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Timpani - History

Early timpani in Europe

The first timpani were brought to southern and western Europe in the 13th century by Crusaders and Saracens, from where they spread quickly to the north. These instruments (known in Arabic as naqqâra) were pairs of kettledrums about 20–22 cm in diameter. These small drums (draped kettledrums) remained in use until the 16th century. They were attached to the player' s belt and beaten with a pair of sticks. Draped kettledrums were played primarily in military contexts, for example triumphal marches and processions. Later on they found their way into ensembles and appeared at court festivities and dances.


A pair of kettledrums

In the middle of the 15th century a second wave of kettledrums spread across Europe from the east of the continent. These instruments were the larger timpani.

In 1457 a legation sent by King Ladislaus of Hungary set off for the court of Charles VII in France. Their horses carried large kettledrums. Instruments of this size had never been seen in Europe before. These loud and booming drums had been played in royal bands in the Middle East since the 12th century, and in Europe they soon advanced together with the trumpets to become the quintessential instrument of the cavalry and a symbol of courtly life and knighthood.

During the 15th century a number of technical improvements were made to the kettledrum, including a change in the way the vellums were tensioned, the old method of bracing or nailing being gradually replaced by skins lapped on by a hoop. At the beginning of the 16th century kettledrums in German-speaking countries began to be equipped with screws to tension the vellum, which was stretched over a hoop.

The term timpani and the French word timbales are derived from the Greek word tympanon (Latin: tympanum) which referred to a drum with a skin.

The power of timpani and trumpets

Kettledrums and trumpets came to be used as signaling instruments by the cavalry of the aristocracy, while the serfs and footmen were equipped with side drums and fifes. Kettledrums and trumpets were therefore held in much higher regard as instruments of royalty and the nobility than those of the "ordinary folk". Although the invention of gunpowder meant that the kettledrums (and trumpets) lost their role of signalers in battle they nevertheless remained symbols of horsemanship and continued to be the object of further development as art instruments. A form of courtly art emerged which gave rise to playing techniques of extreme virtuosity.

In keeping with this image, kettledrums came to symbolize the power of monarchs and princes. In 1542, for instance, Henry VIII ordered the purchase of Viennese kettledrums for his court, which were to be played on horseback. Kettledrummers and trumpeters formed their own guilds which enjoyed royal privileges. In 1528 Emperor Charles V granted the Company of Court and Field Trumpeters, which had merged with the Court and Field Kettledrummers, the status of an imperial guild. The kettledrummers, who were obliged to perform other tasks for the prince beside the playing of music and were directly subject to his jurisdiction, were jealous guardians of the secrets of their playing and improvisation techniques, the so-called Schlagmanieren, details of which they passed on only to their successors within the guild. In this way the Kettledrummers' and Trumpeters' Guild, which from time to time found itself facing competition from the Waits' Guild, managed to retain a certain monopoly.

Kettledrummers were equal in rank to officers and were dressed in the same way as knights. For many years the granting to a town of the right to keep city trumpeters and kettledrummers was regarded as a privilege.

During the course of the 16th century kettledrums were not only played at festivities but began to be used in church music in company with the organ and choirs, especially for trumpet and kettledrum flourishes as a ceremonial glorification in masses. In addition, kettledrums and trumpets appeared more and more frequently as consorts in ballet and stage music (intermedia or interludes), in which they symbolized warlike moods and aristocratic power in keeping with their character. Ensembles consisting of kettledrums and trumpets only remained in existence into the Baroque period. It was not until later, when the power of the guilds was slowly waning, that the kettledrum was accepted as a fully-fledged member of the orchestra.

In his 1675 opera Thérèse, Jean Baptiste Lully became the first composer to use the kettledrum as an orchestral instrument in the modern sense.

The guilds disbanded between 1810 and 1831. Up to that point it had been customary to play many extra notes (embellishments) that were not actually in the score; these embellishments were part of the Schlagmanieren. It was not until the 19th century that composers began to gain full control of the timpani and took greater interest in the instrument’s playing techniques.

Screws, machines and pedals

The earliest method of changing a kettledrum’s tuning was bracing, but in the 16th century tensioning screws were introduced. The vellum was stretched over an iron hoop with eyes; the shell was also equipped with eyes. The corresponding eyes of the hoop and the shell were screwed together with about ten iron screws which altered the skin tension and therefore also the pitch. This tuning mechanism remained widespread into the 19th century. The problem with this method was twofold: on the one hand it was difficult to place the tension evenly on all parts of the vellum, which is vital for the production of a pure tone. On the other hand it took a long time to retune hand-tuned kettledrums. The advantage of the hand-tuned kettledrum was its lightness, which made it easier to transport.

In about 1812 the Munich court timpanist Gerhard Kramer designed a mechanism that attached all the screws to a master screw so that the skin tension could be altered by means of a single handle or pedal. The machine drum, which made rapid tuning possible, had arrived. Rotary-tuned machine timpani were also developed which were retuned by giving the bowl a turn. The disadvantage of this method was that the spot on the vellum which must be struck to achieve the best sound (beating spot) changed its position.

The pedal drum was invented in the 1870s by C. Pittrich in Dresden and is now the standard orchestral kettledrum. By operating a pedal, energy is transferred along drawbars, which run up the shell either on the inside or the outside, to the hoop over which the vellum is stretched and alter its tension. A tuning gauge gives a rough indication of the compass and a handle is used for fine-tuning. Since the beginning of the 19th century rapid retuning during playing has been required by composers more and more often. This demand was a result of chromaticization, which began at the turn of the 19th century, and was one that the new pedal drums could meet with ease.

A peaceable role as an orchestral instrument

The kettledrum established itself in the orchestra during the 17th century (representational music, church music, opera). As a result its mechanical development was dictated increasingly by the need for rapid and accurate retuning.

In the Baroque era and Classical period it was usual to use hard mallets, sticks with covered heads being used only for tremolo playing. In the works of Purcell, