Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

in the minds of the musicians

timpani: from an instrument of war to beethoven's stage

October 27, 2010

The development of timpani since the time of their introduction into the orchestra has resulted in the gradual alteration of their sound and tonal character. The forces that have changed timpani include where and how they were used, their mechanics, the size of the orchestra, and the music written for them.

Before joining the orchestra, the timpani were an instrument of war. They can trace their lineage to the Crusades of the Middle Ages when, inspired by the horse-mounted timpani of the Ottoman Empire, they made their way into the military of 13th century Continental Europe. Carried on horseback, and together with trumpets, they became the primary instruments of the cavalry. Their lasting association with the trumpets remained as the timpani became incorporated into the orchestra.

The first documented use of timpani in the orchestra was for the opera “Thésée” by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1675. In 1733, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a secular cantata titled “Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!”, which translates to “Sound off, ye timpani! Sound, trumpets!” Timpani from the Baroque era measure between 18” to 24” and, unlike modern timpani, are not easily tunable. Consequently, throughout the Baroque and Classical periods for the music of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Haydn, the drums were primarily tuned to the tonic and dominant in a perfect fourth or perfect fifth interval. Timpani were used primarily for rhythmic support, V-I cadences, and with few exceptions were invariably in unison with the trumpets.

In the early 19th century, Beethoven made new demands upon the timpani which were a catalyst for their development. The timpani are a powerful force in Beethoven’s orchestration and he found imaginative ways to utilize them in his music. Instead of being relegated to the V- I cadence, he expanded the intervals between the two drums to a minor 6th in his 7th symphony and to an octave in his 8th and 9th symphonies. He gave the timpani prominence in solo passages where they accompany the soloist in his Piano Concerto #5 and Violin Concerto. The 3rd movement of the 9th symphony requires the drums to be struck simultaneously essentially creating the first timpani double stop, and the 2nd movement features the timpani in numerous forte soloistic passages.

In Beethoven’s time, the circumference of the drums increased to between 24” and 27”. In contrast, a standard large drum today is 32” and has a deeper kettle. The increase in the size of timpani is relative to the increase in the size of the orchestra. Today, the symphonies of Beethoven are often performed by 100 piece symphony orchestras. The size of the orchestra for the 1808 performance of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was 58. This is closer to the size of a chamber orchestra today.

The Baroque timpanist used hard timpani mallets made of wood or ivory. During the Classical period, sticks wrapped with leather or cloth were used for a less percussive sound to blend with the orchestra. Berlioz was the first composer to specifically request a soft timpani stick for his music. The contemporary timpanist uses sticks made with a variety of materials including wood, felt, cork, leather, and flannel.

Throughout the 19th century, composers required more pitch changes in their music while experimentation with timpani tuning mechanisms produced many inferior prototypes. The tuning systems developed to change pitch were often noisy or hindered the resonance of the drum. In 1881 in Dresden, Germany, Carl Pittrich invented a pedal system that could be attached to the drum to change pitch easily and effectively. It was later perfected and became known as the “Dresden” pedal.

Timpani heads were always made from animal skin until the invention of plastic heads in the 1950’s. Plastic was a welcome alternative to commonly used goat or calfskin timpani heads because they are not nearly as sensitive to weather conditions. If humidity is high, calfskin will quickly absorb it and the pitch will drop. In dry conditions, calfskin becomes taut and the pitch climbs. This can occur during a performance requiring the timpanist to be vigilant in order to maintain intonation. Many timpanists will avow, however, that the sound of a calfskin timpani head is worth the extra efforts. That being said, the use of calfskin is impractical in cases where the drums are continuously exposed to fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Optimal conditions are to store timpani with calfskin heads in a humidity controlled environment and to keep them in the concert hall in which they are used.

Innovations in timpani design have created a sound that is different from early timpani. As a result, there has recently been a resurgent interest in timpani that are stylistically in character with the Baroque and Classical era. For the LACO performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 7, I will be using the Adams Schnellar timpani. These timpani are well suited both to Beethoven’s music and to the size of the Chamber Orchestra.

Check back next week to learn more about the Adams Schnellar timpani!

1 comment

Hi Wade,

Thanks for the fascination post, i love reading about the history, technology and development of instruments.



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