Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Altarnun, Cornwall


I’ve been looking at a lot of church woodwork recently, cricking my neck to examine carved angels in roofs, and clicking my knees to get down and peer at the images on bench ends. I’ve been struck, as I’ve done this, by the variety of musical instruments being played, especially by carved angels (there were far more than harps in medieval heaven, clearly), and down on ground level too. Altarnun’s superb set of bench ends features a couple of musicians, one playing some kind of fiddle, and this bagpiper, who gives a fair indication of the folkish nature of the art, and also, presumably, of the music to be heard hereabouts in the late Middle Ages, when these bench ends were carved.

In the United Kingdom we tend to think of bagpipes as Scottish. The Scottish pipes skirl in military parades, at royal occasions, and I’ve even seen buskers, wearing the kilt and taking the chance with their pipes on the streets of London. We should know better, of course, than to think the Scots have the monopoly. There are Irish pipes, Northumbrian small pipes, all kinds of bagpipes. They’re all over Europe too. I was thrilled during my travels in Central Europe to find the bagpiping centre of Strakonice in the Czech Republic. And there is the opera Schwanda the Bagpiper,† and so on and on.

There are plenty of references to early pipes and bagpipes in Cornwall, including a number of carvings in churches. These instruments are interesting in that, unlike many bagpipes, they have two chanters – the pipes with holes on which one plays the melody – which must open up harmonic possibilities denied to players of bagpipes with a single chanter.

The carving of the figure is simple but bold, and it is badly worn. But one still gets an impression of the vigorous style – in the folds of the costume, the modelling of the bag, the extraordinary hat, even the little dog. John Betjeman said that a church should bring one to one’s knees. Peering at this bagpiper got me kneeling to look closely – not quite the kind of prayerful kneeling that Betjeman had in mind. But Betjeman also encouraged us all to use our eyes. And I’m glad I got down, and peered.

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* I am playing here on Dudelsack (the sack on which one tootles), the wonderful German word for bagpipes.
Švanda dudák in Czech, Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeiffer in German, by the composer Jaromir Weinberger and based on a play by the Czech writer Josef Kajetán Tyl.

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