Handwashers’ Newsletter 3rd January 2021


(We didn’t stay up to see in the new year but to make damn sure the old one left.)

PIFFERARI Tim repeats himself:

My apologies for repeating a subject I mentioned a long time ago. I was reminded of this subject at Warwick Cole’s wonderful covid-secure performance of Messiah Highlights before Christmas with just four singers and six instrumentalists. In the absence of any other seasonal suggestions, here goes:

My interest in pifferari began when I was asked what the word ‘PIFA’ means in the title of the Pastoral Symphony in the Watkins Shaw edition of Handel’s Messiah.

An acquaintance suggested that I should look up the Italian word piffero meaning a musical fife or pipe. More specifically, piffero refers to an ancient oboe-like double reed instrument played by Italian mountain folk, often shepherds. It comes in a variety of sizes and pitches, sometimes resembling a bassoon with the reed mounted at the side.

Players of these simple, often homemade, instruments joined up with other instrumentalists, in particular bagpipers (zampogna), to form small ensembles of perhaps 3-4 who would provide music, mainly for dancing, at village festivities. Such groups were called pifferari and sometimes would also include a percussionist with cymbal, drum or tambourine. Occasionally a fiddler would bring additional variety.

At Advent pifferari would come down from the hills into the towns where they would play, often at street shrines to the Virgin Mary. In Rome, for instance, pifferari from the Abruzzi hills would prepare the citizens for the Nativity celebrations. Being country-folk, they were used to an early start and so did not make themselves universally popular by piping up in the small hours! Nevertheless, no doubt their busking brought welcome addition to their modest rural incomes even when they were told to ‘vattene!’ Imagine being awoken early by this:


Composers incorporated the pifferari music form into their Christmas works as background to the story of the shepherds. It is usually formalised in 12/8 time and consists of the melody and harmonies (originally the sound of the piffero in various sizes) underlain by extended notes imitating the drone of the zampogna. Notably, Arcangelo Corelli (1653 – 1713) incorporated the pifferari form into his Christmas Concerto. Here is the lovely Pastorale movement of the Christmas Concerto:


The young G F Handel (1685 – 1759) visited Rome and studied with Corelli which is no doubt where he learned about pifferari (pastorale) and later incorporated it, in 12/8 time, into the Messiah as the introduction to the story of the shepherds: the Pastoral Symphony:


J S Bach (1685 – 1750) who never set foot outside his native country was, however, a keen student of Italian music. He used pifferari twice in his Christmas Oratorio, like Handel, in the Symphony introducing the shepherds’ story:


and as accompaniment to the chorale Wir singen dir in deinem Heer (We sing to thee):


Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) made use of pifferari in several of his orchestral works and there are echoes of this form in the 3/8 time Shepherds’ Farewell from his L’Enfance du Christ:


These are just a few examples of the musical form, pifferari, also called siciliano or pastorale. Various other composers made use of the same musical form to portray the pastoral theme.

Musicians were not the only ones interested in pifferari; in 1838 J M W Turner painted The Pifferari showing the players in their pastoral home setting:


Here’s Sonia’s suggestion for a socially distanced concert: