Lesson #301: The Uilleann Pipes

I have always loved the uilleann pipes, especially when used for a lament. And lest you think you’ve never heard them, you have. You probably just don’t know it. 

I came about this all because I’ve spent the last five days of my current (miserable) unemployment re-watching the entire series of Battlestar Galactica*, which is not only my very favourite full run of any television series ever (the epilogue notwithstanding), but is also, by far, my favourite example of television scoring. Because it’s gorgeously scored.**

Anyway, you may be wondering where the uilleann pipes come in and that’s actually quite an easy segue. It turns out my favourite (and probably the most recognizable) of the leitmotifs*** that the BSG composer wrote uses the uilleann pipes. 

I am one of the seven (ten, max) people on the planet who like the sound of the Scottish bagpipes. And this is, admittedly, because I grew up with a piper in the extended family. The uilleann pipes are the lesser known, Irish cousin of the Scottish highland pipes. They’re softer, have a larger range, are played sitting down, and do not require a breath on the drone. But, like the Scottish pipes, they have a bag and a drone. They also have, to me, a very distinctive plaintive sound that I adore.

Anyway, the history is, like all things, evolutionary. The earliest mention of pipes in Ireland comes from the fifth century Brehon Laws (early Irish law that was in place more or less until the Norman Invasion in the 12th century). However, it is likely that this instrument was a bagless forebear of the modern pipes. The earliest reference specifically to the bagpipe is from a 13th century poem called  “Aonach Carman,” and illustrations have been found dating as far back as the 16th century. Until the 18th century, the Irish bagpipes closely resembled the highland pipes, but by 1790, the uilleann pipes were a completely separate instrument from the highland pipes.

The popularity of the modern instrument was fairly limited. After the famine, the mass exodus, combined with a shift in musical preferences, resulted in a declining number of pipers. In 1893, the Gaelic League stepped in and made a push for a nationalist movement (probably not coincidentally, this is also about the time when the Irish started to push back against English rule) and traditional pipers became teachers for a new wave of students. Eventually, the movement was abandoned — probably in the face of a revolution and two world wars — and it was 1968 (this one’s almost definitely not coincidental, this was exactly the time of a new Irish nationalist movement) before Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Uilleann Pipers) was established to help preserve the piping tradition in Ireland.****

*The first time I ever watched the series, none of my dozens of friends who are madly in love with the series warned me; I saw all four seasons (and the miniseries remake that preceded it) in six days. I cannot advise more against ever, ever, ever, ever, ever doing that on one’s first viewing. It’s so (awesomely) dark and so emotionally draining that it completely devastated me. And I’m a girl who has been called “emotionally unavailable”; I can’t imagine what seeing the entire series in six days would do to a normal person.

**You are entitled to your opinion on the value of the series itself, but you have nothing to stand on if you want to argue the validity of the score. The score is brilliant, and if you call yourself a lover of music and disagree, you’re wrong. I will fight you on that. Because you’re wrong.

***And, as a fan of Wagner, I’m all for the use of leitmotifs.

****More information can be read here and hereIn case you’re interested in learning how, exactly, the uilleann pipes work, you can read about it here

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