Timpani History

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Medieval History

Middle Eastern Origins

We first see the ancestor of the kettle drum, the naker, first emerged circa 476 A.D., during the fall of the Roman Empire, when the German barbarian Odoacer overthrew Romulus, the last of the Roman Empire Leaders. This led to the collapse of countries that relied on the Empirical system for economic purposes, as well as safety and protection. This caused a spike in poverty, and a lack of an educational system in Western Europe. However, countries in the Middle East as well as the Far East were thriving. Arabia had adopted the single-headed, closed body drum from Egypt, and adapted it to become the early naker (present in the fall of the Roman Empire), which was called the naqqāra, or nacair. A pair of nacairs would be mounted on either side of a camel, and the musician would sit and play on the camel as well. These drums measured 24 inches and 18 inches in diameter. In 622 A.D., the Middle East saw the rise of Islam, and through more unified countries, Islamic countries were able to seize Constantinople in 673 A.D., thus introducing their mounted nacair drums to Western Europe.

The Naker

The term: naker, was adopted from the Middle/Far East to the Western European countries. Due to the eastern countries quick advancements of the time, it is likely that eastern nakers were used in pairs, but there is little evidence of this technique until the drums became adopted for use in the Crusades in the 11th Century, these drums were also used in pairs in Russia and Poland. King Louis the IX (1214-1270) was one of the first of the aristocracy to use small nakers, he adopted these instruments under his rule from the 13th Century onward. Around 100 years later during the 14th Century, the nakers became the official symbol for aristocracy, they were used in musical entertainment, encouragement in the tournament, as well as being played to increase the sounds of turmoil in battle. Many artists and sculptures have depicted nakers, where they were shown suspended in the front, around the waist. Another difference from the tabor was that the naker was played with two sticks rather than one. During this time, Kettle Drums had also started to develop out of the nakers, these were essentially bowls that would be laid on the ground, where you would either sit down and play them, or bend over. It’s difficult to tell how the head on a naker or kettle drum was attached, all solutions appeared to be problematic, but were still done anyway, they would either be: nailed, rope-tied, or necklaced. Drums were made of either wood, pottery, or even copper depending on what kind of craftsmen and resources which were prominent in the area, a woodsmen, potter, or metalsmith. There was a variety of playing sticks, they would be either light, heavy, or elaborately fashioned, some however were simply crude sticks.

The Early Kettle Drum

It was during this time of the tabor and the naker that the race to who will dominate the future percussion section of the orchestra was occurring. The naker held the upper hand due to its association with the aristocracy, as well as the use of two sticks to play, when using two sticks, the embellishments could be significantly more elaborate. During the 9th Century, the Hungarians began to spread throughout the surrounding countries with their large kettle drums mounted on horses. Other countries became envious of Hungary’s drums, and began to copy them. When the King of Hungary began to travel, he would be accompanied by the largest kettle drums of the time. In the 15th Century, true kettle drums , the precursor to the orchestral timpani began to appear, and spread throughout Western Europe. When the larger kettle drums were first introduced into Germany, a priest named Virdung wrote disapprovingly of the drums. Virdung was not impressed by the boominess of the drums, or the pomp and flourishes they provided, this further pushed the church to believe percussive drums as provocations of war. However, this didn’t stop the German aristocracy from adopting the drums from Hungary. Germany later sent an embassy accompanied by their new kettle drums to France, where the French royalty was so appalled by the bombastic instruments, that they ordered the drums to be “dashed to pieces”. The kettle drums then made their way into Britain, where there is a consistently referenced record of King Henry VIII (1491-1547) specifically asking the kettle drum makers in Vienna in 1542 to create a pair of large kettle drums for him, as well as to send men that would be able to play the drums skillfully. Just as the Hungarians had carried their kettle drums on horses, the English had constructed carriages that would be attached to horses, but would allow the kettle drums to sit with a kettle drummer in the back. The drums being carried on the backs of animals were integrated at the close of the 17th Century, and were adopted by Germany as well. This tradition was likely still being carried on in the Middle/Far East Germany continued to be the best in drum manufacturing, as well as now having beat Hungary in terms of having the best kettle drummers, Germany also then created the Imperial Guilds for the kettle drums by the 17th Century. Being of Imperial title, members would hold the same ranks as military officers, and being a closed group as well this allowed the secrets of Germany’s playing technique to be passed down safely through generations. When recruiting for new guild apprentices, officers in the guild would carefully select younger people from aristocratic, respectable families. The guilds were so well enforced in Germany, that they actually had the ability to impose penalties on people who were not part of the guild if they were caught owning, or playing kettle drums. Germany is not the only place where kettle drummers of the time were persons of high ranking importance, in 1606 Portugal, there is record of a kettle drummer for the aristocracy whose title read: William Pierson, Timpanist to Prince Henry. The word timpanist had actually developed when Italy was the largest cultural center of the time, every person that had travelled to study in Italy started calling kettle drums, timpani, and it stuck until around 1600 and wasn’t widely used again until the classical era when Italian opera would call for timpani. In 1624, a kettle drummer in England held the title of: Richard Thorne, King’s Drummer. After 1661, there are various references in England referring to men as ‘His Majesty’s Kettledrummer’.

