End of an Old Song

By Bell, Fraser | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

End of an Old Song


Bell, Fraser, Queen's Quarterly


"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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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