Music of the Gentlemen Pipers

The uilleann pipes and pastoral pipes have been developed in the years between 1730 and 1810, and the first makers were to cover a quite different musical demand than associated with the pipes today.

They were concepted not only for traditional material – “national airs”, as they were classified then – but for all the other newly-composed song tunes and arias from masks, operas, pantomimes with a celtic background and flavour, which enjoyed tremendous success in these times. But tunes of non -celtic style were en vogue as well, like catches, glees, and pastoral dance pieces like gavottes, minuets and the old – style hornpipes in 12/8 time are found in the numerous collections of the time. Any catchy tune was welcome to its players, as long as it was easily playable within the compass of the instruments chosen, and basically these newly developed pipes were designed consequently to meet this demand.

“Union Pipes” was the new term for both variants of this instrument, and the meaning of “union” has been researched a lot, without persuading results. To my opinion it was referring to the wooden common stock, holding its pipes “in union”, as opposed to the single stocks holding the drones of the older bagpipes.

These pipes had to be fit rather for a style of music formed by the genius of composers than for music of  traditional folk musicians. A very detailed insight into the repertoire of the pipers is to be had in the Millar manuscript collection. Living in Scotland, this man was a skilled amateur player of Union and Northumbrian pipes. His repertoire comprised melodies of all styles of music which matched his chanters, including pieces like the hunter’s choir from C. M. Weber’s Freischütz, Yankee Doodle, and folk songs from Hessia, Tyrole, Poland and other European countries and regions. Some pieces he had notated down in a very detailed, painstaking way, showing all the embellishments and regulator parts. These settings show a style which corresponds by lage with the common rules of phrasing and articulating in classical art music, very much like the flute had been played in at the time.

Professional pipers made their living as resident pipers, living on an estate and serving with musical entertainment and tuition. Others travelled as vituosos through Ireland and Scotland, including English and American cities with a strong minority of Irish or Scottish background. Their concerts were announced with posters, naming merits of playing before gentry and aristocracy. They give insight into repertoire and casts and show, that these events rather resembled a classical recital than a traditional session or solo performance as familiar today.  An orchestra often was at hand, sometimes a piano or cello would serve with accompaniment. The piper showed off his brilliance by playing variations over well – known airs (as is still habit with the Northumbrian pipers of today). Most pieces were short tunes, but newly – composed ones in the Celtic style could be quite spacious. By the mid- 1900s, the taste of the listeners and the development of composed music had turned away more and more from this style, so the Union pipes disappeared from the concert and opera stages.

Immediately  after these pipes had been designed, built and sold in London, Dublin and other cultural centres  by makers of Irish descendence, they were found in the hands of well-to-do farmers, clergymen or other gentlemen in the “big houses” all over Ireland and parts of Scotland. Gifted children were taught in the art of piping, sometimes without regard of them being of poor descendence, especially in the Irish and Anglo – Irish families, who sought to express their esteem for the old traditions and culture. The high regard for the old harpers in former times was in many ways transferred to the union pipers. They likewise enjoyed a high status as musicians of local Irish art and as carriers of the traditional repertoire. This laid the ground for the image of the union pipes as the true national instrument of Ireland, as they ars seen still today.

The traditional musicians in the Irish hinterlands soon had taken notice of the new instrument and its aptness for playing their tunes. The pipers accompanied the dancing masters, who travelled the country, to teach the dances that were in fashion, along with courtly manners, after the pattern of the higher classes. On crossroads and in the local ballrooms and cottages the pipers joined the fiddlers and fluters, providing  for dancing and entertainment, in ancient style (jigs, cotillon, minuet, gavot) or latest fad (reels, quadrilles, polkas), for the young people who yearned for fun and craic.

Opposed to them, the “gentlemen pipers” – or who had seen hisself as such - segregated expressively from those, as they took it,  unschooled colleagues in the tap rooms and shebeens.

