October 2007 - Volume 12, Issue 3

The Spirituality Of The Pipes

By Brian Donahue

A photo of a bagpipe playerIt is said that we can find God in everything that is good. As a Liturgical Artist I tend to look for the symbology in things. As piper of my Division, it stands to reason that I began reflecting on my instrument from that perspective. What I discovered was just how spiritual the bagpipes really are. This may not be a new idea. Our ancient ancestors were more connected with their surroundings than we are today, if for no other reason because they lived in an outdoor society. With the pipes resonating across the windswept landscape it is difficult to determine where they fade out and the sounds of nature begin. They were quite aware of the pipe's effect on the psyche and for a long time, that is why they were used as means of communication in war and in the Liturgy.

As with all the Gaelic arts, visual, performing and literary, there consists a central theme which is then interlaced with variations. This is most evident in the beautiful pages of the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts. The intricate interwoven line work add subtle elements to the main story. Listen to the pipe music of our Scottish cousins whose Piobaireachd, a style of music unique to the bagpipes, builds on a theme evolving into a more complex series of variations before returning to the beginning. This theme of "no beginning and no end", the Alpha & the Omega, figures prominently in our Gaelic/Christian culture. The knot work seen on many of the stone crosses of Ireland, for example, contains this never-ending line work which is not there as mere decoration. Its symbolic presence is to the visual art is what the continuous drone of the bagpipes is to Gaelic music.

The bagpipes are well known for their roll in battle as a mean of motivation, inspiration, and communication. Their affect on people was so great that they were once labeled an "instrument of war" and banned from us by invading peoples. The pipes were not limited to just the battlefield. As a prominent instrument of the day, these "warpipes" were also used in the Mass of the Celtic Church, that is, the Christian Church before it merged with Rome. Examining the bagpipes from this perspective we can understand why there is such an attachment to our beloved pipes.

There are 9 parts to the bagpipes. They are:

  1. The piper The performer
  2. Blowpipe - The tube the pipers uses to fill the bag with air.
  3. Bag - Made of leather, it is the air reservoir.
  4. Chanter - Provides the means to produce the melody.
  5. Drones (3) - Provides the single note accompaniment.
  6. Reeds (4) - Vibrating pieces of cane which produces the sound.
  7. Stocks - 5 short tubes tied to the bag and hold the blowpipe, chanter and drones.
  8. Drone Cord - The rope that holds the drones together.
  9. Bag Cover - Colored fabric to protect the leather bag from wear. The bagpipes have evolved little over time. They began as a blowpipe connected to a leather bag from which a melody producing chanter extended. Eventually, a single drone was added to the bag to harmonize with the chanter. Later on, a second longer drone was added to produce a chord. Finally, in the mid-nineteenth century the third drone was added giving 2 tenor notes and one base note. It has not changed since.

Examining the bagpipes in a symbolic manner there can he found a spiritual parallel to all these parts. Symbology is subjective so it has to be viewed iii the context of how they are used. For example, the peacock, strutting his brightly colored plumage, is a symbol of worldly pride and vanity, one of the seven deadly sins. But used with other symbols it can represent "immortality' because it was believed that the flesh of the peacock did not decay. In yet another context, the circle pattern on the tail feathers resembles eyes, so it can be used to symbolize the all seeing, ever present God. With this perspective the bagpipes, with its nine parts, can be interpreted in a Christian context.

The piper is the creator of the music and breaths life into his pipes with a design of what is to be performed. Fitting the bag with air is the birth of the music. The piper represents God the Creator. This is not meant in a blasphemous way. Just as certain man-made symbols represent God in art, the piper is merely a representation. The Almighty, breathing life into all things begins the music of life. This is why it is so important for the piper to always perform in a respectful, dignified manner.

The piper begins each tune by blowing through the blowpipe filling the bag with air. Compressing the hag with his arm, this "life-giving breath" causes the reeds to vibrate which begins each tune. Christ was sent to us by the Holy Spirit, God's breath of life, by the Immaculate Conception. Thus, the blowpipe represents both the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Mary. The hag, made of cow skin, itself a symbol of Christ, represents the flesh and blood of Jesus from which the word of God is disseminated. The bag is the heart of the instrument, unique to this form of music, just as Christ is unique to the Christian Church. It is from God that Christ received his inspiration and aspiration. It is from this simple cowhide that the music comes to life and it is from Christ that the Word of God comes to life.

Covering the bag is a colored fabric which protects it from wear. The bag cover can be as simple as one color or an elaborate combination of many. It represents the many different clans and cultures of the Gaelic people. As a religious symbol, it represents the many different Christian faiths. The different buildings which contain the same Christ interpret his teachings in a manner that attracts many different personalities all of which are God's children.

The bag is pierced by five wooden tubes called stocks. They hold the drones, chanter, and blowpipe and connect them to the bag. These stocks are the foundation of the instrument and represent the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ and as such, the Passion. These wounds, one in each hand, each foot, and His side, signify Christ's suffering which is the foundation of Christianity. Without this sacrifice there would be no resurrection and no redemption. Jesus would have been just another instrument singing the praise of God.

Extending from the stocks are the drones and chanter. At the base of these wooden pipes are four reeds. When the piper applies pressure to the bag it causes the reeds to vibrate sending forth the music. Individually, each reed represents Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four Evangelists. Each one tells his own story of Christ's ministry. Similar yet different, hut together they blend into a beautiful harmonic chord. The chanter is the pipe from which the melody comes. Its nine notes tell the story of the tune. They are the words which tell the parables, teachings, and miracles of Christ spoken to us by the individual Gospels each harmonizing with the other just as the chanter is accompanied by the drones.

The drones are held together with the drone cord. Without this cord the drones would stand alone and unsupported. Handling the pipes in this way would be cumbersome and awkward. 'The cord holds them in place making them manageable and to work as a coordinated unit. Although the cord is tied only to the drones, it connects in four places and thus represents the New Testament which holds each Gospels in an organized purposeful manner. Just as the cord holds the drones in place, the binding holds the contents of the Bible.

As a complete unit the pipes play the music praising the many events that make up a proud Irish people. The complete unit represents the Christian Church, its music is the Word and the Word is music. While this may be a far fetched interpretation of a relatively simple musical instrument, it shows how we can look for the good in everything and see how God's grace touches even the simplest things in life. The next time you hear the pipes listen to the four instruments blended together as one to sing the song of praise. Listen, not just to the skin of the pipes, but to the spiritual harmony that is sent forth.