Old postcard of Torupilli Juss
(Johannes Maaker from Emmaste)

Torupilli mees Tiisu HINDREK (1898)
(photo by H Tiiderman)

K & A
Kustas TIIVAS & Aaron TAMME


Igor TONURIST (1974?)

The bagpipe (torupill) was a highly popular musical instrument with the Estonians until the middle of the 19th century, but then it gradually began to get out of use owing to the development of instrumental folk music and changes in the musical life of the people. A few bagpipers could still be met in the mid-sixties of the 20th century.

Regardless of the one-time prominence of the bagpipe in Estonia, this instrument has unfortunately not yet become an object of special study. We can mention but a few popular and scientific short reviews, a short note in the Atlas of the Musical Instruments of the Peoples of the USSR, etc. Studying the birth of newer Estonian folk-songs, the Estonian folklorist I. Ruutel throws some light on the characteristics of bagpipe music. The museums of the ESSR keep a number of bagpipes together with note examples (the earliest belong to the end of the 18th century). During the first decades of the 20th c. some bagpipe tunes were phonographed. The playing of the last bagpipers has been recorded and can be found in the archives of the Museum of Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the ESSR and the Estonian Radio. As for making and playing the instrument and its part in tradition, very little definite information is available.

The first mention of Estonian peasants using the bagpipe dates from the 16th century. Telling us about the uprising of peasantry in 1560, J. Renner refers to a bagpiper riding horseback ahead of the king elected by the people. Describing the festivities of peasants near the Pirita cloister (of St. Birgitta) not far from Tallinn, B. Russow in the Livonian Chronicle (1584) alludes to large bagpipes that were well known in every village. Both authors speak about the bagpipe as a common village instrument. The earliest-known information about the bagpipe in the towns of Estonia, where Germans held the leading position, comes already from the 15th - beg. 16th c.

Sufficient information lacking, it is not quite clear when exactly the bagpipe became established in Estonia. It may have come in with the Germans, but an analysis of the bagpipe tunes in West and North Estonian also shows a strong Swedish influence.All the eighteenth-nineteenth-century authors who have, to some extent, dealt with the Estonian folk instruments, pay a special attention to the bagpipe and its popularity among the Estonians.

The Estonian name for the bagpipe is torupill (toru--a pipe, pill--a musical instrument on the whole). Sometimes the bagpipe is simply called pill. Not often some other names were used (eg. kitsepill, lootspill, kotepill, etc.).The instrument was known throughout Estonia, save for the farther south-east where it has not been reported. The bagpipe was longest preserved in West and North Estonia where folk music retained archaic characteristics for a longer time. In the middle of the 18th c. and at the beginning of the 19th c. the fiddle began to repand and displace the bagpipe. Together with the fiddle a new repertoire appeared, but a great number of bagpipe tunes were taken over by the fiddlers. To a certain extent the former functions of the bagpipe also passed over to the fiddle.The bagpipe helped to develop secular diversions and was tightly connected with the popular art. Therefore, beginning with the 17th c., it was constantly persecuted by the Lutheran Church as a heathen instrument. The persecutions grew more violent in the 18th c. alongside the activity of the Herrnhut brethren who declared a ruthless war on folk music. It was then that the bagpipe got the pejorative names Teufels Blasebalg and Hollensack.

The Estonian bagpipe has a bag, a mouth-pipe (blow-pipe) for inflating the bag, a melody-pipe (chanter) and I or 2, rarely 3, drones.

In 1967 the author of the present paper could get the description of a very archaic bagpipe from the Votians in Ingermanland, not far from the eastern borders of Estonia. The bag of the Votic bagpipe rakkopilli was made of a pig's bladder. It had no drone (see Engl. bladder pipe, Germ. Platerspiel). As the bagpipe is unknown east of the Votians, it is quite possible that the archaic Votic bagpipe comes from Estonia where it may once have existed (see Germ. Platerspiel).

The bag (tuulekott, magu, kott, loots, etc.) was usually made of the maw of a grey seal in the western and northern parts of Estonia and on the islands. Most valued were the maws of big old seals. Sometimes the bagpipers of South Estonia, living far from the sea, transported the maws of seals from the coastal regions. The bag that was made of a seal's maw, was not spoilt either by aridity or by humidity. A bagpiper of the Hiiu island is known to have said that if his bagpipe (made of a seal's maw) got wet, it sounded richer because the seal is a sea animal.

The bags were also made of the maw of an ox, cow, elk or dog, but sometimes they were sewn of the skin of a dog, cat, goat or seal (with the fur outward) or even of the skin of a Lynx, with the head and legs adorning the instrument. Bagpipes of the bladder of an ox or a pig or even of a boot were also known. The instrument could have two bags, one of a pig's bladder, the other of a dog's maw. The latter held in store under the arm.

Maws and skins were preparatorily tanned with salt and rye meal for about two weeks. Bladders were made dry with ashes and then seasoned and inflated. To make the skin air-tight and elastic, it was greased on the outside. To keep the skin-bag from the assault of mice, it was rubbed in with bitter herbs.

