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World Masters of Piping
The Donald MacLeod Memorial Competition is an invitational piping competition held on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. The competition, started in 1994 by the Lewis & Harris Piping Society and (since 2000) receiving major sponsorship from Tennent Caledonian Breweries, was instituted to honor Donald MacLeod, one of the best all-around pipers of the 20th century. In addition to being a superb piper and teacher, MacLeod was one of the century's best composers. He wrote a huge number of tunes of all varieties of pipe music, many of which are modern classics.
Donald MacLeod, MBE, was born in Stornoway, on Lewis, in the Scottish Hebridean Islands in 1916. He became a piper for the Seaforth Highlanders in 1937, reaching the level of pipe major after only four years. During World War II, he served in France with the 51st Highland Division, was taken prisoner by the Germans at St. Valery, escaped during a forced march and managed to return to the UK. In 1945, he piped his battalion across the Rhine during an assault crossing -- even though he had been forbidden to do this by his commanding officer.
During his army career, he was highly successful in piping competitions, winning numerous medals. MacLeod retired from the army in 1963 and from competition in 1966, but neither marked the completion of his piping career. He continued to give recitals in Scotland and around the world, and he provided instruction to many pipers at all levels of ability. He published six books of light music (marches, airs and dance music) and a book of piobaireachd. He was awarded the Membership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1978 for outstanding service to piping.
The Donald MacLeod Memorial Competition consists of separate competitions for three classes of pipe music: march/strathspey/reel (MSR), hornpipe/jig and piobaireachd. The MSR competition requires competitors to play two 2/4 marches, two strathspeys (a uniquely Scottish form of dance music) and two reels. For this competition, at least one tune of each tune type in the MSR must have been composed by MacLeod, as must the hornpipes, jigs and piobaireachds.
Piobaireachd is considered the classical music of the Highland bagpipe, consisting of a theme and variations, finishing with a return to the ground. The variations progress from the simplest forms to the most complex. Due to its repetitive nature, many non-pipers (as well as a fair number of pipers) find the style too dense to appreciate. To aficionados, however, it is an incredibly moving and beautiful form of music.
Until early in the 20th century, piobaireachd was primarily an oral tradition. As a result, there have been a few predominant schools of thought as to the "proper" method of playing it. The piobaireachd played at this competition were all composed by MacLeod during the 20th century. For this reason, the tunes don't come laden with traditional styles of performance and competitors were able to apply their own musical creativity to the music.
Competitors are invited to the Donald MacLeod competition based on their winning of certain other competitions; consequently, those participating are among the best competing pipers in the world. This recording was made in 2000 and presents the best performances in each category by top-placing pipers William McCallum, Gordon Walker, Angus MacColl, Roderick MacLeod and Niall Matheson. (McCallum was the overall winner, having taken first place in the piobaireachd and MSR competitions and second in the hornpipe/jig competition.)
The piobaireachd on this recording are "Field of Gold" (McCallum), "Queen Elizabeth II's Salute" (MacColl), "The Sound of the Sea" (Matheson) and "Lament for the Rowan Tree" (MacLeod). They are all beautiful tunes, especially when played at the level of these competitors. However, "The Sound of the Sea" stood out more than any other and I look forward to learning it myself. "Field of Gold" was also especially pretty.
In the light music on this CD, there are some superb tunes played. Notable are McCallum's "Lady MacKenzie of Gairloch" and "Man from Skye," Walker's "Dr. MacInnes's Fancy," MacColl's "John MacDonald of Glencoe" and "Susan MacLeod," and MacLeod's "Argyllshire Gathering" and "Shepherd's Crook." There were also a number of less familiar tunes, such as "Glasgow Skye Association Centenary Gathering," "Duncan Lamont," "John Garroway" and "Mrs. Duncan MacFadyen." Besides those tunes composed by Donald MacLeod, there are several written by other well-known piping composers. This includes G.S. MacLennan, John MacColl, Angus MacKay and Peter MacLeod.
Two of MacLeod's tunes included here were named for his daughters. "Susan MacLeod" is a wonderful strathspey that is widely played and is in the repertoire of many pipers. The reel "Fiona MacLeod," played by both Willie McCallum and Roderick MacLeod, is also quite a good tune, but I have very seldom heard it played. It deserves wider recognition.
This is a superb CD; the playing is of the highest quality. The bagpipes sound beautiful, both in tone quality and tuning, and the tunes played are excellent. An informative booklet is included with a biography of Donald MacLeod, a history of the Lewis & Harris Piping Society and its efforts to present this memorial competition, and short bios of each piper. My only quibble with this CD is that sometimes the drone volume is a little soft in comparison to the chanter. However, this sort of thing is unavoidable in a live recording and is to be expected when the chanter and drones are not miked separately.
With over 60 minutes of high-class piping, this CD should be in the collection of every piping enthusiast, and the producers are to be commended for having put together such a good recording. This CD is not quite so ideal for those with only a mild interest in piping. Having four piobaireachd does provide a good introduction to form, but newcomers to piping can find piobaireachd a difficult music to appreciate. Since almost half of this recording is piobaireachd, the piping novice might find it a bit dense. After a gentler easing into piobaireachd, though, they should definitely return to this recording.
[ by Wayne Morrison ]