Triple time tunes in early sources are not always what they seem. Here Pete Stewart introduces an approach to one of the earliest notated Lowland and Border pipe tunes

George Skene’s 1717 manuscript contains four tunes described as being bagpipe settings. Here are strains from the one labelled ‘Wat ye what I got late Yestreen -  Bagpipe Set’

These are strains 2, 4 and the first part of 5, but a piper presented with them as a 6/8 tune would have no difficulty in running them off as a fairly standard jig; there’s nothing here to suggest they might be anything else. It’s worth noting at the same time that such a performance would naturally include C#’s, giving a tune in D. This is not what Skene wants, however; his key signature is one #, and if that is honoured then the tune is in D Mixolydian, an unusual mode for pipe tunes. I’ll come to that shortly. First I want to introduce a somewhat earlier version that appears in the Northumbrian fiddle manuscript of Henry Atkinson, dated around 1695, where it is title ‘Crudds and Whey’. The original is in G dorian and the second strain is repeated as the fourth.

Only the second strain seems to be related to what we have seen in Skene. However, the first thing to notice about Atkinson’s tune is that the key signature is not 6/8 as in Skene, but 6/4. In fact, Skene’s manuscript is one of the first northern fiddle manuscripts I have seen that uses the ‘new’ time signature of 6/8 for such tunes.

It’s clearly tempting, and some sources suggest that it is correct, to read the 6/4 time signature as implying a slower tempo but I believe that in this case at least the evidence suggests that this is not the case, although our reading of the selection we have looked at from Skene’s setting would be perfectly workable at today’s jig speed. But the same cannot be said of Atkinson’s setting. Before we consider why this is so perhaps we should look at Skene’s complete setting.

Wat ye what I got late Yestreen -  Bagpipe Set

At least we can now see that these two settings are of the same musical material, despite the disagreement about the title. They do however appear to differ in their understanding of the modality. Skene’s seems to be in D Mixolydian, though most pipers will probably opt for D major, even if that doesn’t quite make consistent sense to my ear. Atkinson’s, however, is more subtle, and convincingly in the A Dorian mode. It’s interesting to see how these differences are implied, especially in the subtle difference in the 2nd & 4th strains. Despite the fact that Skene’s title implies a song, his setting, presumably taken from his own or some other piper’s playing, shows signs of confusion around the modality as we understand it [although there may well be more to be said on this matter.] Nevertheless, to my mind, Atkinson’s version remains the more convincing of the two, even if you are going to need a C natural to play it.
The full setting also reveals important clues, not just to the tempo, but to the whole ‘feel’ of the music and the ‘engine’ that drives it.

 To see what this is we need to look carefully at those places where the beat is divided into three(fig. 1), notes that in Atkinson are quavers [ 1/8 notes] and in Skene, semi-quavers [1/16 notes].

Were these all of equal value [as the notes in, say, Skene’s strain 2 are (fig. 2)] we would have no trouble in reading then as a straight ‘jig’; were the divided note the first [or last] of the three, much the same would apply, as is the case with the ‘pick-up’ notes on Skene’s strain 4

But once it is the middle two of any group of three that is divided, the effect on the rhythm is dramatic, or so it seems to me, for we can no longer run the music on an engine that divides the beat into a classic jig ‘humpty-dumpty’, ‘long-short’, 1-3:1-3 type rhythm; those divided notes insist that the second beat is expressed, demanding an engine that counts each one:- 1-2-3: 1-2-3|. The result is a rhythm and tempo much more akin to a French ‘three-time Bourée’. In my opinion this is how both Atkinson and Skene would have expected these tunes to be played.

Henry Atkinson’s ‘Crudds and Whey’
[courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne]