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Five illustrated bagpipes in “Musical instruments and their homes”: An insight into the 19th-century instrument collector’s world

Cassandre Balosso-Bardin
Associate Professor, University of Lincoln
Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1888 Mary Elizabeth Brown sent out copies of her new catalogue, Musical instruments and their homes, to her many missionary friends across the world; they had helped her to  collect instruments from around the globe, leading to an impressive collection of approximately 270 instruments, which she donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889 (Brown 2014).

The subtitle of the catalogue reads: With two hundred and seventy illustrations in pen and ink by Wm. Adams Brown, the whole forming a complete catalogue of the collection of musical instruments now in the possession of Mrs. J. Crosby Brown of New York. As suggested in this lengthy description, the catalogue was beautifully illustrated by Brown’s son, William Adams Brown, with line drawings for each instrument, alongside short descriptions with minimal measurements. W.A. Brown’s contribution is significant: It gives unique pictorial insight into the breadth of the collection, and it adds myriad details that are usually forgotten or glossed over in textual descriptions. His drawings give us a much better understanding of the instruments collected, and may point to unwitting mistakes that, in turn, give us insights into the collecting world of the late 19th century.

As an ethnomusicologist with a specialty in bagpipes, I was particularly fascinated to identify the five examples of this instrument in the catalogue, and to unravel the stories they told. Their wide geographical spread demonstrates the breadth of contacts Mary Elizabeth Brown had, as well as her interest in collecting instruments from around the world, no matter how obscure they might have seemed. The five instruments hail from Scotland, India, Russia, Turkey, and Sclavonia, the latter possibly referring to a region now found in North Eastern Croatia or a former region in the Hungarian territory, or even just Slavic countries in general. If we detail each instrument alongside their illustrations, some discrepancies become clear, and an understanding of the 19th-century collector’s challenges starts to emerge.

Figure 1: Page 335 of Musical instruments and their homes.

The Scottish highland bagpipe listed in the catalogue (p. 335) was obviously well-known enough to not warrant any kind of description beyond its origin (“Scotch”), the fact that it was “modern”’, and the measurement of its bag (1 foot, 3 inches) and longest pipe (3 feet). This instrument (acquisition number 89.4.863) was made by Robert MacKinnon, a Scottish maker active in Glasgow between 1875 and 1902 (a detail omitted by the Browns in the catalogue, possibly because of its contemporary association). This might have made the instrument slightly less attractive than other items hailing from further afield and of rarer provenance.

The other European bagpipe illustrated on the same page presents more of a mystery. It is presented as a bagpipe from Sclavonia: “a very old specimen. The pipes of wood, inlaid with lead. The bag of leather. L. of the longest pipe 45 in. of bag 24 in.” Upon inspection of the illustration, however, the instrument strongly resembles a bagpipe from Central France. This large type of bagpipe, inlaid with pewter, is known to be from the Nivernais region, and its dimensions correspond to one of the grandes cornemuses du Nivernais currently in the Museum’s collection (89.4.860). These types of instruments were older, often made in the 18th century or very early 19th century. Upon closer inspection, one notices that the inlaid pewter is not filed, and that the instrument has not been played, unlike its sister instrument in the collection. Bernard Blanc, a French bagpipe maker specializing in instruments from this region, speculated during his visit to the collection in 1987 that this instrument was probably a copy of an older instrument, made in the 19th century specifically for the collector’s market (Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives).

Figure 2: Page 347 of Musical instruments and their homes.

A stunning instrument collected by Brown is the bagpipe illustrated in the Russian section of the catalogue (p. 347). This instrument takes up a significant amount of textual space in the catalogue, with a lengthy description enveloping the drawing, speaking to its aesthetic value:

The bag made of white skin, undressed. Three pipes, one for the breath, and the other two furnished, one with six and the other with three fingerholes. The extremities of the two latter covered with a cap of wood bound with brass, which is held in place by a leather strap. The pipes and movable cap decorated with imitations of precious stones, and the latter with nineteen small hanging chains. Bag 18x13 in. L. of pipe and cap 17 in.

This instrument is currently in the collection (89.4.318) and it is just as beautiful as the description suggests. The blue, green, and red glass jewels inserted along the finely stamped metallic straps that wrap around the double pipes, along with the small paisley-shaped ornaments hanging from delicate chains at the end of the wooden horn, all contribute to the impression of a fine instrument. While Mary Elizabeth Brown named it simply “bagpipe”, it is currently described as a volynka, a generic Russian term that means “bagpipe”, giving little indication about its regional origin. The instrument’s file notes that in 1977 “a Georgian visitor recognized this instrument as Georgian”. Indeed, the instrument presents all the characteristics of a gudastviri, a Georgian bagpipe, as illustrated on a USSR stamp from 1990 (Figure 3). It is possible that this instrument arrived in the collection among many other Russian instruments, with little attention paid to its actual origin. Brown’s correspondence shows regular contact with a dealer based in Moscow, although this instrument isn’t specifically identified (Brown Correspondence, Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives).

Figure 3: USSR stamp from 1990 depicting traditional Georgian instruments, including the Georgian bagpipe./
Figure 4: Page 209 of Musical instruments and their homes.

The Turkish bagpipe in the catalogue (p. 209) also presents a few mysteries. The instrument illustrated resembles more a bagpipe that might have been found in Iran (ney-anbān) or the Gulf States rather than in Turkey. Turkey’s two main types of bagpipes in the 19th century were the gaida (or ghaida), a Balkan-type instrument close to the Bulgarian or Macedonian bagpipe, and the tulum, a Mediterranean-type instrument found in a specific region by the Black Sea. While this particular instrument was catalogued as a “ghaida”, it does not resemble either of these instruments. Still in the collection today (89.4.362), its provenance remains a mystery. Could it be that an instrument from a different part of the world made its way to Turkey and was collected as such by Brown’s missionary friends? Brown’s correspondent in Turkey recognized that she did not know much about musical instruments (Brown Correspondence, Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archives), which may have contributed to such confusion.

Figure 5: Page 87 of Musical instruments and their homes.

The final bagpipe in Brown’s collection is a bagpipe from Madras (now Chennai), India (p. 87). While it is called a zitty (or titthi) in the catalogue, it is also known as a sruti upanga. This instrument is commonly depicted in nautch performances within a larger group of musicians (see below). Most likely bought in 1886 through Reverend Canklin, who sent a range of instruments from Madras (Metropolitan Museum Musical Instrument Archive), it is still part of the collection (89.4.264). It is material evidence of a bagpipe that was mainly used for accompaniment rather than melody. According to the instrument’s file and further iconographic evidence, the sruti panga was traditionally used to supply drone accompaniment; the fingerholes were not for playing melodies, but were stopped with wax to create different drone pitches.

Figure 6: Sruti upanga (bagpipe) player from Madras c. 1875. An Indian Company painting from the Victoria and Albert Collection. IS.19:6-1956. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Brown’s illustrated catalogue is a remarkable document that gives fascinating insights into the collecting world of the late 19th century. William Adam Brown’s drawings allow us to understand both the wide range of instruments collected and the limitations of knowledge at the time, when individuals relied on third-party information to collate instrument files. Often bought and sent by individuals who had little knowledge about instruments, they regularly fell victim to misidentification, at times remaining unidentified for decades until visitors with specific regional knowledge were able to set the records straight.

The catalogue images also reveal the inconsistencies of the 19th-century market, and how collectors might have been taken advantage of by dealers misrepresenting instruments, passing them off as ancient when they were contemporary, most likely to fetch a better price as they played into the collectors’ fascination for antiques.

This unique document shows Brown’s strong will to collect all manner of instruments, no matter how humble or unassuming, providing us with a real global snapshot of the instruments played in the second half of the 19th century. It also highlights the value of accurate illustrations alongside the catalogue entries: Not only do they bring the objects to life, they also enable a much more detailed and in-depth analysis of them, allowing us to re-evaluate the textual descriptions passed down through the years, correcting discrepancies, and providing insights into the work undertaken by 19th-century collectors.

Sources cited

Brown, Sally B. “Missionaries making music: Building Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown’s collection” (Of note, 28 July 2014; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-95560).

Brown, Mary Elizabeth Adams and William Adams Brown. Musical instruments and their homes (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1888; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1888-516).

This article was written and published to mark International Bagpipe Day, which is celebrated on 10 March every year. International Bagpipe Day was co-founded by Cassandre Balosso-Bardin in 2012 and is now celebrated across the world. Dr. Balosso-Bardin is the founding director of the International Bagpipe Organisation and is an Associate Professor in Music at University of Lincoln, where she lectures in ethnomusicology. This research was made possible thanks to a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2022–23).

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