Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Little Spree

We had a light snow the night before last, but today there was none to speak of left, so I decided to squeeze in another bagpipe practice out north of town on my way back from the post office. It was about five, so the sun was fairly low, in fact, in the shade of the closest hills, the sun was gone. About the time I had the pipes together I noticed that the fog was starting to creep through the pass on a gentle, but steady wind. The blowing fog was beautiful against the sun, and almost poetry, wraith-grey in the hollows of the hills. . .but it was uncomfortably cold. I tuned the pipes and ran through the ground and first variation of "The Little Spree". The exercise was promising, but not inspiring in execution. The chanter was sliding sharper with every phrase, and the tuning was entirely gone even before I started the variation. The holes beneath my fingers felt as though they were disappearing, or rather they began not to feel at all, and the attention I had hoped to devote to expression was being devoured by the mechanical concerns of managing from one grip to the next. So it was not exactly successful as a practice, but it was a nice brisk afternoon on which to watch a sunset.
"The Little Spree" is, as I said a couple of days ago, a work in progress for me. We had a grand teacher at the College of Piping camp I attended two years ago, Dugald MacNeill, who would gather the entire school in the gym after breakfast and make us sing through the ground of a piobaireachd. "The Little Spree" was one of these, and it stuck in my mind as one of the most beautiful grounds I had ever heard. The title is quite misleading; there is nothing at all wild about the tune, not even a wild grief. It is a very restrained tune, built around a few sparse, but carefully-placed notes, as if the composer was emptying the last memories of a mind already barren with sorrow, beyond tears. To quote The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor: "Dr. Bett, a well known authority of a past generation, is said to have described the "Little Spree" as the saddest lament he knew." While I myself cannot claim to be anything approaching an authority, I would agree wholeheartedly. The story I seem to remember reading about the tune (there is also a "Big Spree," of similar nature, to confuse matters) was that its subject was a once- successful warrior who had lost his former strength and glory through an over-fondness of the bottle. . .that true or not, it is a sad tune.

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