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Field drum - History

The field drum

The tenor drum used in today’s orchestras evolved from the field drum, which was widespread in Europe from the late Middle Ages.

The field drum had developed in the 15th century from the tabor, a small, double-headed drum with a cylindrical shell of wood and several snares. The drum hung on a loop over the forearm of the musician, who beat the rhythm with one hand while playing a melody on a pipe with the other.

The minstrels’ drum had to be fairly light and easy to carry and for this reason it was rather small and not very loud. In the course of the 15th century the drum, that was struck from the side, became ever larger and ever louder to meet the changing requirements of military bands. It became too large to be hung over the forearm and was now attached to a strap over the drummer’s shoulder or tied to a belt round his waist. The widely known “Swiss” drums became the model for drum-makers all over Europe. The small tabor remained in use as a folk instrument while the new, large drum became an important instrument with lansquenets (German foot soldiers). It is for this reason that the side drum is sometimes also called the field drum, or, in historical contexts, the lansquenet drum (tambour de lansquenet) or long drum. “Fife and drum” symbolized the common foot soldiers, while trumpets and kettledrums represented the cavalry.

The field drum was between 50 and 70 cm deep (some models were as deep as one meter) and had a diameter of 50 cm. It was beaten with a pair of heavy sticks. From the 16th century the snares were stretched across the skin of the underside of the drum, the snare head.

The field drum’s main task was to give signals and mark the marching rhythm. Single and double beats and rolls were already standard playing techniques.

Basel drum

In the 17th and 18th centuries the field drum continued to evolve within the context of military bands. One of the principal aims was to reduce its dimensions, especially the depth of the shell, while retaining the volume.

When in the mid 18th century the bass drum and Turkish drum arrived at the courts of European princes with Janissary music the depth of the side drum’s shell had already been reduced to 40–45 cm, its diameter to 40 cm. The body, previously made of wood, could now also be brass.

This smaller version of the field drum is nowadays called the Basel or parade drum. The drums used by the distinguished Basel Drum Associations still have the original form, the head tensioned extremely tightly by criss-crossing cords to produce a bright tone. The Basel drumming style has a long tradition in which bounces and virtuoso embellishments play an important role. On contemporary models of this drum the head is tensioned with screws.

Admittance into the orchestra

100 years later than the timpani – in the second half of the 18th century – the side or field drum appeared in the orchestra for the first time, under the name tambour: Georg Friedrich Handel and Christoph Willibald Gluck used the instrument in their Fireworks Music (1749) and Iphigenie auf Tauris (1779) respectively. But drums have never achieved the same importance as timpani in the orchestra and their chief province remains marching music to this day. Because the drum had often been used in the midst of battle its first tasks in the orchestra were to evoke a military atmosphere, as in Josef Haydn’s Military Symphony (1794). Ludwig van Beethoven gave the drums authentic tasks in his battle symphony Wellington’s Victory (1813), giving each of the armies its own drum signal.

The drum was used more extensively in the opera orchestra, e.g. by Gioacchino Rossini, who even used it as a solo instrument in his opera The Thieving Magpie (1817), which earned him the nickname “Tamburossini”.

Beside the tambour – in historical scores this refers to whichever form of the side drum was in use at the time – an instrument with the name tambourin enjoyed huge popularity especially in 18th century French opera. This was a drum played with one hand and made of very light wood, with a shell about 70 cm deep and a single head. Direct descendants of this tambourin or tambour provençal are still used today in folk music in southern France. The instrument should not be confused with the tambourine with its jingles.

The modern orchestra field drum

The modern orchestra field drums have varying dimensions: small models can be 40 cm in diameter and 40 cm deep (similar to the Basel drum), while the large version has a diameter of 40&ndash 50 cm and can be up to 70 cm deep. The shell is made of wood, rarely of metal, the heads are braced by means of rod tensioning. Four to six snares, made of gut, are stretched across the snare head. In the orchestra the field drum rests at a slight angle on a stand and is usually struck with drumsticks. The sound varies according to the size of the drum but is deeper, duller and darker than the snare drum.

The tenor drum

In the 1830s a tenor drum with no snares became popular in European military music. It had a diameter of 40–45 cm and a shell made of wood that was 30–50 cm deep.

The drum was used principally for the performance of rolls, which produced a very somber effect owing to the lack of snares, and was known as the tenor drum. It is still very popular today in military bands in Great Britain and the USA, where it is struck with soft timpani mallets, but is not found in German-speaking countries.

In the orchestra the tenor drum is also used chiefly to perform somber rolls, e.g. by Berlioz in his Requiem (1837). In 1905, Charles M. Widor wrote that the purpose of the tenor drum in the orchestra was to “give a rolling quality to the single beats of the bass drum.” Depending on the desired timbre the drum is beaten either with drumsticks or with soft felt-covered mallets.

Field drum or tenor drum?

Many scores do not specify whether the composer requires a field drum or a tenor drum, in other words, whether a drum in the tenor register with snares or without them is required.

An additional problem is the general use of ‘field drum’ and ‘tenor drum’ as synonyms.

Examples of orchestral works in which a drum without snares is explicitly called for:
Hector Berlioz: Grande messe des morts (Requiem, 1837)
Richard Wagner: Rienzi (1842), Lohengrin (1850), Die Walküre (1870), Parsifal (1882)
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (1897–8)
Darius Milhaud: Suite Provençale (1936)
Arthur Honegger: Pacific 231 (1923)
Edgard Varèse: Ionisation (1933)
Wolfgang Fortner: The Creation (1955)
Aaron Copland: 3rd Symphony (1946)
Benjamin Britten: The Prince of the Pagodas (Ballet, 1957)