Baroque/Classical History

During the Baroque era, some composers began to write for percussion instruments in a classical manner, where the instruments were required to play notes that were written on sheet music, rather than playing in an improvisatory style. These composers included Jean-Baptiste Lully, who is famous for first writing for timpani in his opera Thésée (1675). Even earlier however, the timpani were used in Matthew Locke’s semi-opera Psyche ((1675), although this is not a very well-known piece as it was not a financial success. It was based loosely on a work of the same name that Jean-Baptiste Lully had composed in 1671. Johann Sebastian Bach was another composer who was one of the first to begin writing for timpani. His standard composition technique was to use three trumpets, with timpani, however there were some instances in Bach vast literature where the number of trumpets or the inclusion of horns changes. Some famous works of his where timpani are included are Sanctus in D Major, BWV 238 (1723), and Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (1749). George Frederic Handel’s most famous piece, his oratorio The Messiah, HWV 56 (1741), also includes two timpani in the orchestration of two movements. The timpani would likely be played along with the trumpets, and wouldn’t necessarily have a pitch, they would serve purposes such as assisting the dynamic crescendos, and filling out the register of high’s and low’s of the trumpet sound as they transferred from tonic to dominant, which the timpani were often tuned to. The timpani during the Baroque era were generally 18 and 20 inches in diameter, and 12 inches deep. Due to the problems discussed earlier and the shallow drum, the skin used on the head, which was often calfskin, was held over the drum with less tension. This may not have produced a clear tone all the time, and in fact may have simply induced intense, non-harmonic pitches such as a high and low sound. Mallets that were used had tiny knobs at the end, which is the end you would play with, or sometimes, they would have tiny discs, these early mallets were generally made of Beech or Boxwood. For softer dynamics however, mallet heads would be covered with either chamois, or leather. Pieces that were a little more solemn, such as for a funeral may may have the mallets be covered in wool or gauze. The timpani were faced with some challenges when becoming integrated into the orchestra. Often, the timpani were the solo instrument and the composer would rely on the timpanist to realize the intent of what the composer wanted, as well as express the artistry as an individual instrument. The timpanist must also listen and find where his part fits into the orchestra, as parts that were written were often composed as though the composer had just written down what may have sounded nice and easy to play on a keyboard. One consistent technique began to happen in the orchestra however, and that is the timpani began to be placed near the brass, as the parts often lined up.

