The Ecphorizer

The Savage Breast
Gareth Penn

Issue #18 (February 1983)

Carrying bagpipery to the heathens

Tahiti, 23 August 1773: The King of Tahiti refuses to deliver two hogs he had promised to Captain Cook. A wrangle ensues, and it may take an ugly turn. Cook solves the problem by putting on a concert. Georg Forster, a naturalist accompanying him on this, his second voyage, describes it as

Cook's...second voyage...resembled nothing so much as a floating band-concert.


A highlander, who was one of our marines, was ordered to play the bagpipe, and its uncouth music, though almost insufferable to our ears, delighted the king and his subjects to a degree which we could hardly have imagined possible. The distrust which we perceived in his looks at our first interview was now worn off; and if we had staid long enough, an unreserved confidence might have taken place...

[quoteright]The Swedish naturalist, Andreas Sparrman, recorded similar reactions, both on his part and on that of the Tahitians. Sparrman had not been prepared psychically for the horror of the pipes even by a long stay among the Hottentots of South Africa, where he had joined Cook.

Everywhere Cook went on his second voyage, he used music - particularly Scots music - to create good relations between himself and the natives of Tahiti, Tonga, New Zealand, and Fiji. Not only did they like the "uncouth" music that was so repellent to the cultivated Europeans, but Cook liked their music, too. His journal for 2 October 1773 contains the following remarks concerning the music of Tonga:

I ordered the Bag-pipes to be played and in return the Chief ordered three young women to sing a song which they did with a very good grace. When they had done I gave each of them a necklace, this set most of the Women in the Circle a-singing, their songs were musical and harmonious, noways harsh or disagreeable.

Cook's first voyage to the South Seas had been with an expedition of the Royal Society, which had been dispatched to Tahiti to observe a transit of Venus. On the second voyage, his purpose was to explore for the great southern continent that had, so far, existed only as a hypothesis. There must have been something about the first voyage which led him to believe that Scots music would enable him to establish good relations with the South Seas natives. Documents are extant in which he requisitioned three bagpipers for the second voyage; of the three, the name of only one, Private Archibald McVicar, has been preserved.

Cook's musical education was nonexistent. His characterization of Tongan music as "harmonious" cannot be taken to mean that the Tongans used bass harmony. He meant it in the colloquial sense, meaning that it was pleasing to his ear. Bass harmony was a European peculiarity, and not all Europeans were united in their opinions regarding it.

Benjamin Franklin, for instance, far preferred Scots folk-tunes to the artful productions of European composers because of their lack of bass harmony, which he found odious. Scots music, like the music of most primitive peoples, is not chromatic, but pentatonic. In the pentatonic scale, every note harmonizes with every other -there are no dissonances.

Another antagonist of bass harmony was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His first career had been as a music copyist. Then he wrote the articles on music for Diderot's encyclopedia. In the article on harmony, Rousseau was relatively restrained; but in the later Letter on French Music he became downright vitriolic:

The impossibility of coming up with pleasing song obliged composers to turn their attention in the direction of harmony; and, lacking real beauty, they introduced the beauty of convention, which has almost no other merit than that of difficulty overcome: in place of good music, they imagined up erudite music; to supplant song, they multiplied its accompaniments; it has cost them less to place a lot of bad parts one above the other than to compose one which would have been good. To get rid of the resulting insipidity, they augmented confusion; they believed that they were making music, but they made nothing but noise.

The Letter, Rousseau's contribution to the "Guerre des Buffons" then raging in Paris over the relative merits of French and Italian opera, concluded with the observation that there had never been such a thing as French music, and there never would be. How could he say such a thing? He himself had begun a new career as a composer of French opera; his Devin du Village had made him a rich man -- and got him a free pass to the Paris Opera. But with the publication of the Letter his pass was revoked, and an angry mob of musicians hanged and burned him in effigy.

Rousseau's rejection of French music was apparently motivated by a puerile urge to turn accepted values topsy-turvy, a tendency generally observable in his other work. The intellectual path that he followed was to derive music from language. Music, he reasoned, had been born in primitive society from the desire to imitate the sounds of speech. By an argument too involved (and too specious) to go into here, he concluded that the sonorities of French were not suited to reproduction in music. And besides speaking the wrong language, the French were also given to the abuse of bass harmony. He blithely ignored Rameau's withering counter-blast.

Rousseau's original contribution to musicology can best be described as piffle. But his assumptions and methodology were forebodingly grave. In the Letter, he turns to primitive anthropology to justify his contrary and provocative opinions -- an anthropology, let it be said, of the imagination only. The Letter on French Music opened a door through which he would pass twice more, in the Essay on Arts and Sciences and in The Social Contract, to prove, by comparison with what he imagined to be the state of primitive man, that the arts and sciences had actually impeded human progress, and that modern civilization was a state of degeneracy, not advancement. The first essay had led to a musical lynch-mob's venting its rage against him in effigy; the other two led directly to the Reign of Terror.

Cook, on the other hand, while not a scientific anthropologist, at least made his observations first-hand, not from the safety of the armchair. His reasoning (which was probably intuitive) can be inferred from his conduct of the second voyage, which resembled nothing so much as a floating band-concert, namely that music not only does not derive from language, it actually transcends it and all other cultural manifestations.

On his third voyage, Cook's men became embroiled in a fight with some of Rousseau's "noble savages" on Hawaii over possession of one of the ship's boats. Cook was clubbed to death; a contrite aborigine later returned one of his thighs to HMS Resolution as a goodwill gesture. He had brought no bagpipers along this time -- the Admiralty apparently could not be persuaded of the utility of music in the exploration of the wild and savage parts of the earth. 

Gareth Penn has established some sort of record -- his work has appeared in every Ecphorizer since Issue #2.  At the Ecphorizer Party last month he accepted his lionization with modesty and grace.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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