Origins of the hornpipe

Origins of the hornpipe

I have heard from a friend of mine that the hornpipe was originally a pastoral folk dance accompanied by the horn and the pipes. When Music Hall entertainment became popular, one of the stock characters, the sailor, danced the hornpipe. This is the connection to the sea. Interesting if true. Anyone able to help on this?

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You’re asking Irish musicians about hornpipes?!

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I think the earliest hornpipes were English and usually in 3/8 time. How the dance got standardised to 4/4 I don’t know. The speed a hornpipe is played at nowadays can vary quite a bit depending on whether one is playing for a solo dancer (often quite slowly) or for sets (quite a bit brisker and more accented).
Hornpipes seem to have been a lot more popular in the past then they are currently, perhaps because many years ago the likely hood of playing for dancers rather than listeners was greater. I’ve seen quite extensive "hornpipe sections" in books published before 1900, even books that were not neccessarily "Irish" tune books. I don’t know if there has always been a particular connection with the seafaring life, except in movies, but if the hornpipe was a popular as it seems to have been, there’s no reason why sailors would’nt have danced them like eveyone else was doing.

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The hornpipe was was orginally a pastoral dance, so called because it was accompanied on an instrument called …the hornpipe.

The hornpipe is the predecessor of the clarinet. An unkeyed, wooden barrel with a bell made of horn. You can purchase a modern plastic version here:

http://www.highlandhornpipe.com/

A number of baroque composers actually wrote for the hornpipe, most notably Handel in his Water Music Suite.

The reason music hall entertainments used the sailor in conjunction with the hornpipe is because the public *already* had a strong association with the hornpipe and the sea. If you saw someone dancing a hornpipe it was usual to expect him to be a sailor, and the music halls merely catered to that expectation, much as the American minstrel show catered to the impression that banjo players were African slaves or ex slaves.

Musical instruments do not take well to sea life. Violins and concertinas very quickly succumb and fall apart in the constantly damp, rough enviroment. The hornpipe was both strudy enough to survive and loud enough to accompany rowdy dancers solo.

The dance itself is lively, but fairly easy. Just the thing for sailors to hoot and holler and kick up their heels over, all while trying to dance on a pitching deck.

Life at sea is long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. One of the challenges shipboard was keeping the crew from going nuts during the boring periods, and dancing was one means to do so. Some captains even formally orginized such as a means of controling the temperment of the crew.

KFG

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I like Hornpipes and wish they were played more often. THose Highland Horpipes are cool I own two.

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Yes, I’m a hornpipe fan, too (the tune type, not the instrument, which I haven’t heard). Hornpipes (the modern type) were danced all over the "British Isles" in their various solo forms. They seem to have been especially popular with navvies, sailors and coal miners as a form of entertainment and showing off. In many western mining areas (Lancashire, Wales) the thing was to dance in heavy work clogs on the smallest pub table top you could find. The better the dancer the smaller the table he could cope with, supposedly.It seems likely that their use in the music hall added to their popularity with dancers at large, if anything.

Many of the hornpipes found in collections appear to have been contrived by composers either with some training in composition outside the traditional idiom, or at least with an ear for imitating the type of modulations, key changes and false key changes which were found in other popular music of the day. To my ear, this makes them a lot of fun.

As for whether this makes them "Traditional" or not - depends on your definition. Many certainly found their way into the tradition at a time when it was not yet so self conscious.

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You’ll find ‘3/2 hornpipe’ as one of the tune type options for submitting tunes in the Tunes section of this site. I think the 4/4 ‘swung’ hornpipes are said to have originated in the Northeast of England, and were known at one time as ‘Newcastle hornpipes’.

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I think that the hornpipe as a dance was spread widely throughout northern Europe in some form or another. Take Soldier’s Joy or other tunes in a major key. They sound very ‘continental’ to me.

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this is a very interesting thread…I’ve enjoyed the comments thus far.

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what’s the relation to accordian type instruments?

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Chalumeau is a French word orginally applied to a *family* of instruments that included the hornpipe, their distinguishing characteristics being the wooden, cyclindrical bore and the single reed. Any wooden barreled, single reed instrument would have been called a chalumeau.

Hornpipe is simply an English word for a kind of chalumeau which used a bit of horn for a bell; and it is the the rigid taxonomy that defines the chalumeau as a particular model of chalumeau that is the modern invention.

Nonetheless I misspoke and should have said that the hornpipe was *a* prececessor to the clarinet, as you did, and not *the* predecessor.