Haydn and Mozart's Timpani

During the Classical era, we begin to see the timpani dominate the percussion section. Due to the composition techniques of masterful composers, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, the timpani and their players were forced to evolve. Franz Joseph Haydn in his later years began to use the timpani in expressive ways, not previously used by other composers. In 1791, in Haydn’s Surprise Symphony No. 94, he uses the timpani, employing loud notes, to reinforce the ‘surprise’ aspect of the symphony. In Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 (1795), known as the drumroll symphony (Paukenwirbel), he employs a solo timpani roll on E flat that effectively opens the piece and sets the mood. The roll is meant to sound continuous, and signified the current threat of war during the time. Later, in Haydn’s The Creation (1798), Haydn uses the timpani as a programmatic tool, using a drum roll to signify a roll of thunder. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the first composers to begin using a fourth in the timpani in his compositions, rather than the started fifth. (Tonic and Dominant) He also began to use the pitches that were tuned in the higher register of the drum. It’s been speculated that the reason Mozart employed these changes was likely due to his sensitive ear. Another innovation that Mozart had added to the timpani, was for them to be performed coperti (muffled). He used this instruction in two pieces, Idomeneo (1781), and The Magic Flute (1791). In Idomeneo, there has been controversy as to whether it is the actual drum heads that should be muffled, or that the sticks should be muffled or wrapped in a soft material. Today, the performance practice is to muffle the drum heads to match the muted trumpets playing simultaneously. By the time that The Magic Flute, had premiered, the range of the timpani had increased to a ninth, a F and G. Mozart was also one of the first composers to employ four timpani, rather than two. This happened in his piece Divertimenti for Flute No.’s 5 (1783), where a key change occurs, requiring the drums that were in A and D, to change to C and G. With drums not having the ability to quickly change tuning to accommodate the key change, four drums were employed. In regards to composition, Mozart preferred the timpani roll to achieve sustain on the drums, and would often write his rolls with fortepiano attacks, as well as effectively use fortissimo, and pianissimo to set up the mood of the piece.,

Beethoven's Timpani

Beethoven would mostly use only two timpani in his writing, not because the functionality of using more was not appealing to him, but because he was able to use originality and careful composition techniques which allowed him to effectively only need two drums. Even though Beethoven would traditionally write for two drums, which were mostly tuned to the tonic and dominant in a fifth, or a perfect fourth, (Which was preferred by Mozart as well. It is speculated that these master composers used the fourth often because the closer interval helped structure the harmony more effectively than a fifth.) the timpanist performing the piece may add a third drum to accommodate either a tuning change, or match timbre between the drums. (Pitches between the drums should often be in the same register as each other, so they sound similar.) The timpani roll was often employed in the orchestra before Beethoven, for instance Mozart favored it for sustaining notes. Beethoven not only used the roll for sustaining pitches through the timpani, but he would add dynamics to it. Beethoven’s loud roll, which he introduced in Leonore No. 3 (1805), strengthened the harmonic structure of the orchestra by including the low notes of the loud timpani roll. Beethoven also employed the loud timpani roll harmonically in his Symphony No. 5 in 1808. Other pieces that Beethoven also employed the loud timpani roll harmonically in, were pieces such as Concerto for Violin (1807), and Beethoven’s Mass in C, composed in the same year. The reason Beethoven was able to accomplish the harmonies needed through the use of the timpani roll, was due to the constantly advancing mechanics of the timpani’s ability to hold a pitch. In the early 18th-Century, Handel would also use the loud timpani roll, Handel’s purpose for this technique however was for increasing the volume in tutti sections rather than harmonically like Beethoven. Now Beethoven, as opposed to other composers of the time, was constantly innovating in his timpani writing, this is especially evident with each new symphony that he writes. Similar to Handel, a common theme among Beethoven’s writing is for the timpani drums to reinforce tutti passages or to heighten the climax of a certain movement. Innovations happen as early as Beethoven’s First Symphony (1795), where he writes cross rhythms as well as dynamically extreme solo passages. In the concluding violin passage in the fourth movement: Adagio, there are 16th notes written that are played in a triple-accent feel against the timpani playing in isolated duple rhythmic passages. In the last eight measures of the movement, the timpani holds a solo accompanimental roll to the horn section as they play melodic dotted half notes. In Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony (1807), in the fourth movement: Allegro Vivace. Beethoven writes for a solo pianissimo timpani roll that alternates with the violins every two measures. The timpani would play the roll for two measures, and then the violins would play chromatic figures for two measures. The roll is used again later in the symphony as a strong musical base for increasing the structure in the harmony, as well as propelling motivic sequences. The timpani palette expands even further in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808), where the drums are used as their own color in the orchestra, and due to this we begin to see the timpani slowly begin to break away from playing solely with the brass. Due to the quick speed of the tempo in some of the movements, the timpani are used as a rhythmic force, driving the music forward. Beethoven also exploits the lower register of the timpani drums to help maintain pulse, as well as provide warmth to the lower tones. It is in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (1808), that we begin to see programmatic materials being presented in the timpani drums. In the fourth movement: Allegro, the drums represent the roll of thunder during the ‘storm’ section of the piece. This occurs in the form of a loud roll as discussed previously. Not only effectively working programmatically, but also assisting in maintaining the harmonic structure. Also, a small surprise is written into the timpani part as well, toward the end of the fourth movement, there are four 16th notes occurring in one beat, which jettisons the orchestra into the final tutti section. The four 16th notes are meant to be forceful, loud, and unexpected, as they occur during a mezzoforte section of the music, but are marked as fortissimo. During the 18th and 17th Centuries, timpani had usually been tuned in fifths if there were two. As mentioned before, it wasn’t until Mozart and Beethoven that timpani began to be tuned to fourths, but this was about to change in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (1813). By this time, the timpani had grown larger in diameter and could now hold a bigger range between pitches. Beethoven utilized this, and has the two timpani tune to three different notes. F natural, D natural, and A natural, there are two innovations happening here, the first is that the timpani are tuned to their farthest interval in Beethoven’s symphonies yet, a minor sixth apart. The second, is that Beethoven uses the timpani to accommodate key change modulations during the piece, to do this, he uses the A natural as the common tone between the keys, this is one of the first times timpani had been used in this way. One of the other times being in Robert Schumann’s Concerto in A Minor (1846). Beethoven’s symphonies have broken tradition in little ways, such as having the timpani not be solely constricted to the trumpets writing all the time. However, Beethoven had been slowly breaking down this tradition, and finally in his Eighth Symphony (1814), he finally breaks the barrier completely of having the timpani being locked in with the trumpets, and instead has the drums notated as an expressive background color to the bassoons. This piece proves that the timpani can be notated as an effective bass voice to accompany not only brass instruments, but woodwind instruments as well. It is thought that by the time of the Eighth Symphony’s premiere, that the timpani drums had expanded in diameter, reaching 25, and 28 inches. Beethoven makes use of the size of these drums, by writing for the timpani to share octave F natural’s with the bassoon, as a soloistic accompaniment. Also, Beethoven once again makes use of the duple notes against triple-accent-feel composition between the violin and timpani, similar to how he wrote in his First Symphony. The culmination of Beethoven’s journey for Romantic timpani notation comes to a completion in his famous Ninth Symphony (1824). For the first time, in music that can be analyzed classically, the timpani assist in the playing of chords on the drums. With the two drums tuned to B flat, and F natural, he uses this tuning to do what he had done in symphonies previously, which was enforce the harmonic structure, but he has the timpanist play the fifth between the two drums with other instruments that would play the mediant of the B flat chord, whether D natural or D flat, regardless of the notes being played in between the B flat and F natural being provided by the timpani, Beethoven had effectively created an entire chord between the timpani and other symphony instruments. (It is important to note, that it is relatively well-known that the chief kettle drummer of King Louis the XIV court: Claude Babelon, regularly used chords on the kettle drums, but there is no surviving documentation of his compositions that can be musically analyzed.) The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy is also one of two times that Beethoven has featured what, at the time, were known as the ‘turkish instruments’. In the finale, he uses crash cymbals, triangle, and bass drum. The other piece that he had written for turkish percussion was his Wellington’s Victory (1813). Beethoven makes a final great leap for timpani notation by including the drums in his introductory octave motif of the second movement, Scherzo: Molto Vivace-Presto. Not only does he use the timpani as an introductory instrument for the motif, doing this makes the timpani a strong foundation for the melodic motif, when the timpanist is able to match the volume of the other instruments involved in presenting the opening motif. Not only does he use the timpani to help introduce the motif, he repeats it multiple times in the drums during the movement to keep it fresh and consistent in the ear of the listener.