In bag-making special foretokens were observed. In South Estonia, for example, itwas thought that the more a dog, who had to leave its skin, howled when being hanged, the better the sound of the bagpipe later.

The mouthpipe (blow-pipe; puhumispulk, naput, naba, puhknapp, napp) was of wood, 9-15cm long. The diameter of the narrow end was 1 - 1,5 cm, of the wide end: 1, 5 - 2, 5 cm. The borediameter was 0, 5 - 0,8 cm. In the wider end inserted into the bag there was a return valve consisting of an elastic leather flap.

The melody-pipe (chanter; sormiline, putk esimik, etc.) was made of juniper, pine, ash or, more seldom, of a tube of cane. The length was 18 - 30 cm, the diameter 1,2 - 2 cm. The chanters were cylindrical or slightly conical in shape.

The chanters had 5 - 6 holes, round or oval (the diameter of the round holes was 0,3 - 0,7 cm, of the oval ones--0,5 - 0,7 cm and 0,8 - 0,12 cm). The holes were made in the following order: 1) three small and three large holes, or 2) two small and four large holes.

The bottom end of the chanter sometimes had 1 - 2 holes in the side bored obliquely into the pipe, so that some straws or twigs could be put in to control the pitch. The chanter was placed in an oval wooden stock, kibu, kloba, torupakk, kasilise pakk diameter 4 - 7 cm). The stock-end of the chanter contained a reed, piuk, keel, roog, raag, vile, etc., made of cane or, more rarely, of a goose quill. The stick of cane in which the reed was cut was about 8 - 10 cm long. The diameter averaged 0,8 - 1,0 cm. About 1 - 1,5 cm below the knot-closed end a transverse cut was made and down the length of the cane the reed was cut. The oblong blade was 2 - 3 cm long and 0,5 - 0,7 cm wide. The stick was inserted into the chanter. The bottom end of the chanter was not flared.

The drones (passitoru, pass, kai, tori, pill, pulk, toro) were made of wooden pipes, different in shape and diameter. The length fluctuates from 30 to 75 cm, the diameter is 2 - 4 cm in the upper end and 3,5 - 7 cm in the lower end. The bore-diameter in the upper end is 0,8 - 1,0 cm and in the lower end 1,5 - 2,0 cm. The length of the pipes depends on their amount. If there is only one, it is quite long, if two, they are shorter. In some rare cases bagpipes with 3 drones could be found.

The bore of the drone is cylindrical or conical (more rarely).The reed is similar to that of the chanter, but somewhat larger.

The drone consists of 2 - 3 separate joints. In the lower end there is a wooden bell. The joints can be pulled out in order to tune the drone. The drone is placed in an oval or round stock (diam. 7 - 10 cm).

The drone pipes and stocks were generally made of ash-wood. For cutting a special knife leikamisraud was used. Later they were turned on a lathe.

The drones were tuned an octave or a fifth below the chanter key-note. The chanter had a diatonic scale:

The bagpipe was tuned by pushing the chanter and drone reeds further in or out. A means of tuning the chanter was gained by inserting twigs into the bore and partly filling some of the playing holes with wax. The drone could be tuned by moving the joints, thus making the pipe longer or shorter.

In bagpipe-tuning special tuning pieces were used. They often had some text. Bagpipes were generally made by the musicians themselves.

We have evidence of the existence of professional bagpipers in the Estonian village of the 18th - 19th c. The social conditions of that time were not favourable for the rise of such a group of musicians. But among village bagpipers there were virtuosos with vast repertoires for whom bagpiping had become second profession. It is known that some serfs substituted serf labour for bagpiping. The squires sent them to the field where they played behind the backs of the labourers and made comical squealing sounds on the bagpipe to ridicule those who could not keep up with the others. Very often the bagpipe was used for playing dance music. Other instruments served this purpose only in the absence of the bagpipe. Some old ceremonial dances, such as the Round Dance (Voortants) and the Tail Dance (Sabatants) were performed together with a bagpiper who walked at the head of the column. Ceremonial music took an important place in the bagpipers' repertoires already in the 17th c., as seen from the literary sources of that time. For instance, the presence of a bagpiper was highly essential during weddings, where he had to take part in certain ceremonies. There were special tunes, marches or riding melodies that were performed in the wedding procession, etc. The bagpiper was an indispensable participant in dances and social gatherings. He accompanied minstrels during Martinmas and Christmas. No pub could manage without a good musician. It is said that beating time with a foot, a bagpiper wore out his leather boot in one night, and the dances lasted so long that they sometimes ended with the death of some of the dancers.

