythologized as well. To travel to America was the dream of all famous gaiteiros towards the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, and many managed to get there, including the gaiteiro of Ventosela, D. Perfecto Feijóo with his choir "Aires da Terra"; the gaiteiros of Soutelo de Montes, and many others. The same dream came true for the famous gaiteiro of Liberdón (Asturias). All of them were very successful in America, where they played in the best theatres.

Compositions for the Gaita

The gaiteiril (Galician piping) repertoire today consists of an enormous collection of melodies that are a clear reflection of the Galician bagpipe's life in the past and present. There have been many Galician bagpipe composers since the eighteenth century. The gaiteiros themselves wrote many of their own melodies, but there were excellent musicians who dedicated themselves to writing fabulous bagpipe compositions as well. From the time of Manuel Rey (1867), composer of the well-studied Muñeira de Monterrei, to the present day, many composers have written songs for the Galician bagpipe. Moreover, we must emphasize the important contribution of the song book tradition in preserving the gaiteiro's repertoire, within which the following must be highlighted: J. Inzenga's Song Book (1888), The Galician Song Book of Jesus y Gay and Eduardo M. Torner (1973), the popular Song Book of Daniel Rodríguez González (1963), the Musical Song Book of Galicia by C. Sampedro (1942), as well as many private collections and Galician bagpipe methods.

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, well known Galician musicians composed and gathered an important collection of musical pieces to be played on the gaita, particularly musicians such as Marcial de Adalid (1826-1881), Canuto Berea (1836-1891), Xohán Montes (1840-1899), Pascual Veiga (1842-1906), Ricardo Courtier (1865-1922), Gustavo Freire (1885-1948), among others.