Friday 9 January 2015

Who was the Prince/ King/ Queen of the Northumbrian Pipers?

The Northumbrian Small Pipes are a type of bagpipe which uses air blown from bellows under the left arm - they have a wonderfully sweet and plaintive sound.

A special characteristic is that when all the fingers are pressed onto the holes the chanter is silent - each note is 'let-out' by raising a single finger. This naturally creates a detached, staccato sound with each note clearly separated; and makes runs and arpeggios much trickier than on normal wind instruments - so the virtuoso tradition has been to prize the ability to play quick runs and arpeggios cleanly and evenly - and the competition pieces tend to be variations of increasing levels of decoration.

The qualities of the instrument have led to the highly characteristic musical structure of Northumbrian folk music - and a far greater volume of tunes than from any other part of England.


The Small Pipes were popular by the 1700s, and discussed by Thomas Bewick (the great wood engraver) - and kept going through lean years of the early 20th century by some few dozens of dedicated amateurs, until there was a revival and flowering from the mid-1960s until now - when there are I guess many hundreds (or thousands) of players.

Among the amateur virtuosi none have a higher reputation than Tom Clough of Newsham (1881-1964) who was called the Prince of Pipers. From the evidence of a handful of home-made recordings, Clough was a remarkable virtuoso. Clough played in the 'classic' style described above:

In the following generation, Billy Pigg (1902-1968) - a pupil of Tom Clough's - became known at the King of the Pipers. Pigg's father apparently played the Scottish Highland bagpipes - and, going against the grain of the smallpipes, Pigg introduced techniques from that instrument - which has an open chanter, and therefore separates adjacent notes using grace notes, and also deploys slurs or slides between notes. This suited a wild, romantic, passionate quality in Pigg's playing which is most evident in his playing of slow airs:

Among the current generation, the premier Northumbrian piper is Kathryn Tickell (born 1967) - who is the first to become professional. She is well known in the world of world music, having been involved in many cross-over experiments with other genres.

Here is Kathryn Tickell playing one of my favourite tunes (and also a favourite of my Father's) which was written by Billy Pigg and is named Bill Charlton's Fancy (but probably no relation to me - William, along with George, was a very popular name for the olden Charlton surname/ clan):

So, here you have the Prince, the King and the Queen of the pipers.

I love them all, but who is my favourite?

Well, that would have to be Billy Pigg - whose playing (judged from from the slender and defective recorded evidence, and ear-witness accounts) sometimes rose to a level of genius in which he captured something close to the essence of Northumberland.


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