Chris Calver is the former Chairman of the Northumbrian Pipers' Society.
In this article he writes about Northumbrian Impressions, originally composed by Alan Bush for the Northumbrian
Smallpipes and Alan Bush's assocation with the Pipers' Society. Bush also arranged the piece for oboe and piano.
The article also reviews a recent performance of the work by Alison Teale at the Purcell Room in London.
A recording made by Alison Teale (oboe) with Shirley Ip (piano) can be
heard on the Listen
section of the website.
by Chris Calver, Former Chairman, Northumbrian Pipers' Society
I was lucky to be able to attend a concert on 16th April 2002 at the Purcell Room in London given by Alison Teale as part of her prizewinner's concert which followed her success in the 5th Isle of Wight International Oboe Competition in May 2001. For Northumbrian Impressions (Opus 42 and Opus 42a), she was accompanied by Robin Bowman on piano.
This is the background to a rather lovely but complicated piece of music written by Alan Bush, who was Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1925 to 1978.
Alan and his wife Nancy were in Northumberland in early 1953, researching material for the opera The Men of Blackmoor, which is about the struggles of miners in Northumberland and Durham in the 19th century. Alan was inspired by the playing of Jack Armstrong, Piper to the Duke of Northumberland, on the Northumbrian Smallpipes, and wrote a suite for the instrument based around traditional tunes. It remains the only piece written by a composer from the classical tradition for solo Northumbrian Smallpipes.
The modern Northumbrian Smallpipes are a bellows blown bagpipe with a chanter sounding the modern F natural or G major scales, hence the terms pipers use are 'F sets' or 'G sets'. The most common number of keys is 7, which gives the following range of notes (starting with the D above middle C) D*, E*, F sharp*, G, A, B, C, C sharp*, D, D sharp*, E, F sharp, G, A*, and B*, the asterisks indicate the keyed notes. There are 17 keyed sets which sound a full chromatic two octaves (Alison used the word 'turbocharged' for these, a wonderful description). The chanter is stopped, i.e. air does not flow through it when all the finger holes are covered so rests or staccato playing is possible. Four drones are normally provided, D and G below middle C, and D and G above it, with three sounding during playing, top and bottom notes of the scale with the 5th. Often the drones have tuning beads enabling their sound to be raised a tone, so playing in E minor is possible, the drones set E A E They are a sweet sounding instrument, best played indoors as changes in humidity adversely affect the double reed in the chanter and cane reeds in the drones.
In his brief comments on the pipes that introduce the Piano and Oboe arrangement, Alan refers to the range and notes previously mentioned on a 7-keyed set of pipes with three drones D, G D, the G with a tuning bead to give A and the staccato capability of the chanter. It is in fact quite common for pipers to use only two drones, missing off the top octave. At the time of composing, most sets of pipes played at slightly below the pitch of concert F sharp, but the majority of music for them was written in G or D.
Northumbrian Impressions is composed in three movements: Prelude, Lament and Dance. The final movement is based on the Mitford Galloway, which at the time was known from the Northumbrian Minstrelsy, a very important book of collected local tunes and songs. The Mitford Galloway is now known to have been composed by John Cowan who performed on fiddles in Newton Stewart, Galloway. The words are by Thomas Whittell and tell of a bad tempered runaway horse that runs around many Northumbrian villages (a sort of 19th century 'I've bin everywhere man'!).
There are some letters between Alan and Jack about the piece with Jack suggesting a title of Three Northumbrian Scenes, and Alan mentioning that he hopes the piece is not too complicated, together with modifying the name to Northumbrian Impressions. Jack did not play the piece in public although he probably tried it as he indicated he needed 'good practice', along with noting that the tune went to bottom B, beyond the range of his 7 keyed chanter. Indeed he comments that his new chanter 'expected soon' will be able reach this note.
It took another 26 years before the piece was premiered, by Richard Butler, Piper to the Duke of Northumberland, at the Wigmore Hall in 1979. Jack Armstrong had taught Richard and showed him the music. Richard was most enthusiastic about the piece but told me it was fiendishly difficult to play. However the recording in the National Sound Archive by Richard shows great fluency.
It turns out that after the first hearing, Alan altered the score somewhat so that Northumbrian Impressions when played, again by Richard, a year later for Alan's 80th birthday was slightly different in form easing some of the technically difficult runs. It may be that the bottom B was restored as Richard plays a 17 keyed fully chromatic two octave set of pipes, but this has yet to be confirmed. In March 1981 the BBC came to Newcastle and recorded Richard playing Northumbrian Impressions for a programme broadcast in July of that year about Alan Bush, whose voice and playing are also heard. This is the recording in the National Sound Archive.
Alan Bush obviously liked the composition for the smallpipes and towards the end of 1953 arranged the piece for oboe and piano as Op 42a, which immediately enabled it to be played much more widely. In fact it was premiered at the end of 1953 by Joy Boughton on oboe and Alan at the piano. Novello published the music in 1956 and it remains available to this day (but the music for solo pipes remains unpublished). Clearly the music is known to oboists, and I certainly heard the piece broadcast on Radio 3 in the late 1980's and remember thinking 'that sound is imitating the pipes, what music is this?'
Alison Teale has told me that she remembers as a youngster listening to a piper on the bridge at Durham (this was Neil Smith) and that he was an early influence because of the dance music played. She took up oboe (but it was supposed to be clarinet!) and applied all her sensitivity to local surroundings and love of dance rhythms in her approach to music. Much later she was given a set of Northumbrian Pipes by her parents, but only brings them out occasionally, She was relating a tale of one of these outings to her mentor Nicholas Daniel when he mentioned the beauty of Northumbrian Impressions.
After winning the 5th Isle of Wight Oboe competition in 2001 Alison needed to prepare a programme for the winner's concert. It was then that she remembered the conversation about Northumbrian Impressions, and recognised in the piece the local landscape.
So by these two routes spanning 40 years beginning with Northumbrian Smallpipes we were treated to a rare performance of great beauty of Alan Bush's Northumbrian Impressions, arranged for Oboe and Piano
I have to admit that I was transported to Northumberland during the performance. The piano fills out the bass and top treble that the pipes lack richening the texture. The oboe is a double reed instrument, like the pipes, and in the hands of an artist of the capability of Alison, imitates them when needed. It also expresses the rolling landscape with its fast flowing streams in stormy and calm weather, together with the people at play in the dance, and wistful in the lament.
At the time of writing no commercial recording of the important and delightful Northumbrian Impressions exists (or has ever existed) in either the solo or arranged version, a great pity. So perhaps there's a project for a few people. Could the NPS support this in some way? I'm sure they would.
With thanks to Maeve O'Higgins of the Alan Bush Music Trust, Alison Teale and Richard Butler for the information that enabled me to write this short article.
© 2002 Chris Calver