Romantic History

Romantic Timpani Construction

Prior to 1810, the first kind of timpani had individual screw on the head which required a special key to tighten. Each individual screw needed to be tightened in succession to raise or lower the pitch of the drum. The first innovation from that was a T-screw that would turn all the screws simultaneously, this still was a loud and ineffective way to tune the drums. A man named Eiblinger around 1810 developed a timpani that had an interior movable hoop just inside the shell that could be operated by a hand outside the drum, this hand would move the interior hoop in order to obtain the desired pitch. In 1827, a Frenchman named Labbaye came up with a mechanically tuned drum that could change pitch using a regulator system that would put pressure on the skin. This became one of the most effective ways of tuning rather than turning the headscrews by some form of key or crank. (It’s important to remember that during this time, England was making their timpani out of copper, while France made theirs out of brass.) Then, in England, in 1837, Cornelius Ward created a timpani that had cables that would thread through the head and would connect to a rod that would be twisted to raise the pitch, or loosened to lower it. A few years later in 1840, an Italian named Bacchini redeveloped the single screw system, working in the same way as earlier models, this new system was quieter and could work faster than previous T-screw systems. In 1843, a German machinist, August Knocke, developed the first pedal operated machine timpani. Rather than the skin being tightened to change the pitch, three metal rings inside the drum would expand or contract against the underside of the head to change the pitch. In 1856 there is record of a man named H.J. Distin who had inquired and held the patent for timpani drums with rod tuning systems on the exterior of the bowls, and in 1862, Köhler & Sons of London would develop a drum similar in style to Knocke’s with the interior rings, but would have a rotating handle rather than a pedal that would alter the pitch of the drum.

Timpani's Involvement Among Romantic Composers

The timpani is consistently being used more and more as a melodic device as opposed to a harmonic or rhythmic one. Giacomo Meyerbeer gives the timpani the melodic line in the 4th Act of his opera Robert le Diable (1831). Meyerbeer again composes a famous rhythmic line known as the ‘Coronation March’ in his opera Le Prophète (1849). Around this time, one of the first timpani method books is published by Jean-Georges Kastner in Paris in 1845. Méthode de Timbales was dedicated to M. Poussard, a popular timpanist of the time. Felix Mendelssohn composed well for the timpani, and wrote a famous solo for them in his Fourth Symphony. Richard Wagner attempted to model his timpani writing after that of Mendelssohn, Wagner would often employ two timpanists with a pair of drums. He did this famously in his funeral march: Götterdämmerung. Thankfully, due to the machine timpani of the time, Wagner could write tuning changes in the drums and expect that the changes to be quick. Wagner wanted to push the timpani farther than Berlioz had, asking for techniques and pushing previous limitations, in his composition Parsifal (1882), he asks for the drums to be muted, gedämpft. In another piece, Siegfried (1876), Wagner asks for unusual tunings in the timpani, rather than the usual tonic and dominant or fourths and fifths. In terms of further timpani innovation, Robert Schumann uses the timpani in order to effectively modulate a key change in his Piano Concerto in A Minor. By 1900, the timpani had a range of just under two octaves between four timpani. Smaller timpani drums probably somewhere between 23 and 20 inches, also began to appear, where composers such as Mikhail Glinka and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov would ask for the upper G, along with Glinka in Russlan and Ladmilla (1842) and Rimsky-Korsakov in Easter Festival Overture (1888). Many other composers began writing virtuosic passages for the timpani as some players add a fourth drum to accommodate some pitches in terms of whether the pitches are in high or lower register of the drum. Even though machine timpani were available, Verdi would rarely ask for tuning changes to make machine timpani effective. Saint-Saёns also wrote a solo for the timpani in the Bacchanale from Samson & Delilah (1877), and in his Algerian Suite (1880), he writes a passage that is traditionally practiced and performed using crossovers.