What were the bagpipe tunes like ?
Although they can be quite long sometimes (with 3 - ~ phrases or more), they remain simple in their structure. They usually consist of repetitions and variations of one phrase, alternating quite freely, without any right form. One-phrase melodies also exist. Special notes are usually added to the basic melody to finish or begin playing with. The melody is mostly based on major scale, with the 1st and the 5th steps the two extreme supporting notes. Sometimes the scale is enlarged by a second added above or below. The melody is developed through repetition, variation or sequence. Often triads can be heard, but there is no functional harmonious base in such tunes. In bagpipe tunes with bourdon accompaniment it is useless to look for harmonious basis, even if it seems to be existing and the melody can be harmonised by means of major chords. Characteristic of many bagpipe tunes is their original three-part metrorhythm. Playing was started with a shorter or a longer prelude and finished with short trilling:

The music for the bagpipe has much in common with the melodies of old Estonian so-called runic songs. A number of tunes, as the instrument itself, are of foreign origin. Supposedly they chiefly derive from Sweden. The Swedish influence is suggested by the texts of dance songs for the bagpipe, and the dances themselves also seem to come from Sweden.

With its thrilling rhythm and joyful melodies the bagpipe became the main reason for the birth of a new genre of songs, namely dance songs of transitional form, arising latest in the 18th c.

Bagpiping was accompanied by facial expression and bodily movements. To make the music more changeful, some sounds could be emphasised by a swift pressure of the elbow on the bag. Special comical bagpipe tunes were also known (eg. The Dance of Baptists, Vidriku Liisa's Ailing Teeth, etc.).

We have no evidence of singing to the accompaniment of a bagpipe, but it is known that the bagpipe was vocally imitated.

Many bagpipe tunes were taken over by fiddlers, accordionists and kannels players (kannel--an Estonian zither like fingered string instrument). The great technical possibilities of the new instruments caused their further development. The tunes are met even today in the repertoires of old musicians in West Estonia. As a rule, their bagpipe origin has not been forgotten.

Nothing definite is known about the existence of bagpipe ensembles. Ensembles of a bagpipe and a fiddle are recorded in the I 8th c. and the middle of the 18th c. An ensemble of that kind still existed in the district of Vandra in 1927. The bagpiper played only the bourdon bass (2 drones), and the fiddler played the melody. In ensembles with a bagpipe a metal Jew's harp (parmupill) or a buck-horn (sikusarv) were also used. Sometimes a bagpipe, a fiddle and a buck-horn together formed an ensemble. During dances on the island of Saaremaa the bagpipe music was sometimes supported by rhythmical scraping of a broomstick against the floor strewn with ashes. The ensemble-like sound of the bagpipe caused the rise of original fiddle ensembles where one played the melody and the other drew the bourdon bass. The bagpipe design and sound are characterised by various sayings and riddles in folk tradition. For example: A grey ox goes bellowing uphill, without a blade in its stomach, A baby is crying on the hill, while ten men are 'writing' (playing), One goose cackling in two voices. Funny stories are told about bagpipers having Bohemian ways of life and affection for alcoholic drinks. Once, in Saaremaa, a tipsy musician started on his way from a pub. He went astray and fell into a pitfall made by wolf-hunters. Who should meet him there but the wolf itself ! When the man was helped out of the pit in the morning, the first he did was to splinter his bagpipe against a tree. In some other locality a bagpiper also fell into a pitfall with a wolf waiting for him. He played the bagpipe till morning to keep the wolf away from him.

Bagpipe today

By 1970, with the death of Aleksander Maaker, a bagpiper from the island of Hiiumaa, there remained only one man in Estonia knowing how to play the bagpipe. It was Olev Roomet, a singer in the State Academic Male choir of the ESSR. Already in the 50s he was greatly interested in the bagpipe and could acquire the basic methods of playing from the still living bagpipers.

In the course of preparations for the republican dance festival in l970 it was decided that the ancient art of playing on the bagpipe should be revived. 25 bagpipes were made by 0. Roomet and Voldemar Suda, a master of musical instruments. In making the instruments an ethnographic example was followed in all authenticity. Only the bag was made of rubber and imitation chamois glued and stitched together. About 20 people (from the age of 14 to 70!) learned the foundations of bagpipe-playing under the direction of 0. Roomet. Their orchestra performed 2 pieces at the festival. Later the orchestra was dismissed, as it proved technically difficult to tune such number of instruments all at the same time.

A part of the instruments were adopted for use by the ethnographic ensembles Leegajus and Leigarid. In Riidaja in the Valga district (South Estonia) a bagpipe quintette has existed for three years already. Bagpipes often appear as solo instruments or in an ensemble together with a Jew's harp or a fiddle. The best bagpipers are 0. Roomet (72 years of age, retired from active music-making because of his health), Ants Taul (age 26), Alfred Nurmik (age 74) and Ain Sarv (age 29). A. Nurmik and A. Taul have made some innovations on their bagpipes.

A united ensemble of 10 bagpipes also took part in the dance festival of 1973.

Some Bagpipe links

  • Swedish bagpipers Olle Gällmo and Jan Winter play two tunes from Darlarna, Sweden.
  • Ewan Macpherson's Hot Piping Page
  • Alan Keith Bagpipes
  • Bagpipe Reviews: RootsWorld
  • Wheeze and Squeeze: Bagpipes of the World
  • ceilidh time
  • The Bagpipe Web
  • Bagpipes!
  • Musical Instruments
  • Accordiana

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