Dutch: Doedelzak, Pijpzak
German: Dudelsack, Sackpfeife
Italian: cornamusa, zampogna
French: cornemuse, musette de cour
Classification and Etymology
As a wind instrument, the bagpipe belongs to the class of aerophones (whose sound is produced primarily by causing a body of air to vibrate, without the use of strings or membranes), where it is specified as a composite reed pipe. Its commonest form consists of a "chanter," one or more drones all supplied with air from the bag, either by means of a bellow compressed under the player's arm to provide a constant pressure as it is practiced with the musette de cour, or the Irish Uilleann pipe, produci
ng a more delicate sound). It may also be blown by mouth through a blowpipe, intended for outdoor use as the sound is louder, well-known from the famous Scottish Great Highland bagpipe. The "chanter" is a cylindrical or conical bored pipe with a single or double reed and finger holes for playing the melody while a drone is a cylindrical tube with a single reed producing a constant bourdon tone.
The history of the bagpipe
The bagpipe, with its venerable history, is one of the oldest musical instruments of mankind. The early ancestors of the bagpipe, the ancient reed-sounded single- or double-pipe, can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Middle-East (Babylonia, Mesopotamia). The invention of a bag as the air supply was merely an addition to the existing pipes. With the early double-pipes one of the pipes probably sounded the melody and the other the accompaniment, analogous to the later bag-blown instrument.
It is likely that the basic means of producing the sound in the pipes and reed is a discovery belonging to prehistory. Someone discovered that it was possible to produce a musical sound by pinching the flat end of a straw or plant-stalk and blowing into it with compressed lips. This first experiment became the principle of the double reed since the straw naturally produces two flattened surfaces or "blades" at the squeezed part. These two blades vibrate under the pressure of the breath and produce sound. The earliest specimens of such reed-sounded pipes have been found in excavated tombs in Babylonia and Egypt.
The construction of a single reed, which is of special use in bagpipe drone(s), was a slightly more complicated invention since a knife blade was necessary. At some point, it was found that if a tongue was cut a little towards or away from one of the knots or natural nodes of a straw, and the player inserted the straw to the full length into his mouth and blew, a sound of superior quality could be produced. With such fragile material as a corn-stalk the single reed would be less liable to become clogged or sodden with the moisture of the mouth than the crushed end of the straw of the double reed.
The earliest known depictions of the reed-pipe upon steles from Egypt and the Middle-East represent the double pipe. In the initial form, two duplicate pipes were closely bound together, the finger holes corresponded on each pipe, so that the melody could be played simultaneously by covering both corresponding holes. This kind of pipe produced twice as much volume as a single pipe, which improved outdoor playing. A further development was the use of wax to stop the finger holes in one of the pipes which produced an attractive drone accompanying the melody with a constant pitch. Soon the drone-pipe was deliberately constructed with only one hole; and very much later, its length was extended, so as to produce a truly bass note.
At the same time, though not necessarily in the same geographical regions, divergent pipes had evolved. The two pipes were separate, not bound together and each one held in a different hand. Each pipe contained its own reed and was inserted in the mouth diverging from the lips of the player at an acute angle to each other.
As only one hand could finger each pipe, each could have only four finger holes. Many divergent pipes, including a number of those from ancient Egypt, had four finger holes in the right-hand pipe and three in the left. From this version only a step was needed to experiment with making one the pipes sound different note from the other producing rudimentary harmony. Several holes of the second pipe were stopped up with wax leaving a few fingers free for playing the other. An early example of this type are the famous silver pipes in the Royal Cemetery of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur.1
From Egypt and the Middle-East the divergent pipes spread to Asia Minor to the Greek empire, and from there to Greece itself, by traders from Mediterranean and the Black Sea but above all with the conquest of Egypt in the fourth century B.C. by Alexander the Great. The first mention of these pipes in Greek literature is to be found in Homer's Iliad (c. 700 B.C.). The ancient Greek term for the reed-sounded mouth-blown divergent pipe is aulos (plural auloi), which, together with its Latin equivalent tibia (pl. tibiae) is incorrectly translated by practically every translator of the Greek and Latin classics as flutes. Both, in fact mean, musical pipes sounded by a reed and not the flute which, held transversely and cross-blown did not yet appear in Greek or Roman art in that times.2
This error in translation becomes particularly evident in descriptions by Thucydides, Aristotle and others, of the use of the pipes by the Spartans in battle. A flute, with its cold, austere tone, would never have been able to inflame the will to fight more than the pipe(s) with its rough and exciting sound. The pipes in ancient Greece were obviously not only a musical instrument for the male players but for female players as well, as they had been in ancient Egypt, evident in numerous pictures and inscriptions. In the Greek theatre, particularly in the comedies of Aristophanes (c. 445-385 B.C.), the "girl-piper" has in the most cases an integral part (despite the fact that the female characters had always been played by young male actors).
Pipes made their way to Rome from the Greek empire, possibly via the Etruscans or from Sicily, which had been colonized early by the Phoenicians and later by the Greeks (Magna Graecia). However, pipes are mentioned quite early in Roman semi-history and tradition. The Greek historian and biographer Plutarch (46-127 A.C.), who on his extensive travels, spent two visits to Rome, credited the semi-mythical king Numa (the second King of Rome after Romulus, c. 750-671 B.C.) with the foundation of the original trade guilds of Rome, of which the Pipers' Guild got a privileged place. They played during the numerous religious ceremonies for the sacrifice of the gods, one of the customary duties of Roman life, at the public games, at chariot races (especially adapted for declaring the victory of the winner) or at funerals (no more than ten were allowed).
The invention of the bag
Even some of the Roman Emperors played the pipes, or were interested in them. The most spectacular imperial player was undoubtedly the Emperor Nero (37-68 A.C.). It is with him that the first concrete mention of the actual bagpipe is associated, although there had been vague suggestions centuries before of an instrument formed by a bag made of the whole skin of an animal, with chanter and/or drone inserted in it, for instance by Aristophanes in his Lysistrata or in The Acharnians (here in quite straightforward phrases). Moreover, one of a series of terracotta figurines from Alexandria (dated c. last century B.C.) shows a little man playing the pan-pipes (syrinx) accompanying himself by means of a bag holding under his arm, which by a pipe inserted into the bag obviously sounding a drone. These figurines seems to be the earliest representations of a kind of bagpipe.3
The prominent Roman historian and biographer Suetonius (c. 69/75-after 130) in his De Vita Caesarium ("Lives of the Twelve Caesars") tells us in his last days Nero had sworn to honor the gods with a great musical festival, wherein he would perform among others as an utricularius (utricularia = bag of skin for water or wine, here rather meant as a bag filled with air) if they would rescue him from the hands of the conspirators. At about the same time the Greek orator and historian of the Roman Empire, Dio Chrysostom (or Dion of Prusa, c. 40-c.120) wrote about Nero's skills in bagpipe playing rather sarcastically: "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 Athena."4 Nero even had the image of himself playing the bagpipe put on coins. From these sources there is no doubt that the real bagpipe, providing the wind for a reed-sounded chanter (or chanters) by means of an air reservoir – the bag – had appeared in the republic of Rome, dated at about the second half of the first century A.C. The poet Martial (40-c.104) called this new instrument askaulos, taken from the Greek aulos (pipe) plus askos for "bag."5