Printer Friendly

End of an old song.

"But is music in fact language without judgment?"
Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music

"To the unpractised ear a pibroch has no form and no melody.... But it
is a mood, and a pibroch was something Jock felt almost physically,
damp, penetrating and sad like a mist. It enveloped him and pulled at
your heart .... the pibroch very often comes to a sudden end; it is a
finish that makes it a fragment, and the more sad for that."
James Kennaway, Tunes of Glory

WHEN the 1st Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry marched out of Marseilles in November of 1914 the pipe band played "I'll gang nae mair tae yon toon," the sort of brisk, light-hearted air in keeping with the still buoyant mood of the time. The ironic undertones of the tune and its title did not become apparent until later, for within six months the battalion lost seven pipers killed, eight wounded, and two prisoners. Before the war was a year old the band ceased to exist. By the end of March 1915, the pipe band of the 2nd Battalion suffered the same fate, as did that of the 17th Battalion which attacked the Leipzig Redoubt on 1 July. The pipers of the 42nd Australians, the South African Scottish, and the 16th Canadians went the same way.

As the regimental historian of the HLI put it, "It was felt by all ranks that pipers were too valuable an institution to lose." After the Somme, band members were employed as runners or stretcher bearers, but for the most part they were kept as far from the front as possible. Regimental histories, though, tell you very little about the interior, personal experience of war. By their very nature they are incapable of capturing the sound of a dissenting, individual voice, no matter how muted. Unexpectedly it is a pipe tune that expresses a contrary angle on the events of its day, a counter-narrative. It is called the "Battle of the Somme," a curious hybrid composition whose ambiguous melody masks its true subject; that is, the worst defeat in British history and the bloodiest few hours of the First World War.

I'VE known this tune for a good part of my life, and the recording I'm listening to at the moment is fairly typical. Although the "Battle of the Somme" is described as a slow march, the first part actually sounds very much like a quick march. You might say that it teeters on the verge of cheeriness, cockiness almost; something you could whistle to or hum along with if you didn't know its subject. Then, about halfway though, the tempo changes. It slows down, this time sounding like a lament or a dirge, the first word of an antiphon, derived from Psalm 5:8 in the Office for the Burial of the Dead. The point about the "Somme" is that it's not what you would call a familiar tune like "Scotland the Brave" or "Bonnie Dundee," and you won't find it on many CD or cassette recordings. I can tell by the several versions I've heard, particularly the instrumental ones, that no one seems to know quite how this piece should be played. In the official manual of piping, for example, the "Somme" is described also as "dance music"--an inapt description to say the least, considering its subject.


It seems to me that the composer, Pipe Major Willie Lawrie of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, has injected an interrogative quality into his music, a note of dissonance still discernible ninety years on--as well he might, considering what happened to Kitchener's New Army battalions on the morning of 1 July 1916 in the green Picardy uplands of north-eastern France. They called it the Big Push.

At 7:30 in the morning, after a week-long artillery bombardment of the German positions, the British Fourth and Sixth Armies left their trenches and attacked on a 20-mile front north of the Somme River between Albert and Peronne. As the infantry advanced in successive "waves" in extended order (each man burdened with a 65-pound pack) they fully expected that the whole business would be a walkover. An amazed German soldier described what he saw.

 I could see them everywhere, there were hundreds. The officers were in
 front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick.
 When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down
 in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them.

Battalions like the Newfoundland Regiment, the West Yorks, the Tyneside Scottish were virtually wiped out, cut down by machine-gun fire before they were even through the gaps in their own barbed wire. The Ulster Division lost half its men during the attack on the Schwaben Redoubt. The pipers as always played the Highland battalions over the top. Afterwards, a private in the Seaforths wrote, "I could see that our leading waves had got caught by their kilts. They were killed hanging on the wire, riddled with bullets, like crows shot on a dyke." Within an hour and a half (some historians say in a matter of minutes) there were 38,000 British casualties. By the end of the day, 60,000 British soldiers were dead and wounded, out of the 120,000 who had attacked with such high hopes in the morning. Bapaume, the objective of the first day's fighting, was still in German hands four months later.


What particular cadence then can convey a disaster of this magnitude? No wonder that question mark in the Pipe Major's music. Now that I am listening to the tune again it strikes me that, unwittingly or by design, Lawrie has permitted history of sorts to seep through that complex interlacing of quavers, semi-quavers, and crotchets. But whose history? Certainly the composition is a musical version of those events of 1916, but not as they were optimistically portrayed by the High Command, the press, or the government. The official government line of the day is perfectly summed up in Arthur Conan Doyle's The British Campaign in France and Flanders, 1916. Doyle writes, "Those young lives were gladly laid down as a price for final victory--and history may show that it was really on those Picardy slopes that final victory was in truth ensured ... one feels that this date should be for ever marked in British military annals as the glorious first of July."

Strathspeys and reels, or marches like "Black Bear" or "Highland Laddie," are called ceol beag or "small music." The classical pipe music--which includes salutes to chieftains and tributes marking the death of a kinsman or a clan member--is termed ceol mor or "great music." This is what Alan Breck Stewart plays in his competition with Robin Oig, from the famous scene in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. While the slower part of Pipe Major Lawrie's composition isn't in the strict formal sense ceol mor, in some respects it does refract elements of the traditional airs. In James Kennaway's novel, Acting Colonel Jock Sinclair knows that pipe music is "... no just a grieving. There's something angry about it as well." And it's the anger in the "Battle of the Somme" that I'd failed to recognize when I first heard the tune. The Pipe Major has executed what is called "illegal syncopation." The grace notes from the jaunty part of the tune have been added on to the next register, embellishing and lengthening the tempo, so emphasizing that abrupt final note which brings it suddenly to an end, like a window slamming down.

THAT the pipes as instruments of war lasted as long as they did was a triumph of sorts for the traditionalists, even though much regimental pipe music is simply the stylized representation of a Highland culture which was invented after the fact. The genuine article, the one that the Hanoverians regarded with a mixture of contempt and fear, ceased to exist after the Jacobite cause of the Stuarts was defeated at Culloden Moor in 1746. When Johnson and Boswell were touring Scotland in the 1770s, the old feudal warrior society--with its Gaelic language, its alliances and blood-feuds--was already a thing of the past. During the succeeding half century, the importation of the Cheviot sheep and the eviction of tens of thousands of people finished the process. The "music of the Gael"--like the construction of Balmoral Castle, the tartan cult of the early nineteenth century, and the mustering of Highland regiments into the British Army--had been suborned by an imperial government intent upon consolidating a "Great Britain" at home and extending the idea to its new possessions overseas.

But in a fit of absent-mindedness perhaps, the authorities had overlooked one thing: the subversive power of the pipes as a conduit for the collective memory of a people. For many of the old tunes were incorporated in part or in whole within the regimental opus, carrying with them that counterpoint of loss and diaspora that so moves the bullying, boozy ex-ranker Jock Sinclair. Their inflections come drifting across the years, bearing in their notes an accumulation of moods, a lingering echo of voices just beneath the sound of the melodies: sad, bitter, and truculent as well.


And it is the tone of that older, more authentic music that finally prevails in the "Battle of Somme." By the time Pipe Major Lawrie came to write his tune the whole idea of the romantic war was well and truly played out, along with the bravura and the high diction and the cheering. If it only just survived Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres, and Loos, it was eviscerated once and for all, along with the Pals battalions, in front of places like the Thiepval Spur, Mansel Copse, Beaumont Hamel. Lawrie himself was wounded and invalided home. He died in November 1916, the last month of the Somme campaign.

At any rate, the pipes and what they had come to represent couldn't withstand the shock of this new world of phosgene gas, Krupp's long-range artillery, or the new tactic of attrition which Captain Basil Liddell Hart likened to a "mincing-machine." Like the useless cavalry with their sabres and lances, or the French officers of the 1914 offensives with their white gloves and red kepis, the pipes of war had become an anachronism long before the fighting was over. They now belonged to that absent world of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels, if they belonged anywhere at all. How fitting then that an obscure pipe tune could make the point that the tunes of glory didn't obtain anymore in a war where victory more often than not looked very much like defeat. And who better to express that than a member of the Western Front's premier suicide club. The very ambiguity of Pipe Major Willie Lawrie's composition places it square in the fault line separating "now" from "then," "before" and "after" which the poet David Jones described as "the break." Only in a world turned upside down, one feels, could the bits and pieces of a half-forgotten melody, however obliquely, protest against what every front-line soldier knew was a false distinction. Unlike the smash-hit song of 1916, "Roses of Picardy," the "Battle of the Somme" has never been popular, but in the larger sense it's at least truthful, even if the truth it tells is still almost too unbearable to contemplate. Not even the Great War revisionists have been able to dislodge that one from the general memory, try as they might.

ONE OF the pipe tunes I've come across about a contemporary event is called "The Sands of Kuwait." This was written about the time of the first Gulf War which, as everyone knows, was a victory for America and its allies. The nature of the victory can be gauged by the term "turkey shoot"--in effect the massacre of thousands of defenceless Iraqi conscripts as they retreated for home, at the mercy of the Allied helicopter gunships and fighter planes. Much to the credit of the composer, there is not a hint of triumphalism to the melody; no boastful flourishes or grand paeans, for it is a lament even if it is for a victory. That's the kind of paradox that has informed the modern sensibilities for almost a century. "Only history itself," writes Theodor Adorno, "real history with all its suffering and all its contradictions, constitutes the truth of music." "The Sands of Kuwait" does not merely point to the usurpation of the old order of the world, it is also a tributary of what Hamish Henderson describes as "the carrying stream come out of the past." Like the "Battle of the Somme" before it, its cadence identifies the tragic dimension of human affairs, if only as a fragment. And you can hear that anger to it as well, flaring up for just a second more, and then as suddenly coming to an end.


FRASER BELL contributes regularly to Queen's Quarterly.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Queen's Quarterly
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:military music
Author:Bell, Fraser
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Previous Article:Making war, making peace: Versailles, 1919.
Next Article:No man's land: the battlefield paintings of Mary Riter Hamilton.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters