Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Mendelssohn and the Bagpipes

When Felix Mendelssohn stopped in Edinburgh during the first leg of his Scottish tour, he was attracted by the Highland soldiers apparently returning from church. He described them as ‘victoriously leading their sweethearts in their Sunday attire, and casting magnificent and important looks over the world; with long red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers, naked knees and their bagpipes in their hands.'
It does not need a qualified historian of Scotland to realise that there may have been a little bit of stereotyping going on here. It seems strange that they all had red beards and carried bagpipes.  And Mendelssohn does not elaborate.
J. Cuthbert Hadden suggests that the Scottish national instrument seems to have taken the composer’s fancy. On the following Monday there was a competition of Highland pipers in the Theatre Royal [1]. The composer was present.  Alas, there is no record of how he enjoyed the event.

However, Hadden continues, Dr. Donald Macleod [2] not long ago [1899] told a story which would seem to indicate that he [Mendelssohn] thought more highly of them than the ill-natured people who refuse to recognise it as an instrument of music.
It appears that a near-relative of Dr. Macleod was a piper. The gentleman chanced to be staying in the same hotel at which our travellers [Karl Klinegemann & Mendelssohn] had put up; and according to the story, it was his custom to take a ‘quiet’ practise in his own room. Mendelssohn hearing the ‘distant strains,’ sent his card to the player, and begged to be allowed to listen at close quarters.  He became, as we are told, greatly interested in both music and instrument, and paid several visits to the piper’s room during his stay.
Hadden concludes his anecdote by suggesting that if the story is true, the composer…'did not suffer from weak nerves'. [!!] Finally, Hadden wonders ‘where is the Edinburgh hotel-keeper who would nowadays allow a piper to practise in his room?  No wonder Mendelssohn exclaimed, when he thought of leaving, ‘How kind the people are in Edinburgh, and how generous is the good God!’

Derived from J. CUTHBERT HADDEN The Scottish Review, 1882-1920; Jan 1899; 33, British Periodicals pg. 94

[1] 29th July 1929
[2] Possibly, Donald Macleod DD (Glasgow: Park Church) who was Moderator of the Kirk in 1895.

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