Royal set of bagpipes owned by French king, said to be world's oldest, now on display

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A set of bagpipes owned by a French king — believed to be the oldest set in the world — has been put on display ahead of World Bagpipe Day on March 10.

The pipes, displayed at Morpeth Chantry in Northumberland, England, are believed to have been constructed in the late 17th century for King Louis XIV of France, SWNS, the British news service, reported. 

International Bagpipe Day is celebrated on March 10 of each year — this year on Sunday. 

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Known as a musette de cour, the set of bagpipes was discovered after a collector spotted a painting of the king in the Palace of Versailles — with a similar set of pipes pictured next to him.

In 1987, after 16 years on display at Newcastle Castle, the pipes were moved to Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum, said SWNS — where they've remained since then.

Anne Moore, museum curator for 30 years, said the instrument was used in the late 1600s.

King Louis XIV reigned from 1643 until his death in 1715.

"The musette de cour played an important part in the great aristocratic vogue for the pastoral," she told SWNS. 

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"The musette is winded by means of bellows operated under the player’s right arm … It has two keyed chanters, capable of playing two chromatic octaves rather than the simple eight notes of the simpler instrument."

She went on, "The instrument would be made from the finest materials, usually ebony or ivory, or both — which would add to the density of sound as well as the richness of the design."

A stamp on the pipes indicate the set's creator, named Lissieu, a well-respected instrument maker from Lyons in the late 1600s.

He also reportedly constructed the set featured in the portrait of King Louis.

While it is impossible to tell for sure if the musette de cour is the exact instrument featured in the oil painting, the similarities are undeniable, experts said.

"It is a possibility that the artist may not have been working from ‘life,’ but from drawings, and so changes some of the details slightly," said Moore.

She added that it's also possible "that we might be looking at ‘matched’ instruments – Lissieu may have made two instruments in the same style, but with subtle differences in decoration, to be played together."

Either way, she said, what can be asserted "with absolute certainty is that the musette painted by Garnier is a Lissieu instrument. The similarities of design are too close to come to any other conclusion."

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There are over 130 different kinds of bagpipe played worldwide, according to The Bagpipe Society, based in the U.K. 

International Bagpipe Day on March 10 "pays homage to the rich history and cultural significance of one of the oldest musical instruments in the world," notes Journee Mondiale, a website dedicated to "world days."

"With its roots traced back to ancient times, the bagpipe has been a symbol of community and tradition in various cultures. Its presence on the battlefield, at festive events, and in solemn ceremonies highlights the multifaceted role it has played throughout history," the site also says.

"This observance day not only celebrates the instrument itself but also honors the skill and dedication of the bagpipers who keep this enduring tradition alive."

On a related note, the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City — featuring plenty of bagpipers — takes place on March 16, 2024, starting at 11 a.m. ET. The first parade was held on March 17, 1762, its website notes.

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