About Hornpipes

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by Bob Taylor

The hornpipe is one of the most ambiguous types of fiddle tune. So says Antoine Silverman in his new book, Fiddle Tunes, Basic and Beyond (Warner Brothers, 2002). Silverman goes on to say “It’s a very old form (Chaucer mentions it as early as the 13th century), and there seems to be some doubt about its origin, as well as its meter, its tempo, and the type of dance commonly associated with it.” Silverman also notes that, according to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. around 1760 the hornpipe underwent a transition from triple time to common (duple) time, and that even later some hornpipes adopted a dotted rhythm.

The dance associated with the hornpipe of this later period apparently required no partners and little room, qualities essential on shipboard, which accounts for the association that developed between hornpipes and sailing. In traditional dance and music circles today the hornpipe is identified simply as a tune in 4/4 (common) time that is played with a dotted rhythm, but it is not quite that simple. The actual rhythm in which a particular hornpipe is played will vary (depending on locale, players and tradition) from a heavily syncopated, clog-style beat, through various more subtle rhythms, to an almost straight 4/4 measure. In fact, it is common to hear musicians say that a given tune can be played either “as a hornpipe” or “as a reel”.

To take an example in the FOG repertoire, you can find in print – in various publications – a tune called Woodchopper’s Hornpipe, Woodchopper’s Reel, or, more economically, simply Woodchopper’s. You may find the tune written out in straight meter, or it may be carefully notated in dotted rhythm. In either case (and as is always true) it is up to the musician or musicians to interpret the written notes as may be felt appropriate.

Any fancier of the hornpipe genre will tell you that a further characteristic of many of the hornpipes written and played in the last few hundred years is a special melodic structure built on alternating scales; you can almost feel the music forcing you from foot to foot (even if you know nothing about dancing). If a strongly dotted rhythm is being used, it is natural for triplets to creep into the tune; think for example of the normal way in which the tune Harvest Home is played. The slower pace of a hornpipe (as contrasted with a reel) allows for a more ornamented and demanding melody line. Your left hand really knows it after you have finished playing a whole set of hornpipes!

The traditional Irish repertoire is the great repository today of hornpipes and hornpipe playing, but hornpipes were equally popular across England, Scotland and America (including Canada) back when the playing of instrumental tunes was a mainstay of popular culture. A great many hornpipes were written in the United States during the 19th century, as is evidenced in tune collections surviving from that period. As an interesting sidelight, it can be noted that while waltzes tend to get named after states (you can probably think of a few examples), hornpipes tend to get named after cities. Thus we have the Cincinnati Hornpipe, the Glasgow Hornpipe, etc. I have never so far heard of a Rochester Hornpipe, but who knows?

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