Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's a Pifa? (A Handel's "Messiah" Mystery)

I just waxed another one-day video project. This is a particular species of folly with somewhat equal admixtures of inspiration, obsession, and impatience; facilitated and hampered by a militant allegiance to cheap consumer electronics (a.k.a. You Don't Get What You Pay For); in pursuit of that elusive creation occupying a niche somewhere between ! and ?

Holiday seasons are particularly sensitive to this kind of home invasion, perhaps because Xmas tree sap and Easter egg yolk push the aesthetic juices to a higher pitch. All of a sudden and for a short while, the cultural imperative to enforce the mundane is replaced by carols and colors, employed for something out of this world. Something somewhere between ! and ?

But in this case waxing hasn't meant waxing, maybe because part of the ? being explored involved a vinyl record. It's still spinning and I'm getting dizzy from it:

  • The video has to do with bagpipes, the traditional instrument of shepherds, who are--let's face it--the only folk like us in the Xmas story. The vinyl record in the video, one I listened to as a kid, included a selection performed on Italian bagpipes. I won't get into it here, but let me just say that they couldn't have been Highland pipes because compared to almost everybody else in Europe my ancestor Scots were Xmas slouches.
  • The title of the video, Xmas Pastoral, is a reference to shepherds. The everyday sense of "pastoral"--connoting either "rural" or "peaceful"--has lost the shepherd connection. I wonder how many people in the religious South of the US who have a "pastor" at their church know that the same word in Latin (from whence it came) means "shepherd"?
  • As I was making it, I kept thinking of the fact that movement 13 of Handel's Messiah is commonly known as the "Pastoral Symphony." As an oboist, I've always thought that Handel missed a wonderful opportunity to throw some musical meat to oboes, the sole woodwinds (other than bassoons in the continuo) in the Messiah orchestra and the logical exponents of anything to do with bagpipes--and it is known that Handel's music is meant to convey the sound of the Italian bagpipes as he himself heard it during the novena days before Christmas.
  • I also kept thinking that Handel's name for the movement was "Pifa." An odd word. What does it mean?
That's where matters lay as I finished the video: with much more in the way of ? than !  I was glad to get the story of the crumbag out to the world (which has heard only the beginning), not to mention the story of how the whole idea was kind of a "eureka!" coming from a French pun in a dream. But for some reason the word "pifa" just wouldn't leave me alone.

Is it somehow related to pifferaio, the Italian "piper" playing a folk oboe sometimes played in duet with the supersized Italian bagpipe known as the zampogna? That's what I'd always heard--or rather read in such places as symphony program notes such as these from a recent Seattle Symphony performance: "It derives from an Italian custom of having a shepherd play an oboe-like pifa during Christmas services." The only problem is that the usual word for the pifferaio's oboe-like instrument is ciaramella.

I looked online and pursued the clues even to the old tried and true Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but could find "pifa" nowhere.

When the breakthrough in this droning rumination on bagpipes finally came, it wasn't a "eureka" as much as a "duh": the title of the song on the record is "Piva piva." I've known this forever without ever once thinking of its meaning. It looks suspiciously like something a German like Handel would pronounce "pifa" in much the same way as he'd say "vinter vonderland." Following this hunch, I soon found out that piva turns out to be a standard Italian word for bagpipe. It seems to be more of a northern Italian variety, while the zampogna is from the south.

Inuit has several words for "snow." Greek, as any New Testament student knows, has several words for "love." Italian, it turns out, has at least two words for "bagpipe." A richness of embarrassment!


  1. It's an antiquated spelling of "piva" (see the video clip) Essentially, the piva is a generic western European bagpipe with a conical-bored chanter and one or two drones, similar to the Spanish gaita or the veuze from Upper Brittany. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZLF6JMUrCg

    "Pifa" isn't quite apposite because it's more a zampogna tune: the double-chantered bagpipe from southern Italy, commonly played at Christmas-time. The carol "Quann' Nascette Ninno" has melodic similarities to Handel's Pifa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INaK414vdtI

    1. Thank you for sharing your expertise. Handel now stands organologically corrected!

  2. Jud, regarding your lament about oboes and bassoons - these aren't Handel's doing! Handel included neither of those instruments in his original score - "big symphony" instruments such as these were added in by Mozart 50 years later.

    1. Thanks for the input and sorry to be so late in replying! There turns out to be evidence for oboes and bassoons in the original performances (see Roland Jackson, Performance Practice: A Dictionary-Guide for Musicians, p. 174, which says 2 oboes and 4 bassoons doubled the string parts in at least some of Handel's Foundling Hospital performances.), and some modern scores reflect this baroque practice. As to what is shown on the scores themselves, the Chrysander Urtext shows oboes coming in to double the chorus at various points, and the British Library's original manuscript also includes oboes. Whatever the case, my point remains that not using oboes and bassoons in a movement evoking bagpipes was an opportunity missed--maybe on purpose :-)