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Michael Cwach
and the
Bagpipes of Bohemia

Piper and Historian Michael Cwach
Michael Cwach playing the pukl

The pukl, also known under a variety of other names including Ceske Dudy and Bohemian Bock

Sound Sample

click here to hear the pukl
Click on the piper
to hear Michael Cwach playing the Bohemian pukl

Song title:
Pukl made by LubomAr Jungbauer, Stod, Czech Republic, (circa 2000) tuned to A=443
Recording date: April 9, 2013

We are pleased and honored to be able to host here two major recent documents, a master's thesis and a doctoral thesis, relating to the history and current state of bagpiping in parts of Bohemia, in the Czech Republic. These fascinating documents are both by Michael Cwach, an American scholar and piper of Czech ancestry. We present them here as PDF files. Following further below is a commentary by us discussing some of the background of scholarly works such as these and their importance, and some photos from these theses. But more importantly, here are the links to this remarkable work:

Doctoral Thesis
Michael Cwach

The above is a PDF file, 37 MB, 583 pages and around 250 illustrations; you are free to download it.

Master's Thesis
Michael Cwach:

Again, these are PDF files, about 17 MB total, 378 pages, lots of illustrations.

(by Oliver Seeler)

For at least half a millennium bagpipes in their many, many forms were the prime source of music for the majority of people, in particular and often exclusively for the "common folk," in just about every European culture, north, south, east and west. For a very long time a bagpipe was the only instrument that had enough punch all by itself to provide music for events outdoors, where most festivities took place, and in the poor economies of those centuries having a single piper at an event wasn't too costly. Bagpipes were everywhere, with major types often having multiple regional and local variations adapted to local musical needs and traditions. They were unremarkable and familiar objects to the people who played them and who were routinely entertained by them. Being what today are called "folk" instruments they were of little or no interest to the upper classes and thus were not often the subject of works by artists and writers, who focused on what their wealthy customers liked and might purchase. Nor were there generated the sort of financial or government records that might be associated with more mundane objects and activities; bagpiping was not considered a profession and pipers were often regarded as mere beggars by the elite (and indeed, just as today, many pipers and even bagpipe makers probably had other more conventional primary occupations). With rare exceptions all of this resulted in scant records of any sort being created, let alone preserved, about bagpipes during these times.

Then, roughly 200 years ago for a variety of reasons bagpipes began to fade from prominence in many places. Other instruments were developed that had the power to fuel raucous events, notably the modern violin and then accordians and their ilk, which were much easier for the musician to live with than the always touchy bagpipe with its multiple and often mischievous reeds buried deep inside its belly. Economic conditions slowly improved, leading to more of the "common folk" having the means to acquire instruments and to learn to play music together with others, resulting in local folk ensembles into which bagpipes often did not fit well. More indoor venues became available, again diminishing the need for loud instruments. Of course none of these alternatives had that unmistakable unique magical sound of a bagpipe - you are reading this, so you know about that - but many of the bagpipe tunes were exported to the new instruments easily enough (and even to much loftier musical realms, but that's another story).

So, more and more bagpipes were laid to rest on a shelf or hung on a back wall, where they soon fell prey to insects, rodents, dry-rot, small children, cold nights (firewood ... really, we've seen it...) or otherwise turned to dust and splinters and disappeared. Early specimens of bagpipes are extremely rare and many sorts vanished altogether long before any museum curator or collector thought of preserving them, some leaving behind only their shadows in paintings and other graphics and their echoes in the tunes played on the instruments that took their places (but did not replace them). In some places they retreated but were still heard from time to time. For example in Italy the dozen or so varieties of bagpipes that once were heard routinely became rare at any time other than Christmas, so instead of being familiar everyday instruments they became something special, almost exotic, and not all local people, let alone outsiders, even remained aware of them.

Compounding this decline were the great social upheavals and wars of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Aside from the obvious disruptions and destruction, invading armies and ruthless dictatorships took their toll on all sorts of local traditions in many more subtle ways. In some places, for example Spain, bagpipes were suppressed by governments that viewed them (and other local traditions) as threatening expressions of regional identity. And when such disastrous factors where not in play there was also the overall rise of the middle class in many societies, with an attendant aversion to things that smacked of the peasantry or "old ways." (We are reminded of a Czech couple who were our neighbors here in the US and who had escaped in their youth (dramatically and with injuries) from communist Czechoslovakia. The husband eventually became a highly regarded university professor, while the wife became an expert collector and supporter of modern Czech art. So, sophisticated educated folks. When we mentioned, over coffee one day, Czech bagpipes the good professor closed the subject by saying, "When I hear those things I smell manure." Funny but sad, as he was missing what is in fact a deep, deep part of his heritage.)

Meanwhile, even in places where bagpiping remained relatively strong, for example Bulgaria, France and of course Scotland, formal research was of little interest to academics. And any scholar of musical instruments who so much as glanced at bagpipes was confronted with an almost impossible task, given the scarcity of resources. Most researchers of musical instruments simply ignored bagpipes altogether or mentioned them only in passing. So when we look at the marvelous 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, which is considered by some to have been the last serious attempt to collect all the world's knowledge into one work, we see only a short (five page) article on bagpipes that provides the merest sketches of a handful of Western European varieties (with abundant errors and speculation) and no mention at all of many dozens of pipes from cultures in all quadrants of Europe and the British Isles. Some specialized works focusing in particular on Scottish pipes did appear early in the 20th century, and the occasional paper or thesis was generated and published, but the sum total of all of it would probably fit on a single small bookshelf. A side effect of all of this was that the modern western public as well as most musicians and other persons involved with music remained only dimly aware if not totally ignorant of any sort of bagpipe other than the Great Highland. This state of affairs continued until after World War II.

But soon after WWII there began to be more and more interest by the general public in Europe and North America in "folk" music. The reasons for this are varied and interesting but beyond this discussion. It slowly dawned on people at large that there are, or were, all sorts of bagpipes in the world other than the familiar Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe. Perhaps the first and certainly the most well-known attempt to bring at least a cross-section of the world's bagpipes into a scholarly light was by Anthony Baines who authored the book "Bagpipes," published in 1960 as a "Pitt-Rivers Museum [Oxford] Occasional Paper on Technology." This book lit a fuse that led to a miniature explosion of activity in what has become our little corner of the musical world, and many people who eventually became deeply involved with bagpipes got their initial momentum as a direct result of Baines' work. But it soon become evident that there were many remaining unanswered questions, and many more bagpipes, living and deceased, out in the "wild" than those discussed by Baines.

So the basic problem remained, the lack of accessible archived information, and additionally the rapidly fading living memory of bagpipes in many cultures as people who had heard their native bagpipes were succeeded by ones who had only heard of them and who in turn were being replaced by people who had never heard of them. (I am reminded of a young woman from a heavily Polish community in Michigan who telephoned us shortly after the release of our 1999 Bagpipes of the World CD album, which includes Polish bagpipes. She was almost in tears of gratitude because she had been suffering ongoing ridicule from family and friends by insisting that stories about Polish bagpiping told her as a child by a grandparent were true, rather than just fables.)

However, the increase in popularity of folk music slowly but surely continued to grow, and that affected the awareness of "world" bagpipes, in no small part because some "exotic" pipes began to be played in places far from their sources, such as on both coasts of the United States. For example on the West Coast, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the late great piper Robert Thomas, who was the driving force behind the legendary musical circus The Golden Toad, introduced thousands of people to the fabulous huge sonorous Zampogana bagpipes of Italy, the acrobatic Gaita of Spain, the haunting Kaba Gaida of Bulgaria, the "lost" great Dudelsack (in replicas he made) of the Lowlands, the impossibly penetrating Petite Biniou of Brittany, the melodious Grand Cornemuse of central France, among others. The overwhelming magic of Bob's piping swept all sorts of people right into the universe of bagpipes, including the present writer who eventually founded this Web site (in 1999), and the legendary Sean Folsom, who carried on after Bob's untimely departure with an even wider collection of working bagpipes (now up around sixty varieties, including many from Central and Eastern Europe), which he continues to play today for enchanted audiences in far flung places.

The revival of public interest in bagpipes eventually worked itself back to Europe where all of these pipes originated, and soon became even more intense there, with ever increasing numbers of regional pipers (some of whom today enjoy almost rock-star status), highly skilled pipe makers, large concerts and huge regional and national piping festivals.

Meanwhile, organologists, ethnomusicologists, museum curators and other academic musical historians were caught pretty much flat-footed by this dramatic, somewhat chaotic and relatively rapid upwelling of long dormant and nearly forgotten musical traditions. Now, with all of this new interest in bagpipes, the aforementioned earlier failure to pay much if any attention to them suddenly became embarrassing, as people made inquiries and looked for resources only to be met with silence or mumbled apologies and vague referrals. How bad was it? Here is an East German postage stamp depicting a bagpipe of the general type studied in Dr. Cwach's theses - misassembled!


Correcting this general scholarly failure became a matter of some urgency as it quickly became apparent that despite all of this activity vital information was being lost forever as older pipers faded away. But there were, and remain, many obstacles to bringing order and light to these often deeply obscure traditions. Time, money, language, logistics all present formidable challenges. It requires a person truly dedicated, not to mention talented, to ferret out the details of what amounts to an entire musical culture in a way that is comprehensive and accurate. From an academic perspective it also requires institutional support, never the easiest thing to get when suggesting a journey into far left field. Then once these external factors are in order comes the work itself. One can't simply conduct a few interviews and make a few recordings (valuable though such may be) and expect to gain much of a detailed overall view. Rather, the only way to do that is to actually live the life, learn the instrument and the music, and become in effect a part of the tradition being studied. One person to take such an approach was Dr. Timothy Rice, a professor of ethomusicology at the University of California whose wonderful 1994 book May It Fill Your Soul intimately details Bulgarian music and in particular the bagpipes and pipers of that region. More recently, David Marker has immersed himself in the world of Italian bagpiping, with one result being his feature-length documentary film Zampogna: The Soul of Southern Italy (Lots of "souls" are mentioned around bagpipes, as there should be!)

Another recent creation is perhaps the first documentary film about a non-Scottish piping tradition by a professional filmaker, Jefe Brown. Call of Dudy is a wonderful work and is available here from us, see a full description and details on our catalog page.

And now we have this astonishingly detailed and comprehensive work of Dr. Michael Cwach, which he too created not by merely looking inside the traditions, but by being inside them. It is an utterly fascinating and enlightening work, regardless of what sort of bagpipe might be one's favorite. All of us who have a passionate interest in bagpipes and piping owe a great deal to Dr. Cwach and to others who chose to devote themselves so fully to furthering the knowledge of these sublime traditions. And we hope that someone encountering this work might be inspired to do the same, as there remains a long list of bagpiping about which we know very little. ~ O.S., Albion, California, July 2013.

Below are a very few of the illustrations in Dr. Cwach's theses; there are hundreds more in the texts.

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