Hector Berlioz

By the time that Berlioz’s Instrumentation was published in 1844, the timpani drums had a range of a fifth. Berlioz felt very strongly that the percussion section, especially the timpani was not utilized properly, therefore, he wrote extensively about what he wants the performers to do. Especially in terms of mallet use, Berlioz believed that sponge heads were the proper mallet to use, and even commented that Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 4 should be played using sponge headed timpani mallets, it has been speculated that he was inspired to use this choice from witnessing the felt on piano hammers. Berlioz went through much deliberation in what would be a proper mallet for the timpani, this included Leather wrapped over wood, mushroom and sponges, cork balls on handles, flannel discs, woolen yarn, or lambs wool. There are three distinctive sounds that Berlioz describes, the first is made of wooden ends, used for dry, loud notes, or to overcome/match the volume of the orchestra. The second is the leather-covered mallet, which he describes as still a dry sound, but a little more appealing than the wooden mallet. The third is the mallet he appreciated the most, which was the sponge head, later cork covered in flannel also became popular among players. During the time, it was vital a timpanist would own a multitude of mallets, including these three pairs. It is likely due to Berlioz’s innovations with how he wanted the mallets to sound, often instructing softer mallets be used as opposed to harder wooden or leather-covered, along with a general want for drums to produce resonance, that we use our soft beaters on timpani, and bass drum today. Like Beethoven, Berlioz also utilized harmonies on the timpani, however, unlike Beethoven, Berlioz would have two or three timpanists in order to effectively convey the melodic and harmonic lines he desired. In 1830, Hector Berlioz premiered Symphonie Fantastique at the Paris Conservatory, and with it, came an enormous leap for the percussion section of the time. The Symphonie poses many challenges to any timpanist that is required to perform such a piece, the first movement is fairly standard for the time. It calls for one player to play two timpani, the latest edition from Breitkopf & Hartel specifies for three mallets, the first are wood heads wrapped in leather, the second being sponge headed mallets, and the third being wooden headed mallets. When performing the first movement, toward the end when Berlioz asks for sponge heads, it is common practice to use wooden mallets covered in piano felt if you are playing on plastic timpani heads. However, if you are playing on calfskin, one would generally use the sponge heads. A third option if you have access to either calfskin or plastic timpani heads, is to use bamboo shafts with the heads covered in piano felt. In movement three, the score calls for three players, two onstage, and one off. The two onstage players are to play with wooden mallets. This is an instance where the instructions must be followed in order to match the intensity of the orchestra. In today’s common practice, during the thunder section, sponge mallets are called for, but soft ball mallets of wool or cotton may also be used. The important aspect of this section, is that the articulation of pitch must be present at all times. The third, offstage player needs to choose his mallets carefully in order to have his volume be effectively present on stage, otherwise, the intensity of the programmatic scene is lost. In the fourth movement Berlioz mentions quavers, which translate to eighth notes. The connecting stems where one tail faces up and the other down are not meant to be played as flams, rather as double stops in order to produce the sound of a drum in the distance, Berlioz’s intention was to have a slightly muffled sound. There are different ways to play this section, should the conductor attempt to play the passage faster than what it is marked. The first way is to hold a third mallet in the left hand, and to play the double stop with this hand holding the two mallets, and have the right hand play the remaining notes. The second option is to only hold the two mallets, and then play the remaining notes alternating. Should this tempo issue arise, in order to stay true to Berlioz’s intentions, the first option is recommended. In the beginning of this movement, Berlioz desires a muffled effect, due to modern innovations of the timpani being able to sustain a struck note for a long period of time, common practice is to use very light muffles on the drums, whether you are using calfskin or plastic timpani heads, after the section is through, the muffles should be removed. In the fifth movement, it is important to play with a hard, or leather-covered mallet. The movement should have a macabre feel, and it is important to remember that the timpani are accompanying a solo clarinet in C. Another liberty some conductors take with the ending passage at measure 496, is a piano crescendo, rather than playing only forte. This passage is traditionally played as singles with crossovers, but if the conductor decides to take this liberty, it may be easier to use doubles to attain a piano dynamic, and grow it into a forte. Another monumental feat of composition in the way of percussive writing and notation was in Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem) (1837). The percussion instrumentation for this work isn’t very diverse in the way of instruments used, but the number of players to each instrument is staggering. Berlioz requests four tam-tam’s be used, two bass drums, ten pairs of crash cymbals, and sixteen timpani to be played by ten timpanists, all on stage. The entirety of the percussion section requests 26 players altogether, one of the largest percussion sections the orchestral world had seen yet. When examining the timpani parts of Berlioz Requiem, it is easy to see how he was able to manipulate each drum to effectively create the harmonies and melodies that could fully support the low end of the orchestra. This piece also presents many challenges to the timpanist that perform it. Each drum must be exactly in tune with each other so as to not confuse the pitch that comes across to the audience. When timpani are playing with other instruments, it is easier to convey pitch due to the sympathetic vibrations reaching the timpani head from the other instruments being played (often wind). However, timpani do not produce a strong enough sustained tone to warrant a sympathetic vibration to its neighbor drum. It’s important to note that sympathetic vibrations happen only when the timpani is within a few cents of a similar pitch being played.

Modern Timpani Construction

There are a few variations on the traditional timpani that have survived into the modern day. This includes the pedal timpani, however, there are now different variations on the mechanism. The first is a ratchet clutch. This is where a clutch must be disengaged with the foot in order for the pedal to be shifted, and then once the desired pitch is reached, the clutch must be re-engaged. The second, is a balanced action system, where a spring is used to balance the tension between the head and pedal, sometimes this is referred to as a floating pedal. The third variation is a friction clutch, where a clutch moves freely along a post after being disengaged. There are also two styles of pedal, the Dresden where the pedal is located along the side of the timpani, and the floating pedal, where it is located in front. More professional level timpani have some sort of hand operated system in order to fine tune the pitch.

See Also


Beethoven, Ludwig Van. Beethoven Symphonies No. 1-9. London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1941.

Blades, James. “Percussion Instruments and their History.” Revised Edition. Westport, Connecticut. The Bold Strummer, LTD. 1992

Bowles A., Edmund. “On Using the Proper Timpani in the Performance of Baroque Music” Percussionist 17 (1980). Accessed September 25, 2017. PAS Archives.

Kretzner, Bill. “The Beethoven Symphonies: Innovations of an Original Style in Timpani Scoring.”(Percussive Notes V19, no. 2) March 1982

Peters B., Gordon. “The Drummer: Man A Treatise on Percussion.” (Wilmette, Illinois. Kemper-Peters Publications) 1975.

Peters, Mitchell. Fundamental Method for Timpani. Alfred Publishing Co., 1993

Simco, Andrew P. “Performing the Timpani Parts to Symphonie Fantastique.” (Percussive Notes, V36, No. 2) 1998

Steinberg, Michael. “"Hector Berlioz: Requiem." Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

"The Fall of the Roman Empire." Ancient Civilizations. 2017. Accessed September 23, 2017. http://www.ushistory.org/civ/6f.asp.

White, Charles L. “Drums Through the Ages.” (Los Angeles, California: The Sterling Press) 1960.