As an instrument maker who does not conform to any of the rigid taxonomies I naturally think in terms of families, rather than specific models, i.e. how the instrument *functions*. As did pretty much everyone more than a couple of hundred years ago, by which time the hornpipe was already considered an ancient insturment whose origin was lost in the mists of history. The basics of it are pretty simple though. Someone, somewhere, saw somone playing a single reed pipe of some sort and made something kinda like it with the materials he had at hand, which included a bit of horn for a bell. When other people copied *that* it became a specific sort of instrument, which itself had many variations based on whatever whim struck a particular maker.

And you can still find them being made this way in pockets of tradition across Europe and into the near east.

KFG

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"what’s the relation to accordian type instruments?"

About the same as the relation between the zither and the piano-forte.

KFG

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not sure what zither means…I guess your yanking my chain…but, something in me associates sailing songs with accordian type instruments. So again, how has hornpipes, sailing songs and accordian type instrumentse become asociated with each other?

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A pet theory of mine is that the rhythm and tempo of a hornpipe is exactly the same as the human heartbeat and so that is the reason they became popular, although they wouldn’t have been called hornpipes over 300 years ago. I think the instrument itself was played at sea because, like the human voice it cut through the wind and sound of the sea. Stan Hugill very rarely heard an instrument used for worksongs and the shanty’s were shouted rather than sung. The sailor’s hornpipe was more like a male fertility show-off dance usually performed on shore.

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Ian S: so this type of piece (a hornpipe) is not originally a dance piece accourding to your theory? Rather a work piece..?.

What about the accordian?

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I can’t picture the actual hornpipe instrument at sea.

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Pete D,
I think you’ve misconstrued what I said. The Hornpipe instrument was certainly used to play dance music. The Sailor’s Hornpipe dance as I said was mainly done on shore usually in a pub, either on a table or a 1 metre/yard square of wood on the floor. The Hornpipe tunes as we now know them, I think developed from earlier pieces in the same tempo, they existed all over Europe and probably elswhere under different names. The Branle here in France still includes this rhythm for some dances.
As to the accordeon, I doubt whether it was actually played at sea very much, there was no space to keep anything other than whistles, mouth organs and the occasional concertina
which appeared just before the turn of the century when sail was fast becoming redundant. As I said, Stan Hugill, who was probably the last official shantyman on British sailing ships always said that he heard very few musical instruments played at sea.

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Re: relationship of hornpipe the instrument vs. concertinas and accordions.

They have no relationship to one another except that they were readily available at one time or another and have been used to play hornpipe tunes for dancing.

The hornpipe instrument predates the accordion by at least several hundred years, and this is why the dance genre is called "hornpipe" even though hornpipe tunes are far more likely to be played on an accordion or a concertina nowadays.

Hope that’s clearer.

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You’re all talking about this as though it’s all somehow lost in the mists of time. The English hornpipe and clog dancing tradition is alive and well, except that it more often happens in competition and shows than in the pub, where if there’s a spare square metre it’s likely to have a fruit machine plonked in it. In any musical get-together or concert in the northeast where local tunes are being played as opposed to an Irish session, there are far more hornpipe sets played than reels. Please go there and give them a listen and absorb them before you ruin the lovely tune genre that is… the hornpipe.
🙂

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Now, what are "clogs"? Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (published 1883) has as many clogs as hornpipes. I recall reading that they were a northern English development, with dancers wearing heavy-heeled boots - clogs. But why in the name of all that is holy are so many in Bb!?!?
Anthony Baine’s book "Bagpipes" talks about the hornpipe in detail. Also this site has copious information on pipes: http://www.hotpipes.com/history.html
Beats me where that sailor-with-concertina stuff came from - John Huston?

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Clogs are basically a kind of hornpipe that can be clog-danced to. What’s important with clogs is the rhythm. If you don’t get it right, you can’t clog to it. A lot of people don’t get it right.

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I remember in the 1950s, in Arigna, north Roscommon, I met a pair of travellers who had drilled holes into the two horns of a live heiffer. They blew into a horn each and knocked a great ould tune out of her, with the beast occasionally lowing a low D drone to the tune. They did a lovely Plains of Boyle

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Clogs - the footwear - are shoes with thick wooden soles and leather uppers. They were sometimes "shod" with bits of iron to make them last longer. Any shoe that make that much racket has to give rise to a few good step dancing traditions - and they did. Known and clog dancing or clogging.

Clogs - the tune type - are what you play for clog dancing.

The Bb thing is interesting. And it is often in fiddle/violin collections that they appear. I think that as the hornpipe dances are all about showing off your stuff, fiddlers also gravitated toward showy tunes that might impress other fiddlers etc. The flat keys would be a natural choice.

