In honour of my new piano course starting in February, I thought I’d write a post about the style of Cape Breton piano accompaniment. It’s one of the aspects of traditional Cape Breton fiddle music that I find truly fascinating. The piano is very much equal to the fiddle in Cape Breton; you’ll rarely hear the music without it. In fact, the fiddle and the piano are so closely tied that most fiddle players are great piano accompanists as well. The unique style of accompaniment plays a huge role in making the Cape Breton sound so distinctive.
Although it is such a part of the style today, the development of this strong marriage of the fiddle and piano is relatively recent in the history of Cape Breton fiddling. Until the turn of the 20th century, the fiddle was mainly unaccompanied. There are stories of people using knitting needles to tap out rhythms on the strings as the fiddler played. Fiddlers were also known to have doubled up to play for dances creating more volume in a time before amplification. They often times played in what was known as ‘high bass’ tuning to create more sound (A E A E). Step dancing and Gaelic mouth music (puirt a beul) were other forms of accompaniment, as well as playing alongside a piper. By the end of the 1800s, the pump organ was introduced in Cape Breton and this is where the style of piano accompaniment began. There is a great story of ‘Little’ Mary MacDonald using the pump organ to accompany herself as she played the fiddle. She did this by putting match sticks in between the keys of the organ to hold them down and pedalled with her feet to create a drone accompaniment.
By the 1930s, the piano became the main instrument for accompaniment. The style developed organically, deeply rooted within the Gaelic music tradition of Cape Breton while absorbing influences of other styles of music along the way – primarily jazz- with each generation. In its early days, the style’s harmony didn’t venture too far away from I IV V chord progressions. Pianists often played the melodies of tunes with the fiddler. This is not so common today. Over the years, pianists incorporated more complex harmonies that closely followed the melodies of tunes. This included incorporating complex bass lines. Mary Jessie MacDonald, ‘Little’ Mary’s daughter, is largely credited for introducing this aspect into the style. It is said that she learned this by watching the left hand of jazz pianists.
While other styles of Celtic music accompaniment have incorporated modern harmonic concepts, it is the complex rhythms of Cape Breton piano accompaniment that make it unique. It was born out of the rhythms that unites all the idioms of Cape Breton Gaelic music – the language, song, piping, dancing and the fiddling. Step dance rhythms are very much heard in the style. Just as an example, let’s look at the basic jig rhythm. While other accompaniment styles emphasize the on and off beats in 6/8 time, each individual beat can be heard the basic jig rhythm in Cape Breton accompaniment.
This is exactly the same rhythm of the basic jig step found in Cape Breton step dancing. The supporting foot provides the 1 and the 4, while the heel and toe tap out the beats of 2,3 and 5,6. Have a look at this video of a square set and listen to the sound of the feet correlating to the rhythm of the piano.
It’s the organic nature of the how the Cape Breton piano style developed that fascinates me. I think it’s amazing how it has united modern harmony and old gaelic rhythms to create a truly unique voice in the Celtic music world.