These rather followed their ear than the written music, and their ears were full of the traditional ways of singing and embellishing the old local versions of the tunes that surrounded them in the local area. They invented new ways to give the dance music as much vigour and sprightliness as possible, abandoning the classical style, but taking benefit from the technical potentials which it conveys, for their new approach. So, they took over the staccato articulation in the tight fingering and the triplets, they learnt to use the slides (which the classically trained musicians  called portamento), and the hard bottom d which the classical pipers disdained (it being “too acute”, after the taste of Colclough) was now deliberately used to enhance the accents of the dance tunes. Old píob mór embellishments like the crans and doublets were remembered and included into the playing. As for the airs, the traditional players were deeply influenced  by the sean – nós style of singing, much more widespread than today at the time. So, what they found was a new approach to piping, as it is still valid today to a great extent. It was a development comparable to the upcoming of Jazz and modern pop music being looked  down upon by classical musicians.

It was the times of the Great Famine which set a dramatic end to these developments. Afterwards, from c. 1870 on, the Gaelic League began to revive the aspects of Irish culture, and the last active pipers (now called “Uilleann”pipers = elbow pipers) were traced and being heard again on stage and recordings. For securing a dying culture of a nation still to be revived, a huge amount of Irish airs and tunes were collected all over the country which still today form the core of the repertoire. Clearly there wasn’t much interest in the music of the pipes’ first life.  Today the traditional piping is going stronger than ever, with players of a playing skill never achieved before, many of them of a long family descendence of pipers, traceable back from the beginning of the 19th century. Never before have so many makers produced so many instrments of a such high quality all over the world.

Now that the tradition of Irish piping is one of the most deeply rooted traditional music styles in the world, it is time to find out  which music was played on the the uilleann pipes initially, and for which they were invented.

Their  music had different descriptions then: “pastoral” (rural, belonging to shepherds, farmers, country folk), “national” (belonging to a people, a region, a nation) “ancient” (music handed down from times immemorial). All these terms were given to the traditional music by the learned musicians and the publishers, not by the ones who used this music in all-day life.

I have compiled a number of these pieces for a concert program: Music of the Gentlemen Pipers, and I play them on sets with enlarged multidrone setup and an additional e’ note on the regulators.

This pays tribute to those virtuosos who used enlarged sets in those times: Double bass regulators being the most common.


A selection of these pieces has been published as CD, which may be ordered by mail to :

Music of the Gentlemen Pipers

Thomas Kannmacher: Uilleann (Union) Pipes

Hubert Arnold: Pianoforte, Harpsichord, Celtic Harp (Cláirseach)

Tunes arranged for the pipes by Thomas Kannmacher

Settings for keyboards and harp made by Hubert Arnold



Uilleann Pipes in C sharp, unsigned, early 19th century. (chanter) / Matt Kiernan (stock, drones) ca.1979 / Th. Kannmacher 1992.  With two groups of drones for D/d’ or G/d’ and A/a or B/b, switched singly, and a forth regulator for e’

Uilleann Pipes in D by  J. Addison (Chanter) 1977 / H.J. Podworny 1990 / Hans Reusch 2004 / Th.  Kannmacher with additional regulator key for e’


Celtic Harp, by Hubert Arnold 2007

Cembalo by Nagel, Paris, ca. 1985

Square pianoforte, unsigned, Germany, ca. 1800


Recorded in  the artist’s resort of Cill Rialaig, Ballinscelligs, Co. Kerry, Irland, 28. 3. – 10. 4. 2010  as part of the Cill Rialaig Project.

except the pieces going with harpsichord, which were recorded in Bonn – Beuel, Germany


The Cill Rialaig Project


Cill Rialaig village (c. 1790), is phase one of a self help three part economic and social plan for the much neglected Gealtacht area of Ballinscelligs, Co. Kerry, Ireland. It involves the rescue and redevelopment of the once abandoned pre – famine village as a retreat for artists, poets, writers and composers of national and international repute. The retreat also maintains a policy of reserving space and a special welcome for young artists and writers. Over 950 artists from all over the world have enjoyed the experience which they claim has impacted on their works and careers. Over 20 000 applications have been received from all over the world for residencies.

More informations: Cill Rialaig, Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry, Tel. 066 9479297, Fax: 066 9479324, Dublin Office: ORIGIN, 83 Harcourt St., Dublin 2, Te. (o1) 4785159 / Fax (01) 4785826,