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Thank you all for such an interesting discussion. Now can anyone nail the difference between a strathspey and a hornpipe?

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Scotch snap… slower

-

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Padraig is mostly right but that is a vary broad description. A Strathspey is a Higland dance tune in 4/4 where as a hornpipe is technically in cut time (2/2) with a lot more triplets and of course the Hornpipe came from the instrument the Hornpipe where as Strathspey came from Pipes and Fiddles in northern Sctoland. Yes a Strathspey is slower and has the "Scotch Snap" a sixteenth followed by a dotted eight (or as us GHBers say a "cut and hold") as in the reverse of the swing but not all notes are snapped the snap is used kind of like the triplets as in these two things are not being played on every run of notes but occasionally to give the tunes a destinct sound. Then there is a Fling which is an Irish version of a Strathspey the only real difference between the two (that I know of anyway) is a Fling is in cut time.

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You can also play strathspeys at different tempos, depending on whether playing for Scottish country dancing or "Cape Breton" step dancing - in parentheses, as the Cape Breton step dancing tradition arrived there with emigrant Scots (many from the Highland clearances). The Cape Bretoners will tell you that this is where their step dance tradition originated.

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They have cows in Arigna? All I’ve seen are sheep and windmills 🙂.
But then, where my folk are from is forestry land now, so maybe they were hiding behind the trees…. ;)

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Up Leitrim! 🙂

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So in the case of these two tunes: Kitty’s Wedding and Harvest Home for example, you can play them either as hornpipes or strathspeys. A strathspey would have a more jerky feel and slower tempo, a hornpipe more lilty. Someone suggested once that the military influenced the way in which a lot of
Scottish trad tunes are played. Would this be applicable to the slowing down of the strathspey?

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"Chalumeau is a French word orginally applied to a *family* of instruments that included the hornpipe"

….and which, incidentally, is also the root of the English word ‘Shawm’.

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.. and of the German word Schalmei, obviously.
That is a reed instrument supposedly played by shepherds. I think the German communists used them in their marching bands to be different from the ‘right wing’ brass bands. This would have gone out with the GDR in 1989.

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Sorry, Rob, but I think we’d all die laughing here in Scotland if you played Harvest Home as a strathspey. It’s not as simple as slow it down and throw in a few snaps. A strathspey may be slower than a hornpipe, but it’s not a slowed down hornpipe. I don’t have time to write more just now (audible sigh of relief from general readership of Session) but there are some melodic differences, etc that need to be taken into account.

The military has had a big influence on pipe music, obviously, and that has in turn influenced other areas of Scots instrumental music. But I think the strathspey has always had a relatively slow tempo.

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Having followed the sea for a few years of my misspent youth, I can sadly report that playing and singing music at sea seems to have almost died out. I do know, however, from pictures and reading, that the concertina was a favorite among sailors because of its size and simplicity. By the time the 1970’s rolled around, however, you might see a harmonica here and there, a few fellows singing along with a guitar, but generally those who tried to play instruments at sea were the butt of kidding by others. And I never have heard of ANYONE dancing at sea. I even spoke to a youngster who sailed on the USCGC Eagle during a recent attempt to bring a scholar of sea music aboard the square rigger for a trip in an attempt to restart the tradition, which for many reasons, resulted in failure. However, I did have the honor of knowing one Coast Guard enlisted man who played the piano accordion. He was short, but one of the beefiest, hairiest and toughest people I ever met—those of you who read comic books and watch sci fi movies can imagine the character Wolverine, from the X-men. He would often carry his accordion into some of the toughest of waterfront bars, and by the end of the night, have the whole place singing along. So those of you who whine about punters making too much noise, imagine this lion-tamer of a man, singlehandedly keeping the tradition alive….

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Hi Kris, I beg to differ re "….strathspey has always had a relatively slow tempo". The fact of the matter, is that there was almost certainly a tradition of playing strathspeys at a faster tempo for step dancing. The reason I say this, is because step dancing did go to Cape Breton island from Scotland - that is a fact (there is evidence to back this up). Because of this, and because it’s only possible to perform these steps within a certain tempo range, the speed that strathspeys MUST have been played for step dancing, can only have been at a greater tempo than they are generally played today - e.g. for Highland dancing, or Scottish country dancing.

I’m not making the sweeping statement that all strathspeys were played fast, merely that they could only have been played faster for step dancing in Scotland.

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In an old book of pipe tunes my Grandfather gave me there are lots of tunes called "retreats". These are slow waltz versions of fairly well known folk tunes, like "The Banks of Allen Water". The heavy beats seem to be on 3 and 1 similar to a Swedish Polska. I played one in a session once and someone rather amusingly said "You would think they would go a bit faster than that!" Maybe they started the retreat with a slow one, went into a strathspey and then kicked into a bloody fast reel. Anyway, I prefer playing music for dancing not war. There are some nice old tunes in this book, a lot named after various Generals etc. with loads of medals after there name. I will try and find time to put a few on here. Thanks again for all the interesting info. What a great web site.

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Sorry, after their names. just back from a session. to much of the black stuff. Language is compromised anyway, music is better!

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too much ..aghhhhhhh. . There are too many homophones in this stupid language. .. no wonder the world’s in the state it is in

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Hi Ron -
Yeah, you’re right. I was just too lazy to go into enough detail in my last post. I think what I was trying to say was that in this case I don’t think military piping traditions have had much influence on tempo. Probably, "virtuoso" solo fiddlers like Scott Skinner have had more.

Retreats. Funny thing, these. They actually have nothing to do with retreating in battle as we would think of it. They are actually the "chill out" music that pipers play to sort of put the camp to bed in the evenings. The thing about the 3/4 retreats that may help you understand them is that the accompanying beat (on drums) would be a 1 and 2 and 3 and type thing. Not the umm cha cha of a waltz. Each of the 3 beats would be like a slow march beat. There are also retreats in 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 and recently pipers are also writing some beautiful ones in 5/4.

If you go to Stirling Castle or Edinburgh Castle of an evening you can hear the military pipers playing retreats to this day. I was playing at a wedding dance at Stirling Castle a few years ago, and waiting out in the courtyards for the speeches to finish, and had a really nice time listening to the retreats.

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Hi Kris, I’d certainly agree with you re the Scott Skinner influence on strathspey playing - with his slow strathspeys. However, I’ve a feeling that I heard one of the recordings he made (probably a wax cylinder recording) played on the radio, where he was playing a strathspey at one hell of a lick - of course I may be wrong there - do you know of this, and if so, if it’s commercially available?

I take it the 5/4 you’re refering to is Cullen Bay - just an absolutely brilliant tune!

Rob, I’m very pleased to hear you have such an interest in and obviously derive such enjoyment from Scottish traditional music. Although this is an "ITM" website, it’s nice to digress on occasions. However, one thing that many people may not realize, is how many Scottish tunes are actually played in Ireland - to the extent that a new thread on this website would be woefully insufficient regarding this matter. I reckon that there’s probably sufficient material for some motivated person to gain a Doctorate from such an investigation. Wouldn’t the field work be fun! Of course, it would be mandatory for LOTS of the black stuff to be consumed during the course of such a study.

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It’s been said more than once that the Irish acquire a lot reels after the Scots are finished with them!

But then the reverse is also true.

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I certainly wouln’t dispute that there’s a 2-way traffic here - long may it continue!

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Need a spell-checker here - I frequently use drop-d for the guitar - it seems to be working in my posts as well!

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i love hornpipes too so here’s some of ‘Brewer’s’ definitions of it :

(1894) ‘The dance is so called because it used to be danced in the west of England to the ”pib-corn” or ”hornpipe”, an instrument consisting of a pipe each end of which was made of horn.’

(1923) adds : ‘Johnson in his Dictionary mistakiingly said that it was ”danced commonly to a horn” ’

(1999) ‘An obsolete wooden pipe with a reed mouthpiece at one end and horn at the other. The dance of this name, once associated with mariners, was originally accompanied by this instrument.’

and as an adjunct (also 1999) the ‘Concise Oxford’ says :
‘a lively solo dance traditionally performed by sailors; a piece of music for such a dance; ORIGIN Middle English (denoting a wind instrument made of horn, played to accompany dancing)’

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I wonder what the range of the hornpipe instrument was. It strikes me that the 2/3 rhythm lends itself more easily to compositions within a single octave, say, than the 4/4 hornpipe rhythm, going by what I’ve heard on Border pipes and primitive Northumbrian pipes.

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The hornpipe as a dance was danced at sea. There are accounts that Capt. Cook when the sea was calm had his men come on deck and dance the hornpipe as a form of exercise and to ease boredom. Cook himself credited the dancing the hornpipe as to the reason that his crew had so little sickness aboard. There are numerous accounts of the hornpipe being danced aboard ship both naval and merchat during the 16th to 19th century.

As to what instruments were used the hornpipe was orginally used but were replaced by fiddlers. Naval vessels used fiddlers rather than shanties for all ships tasks.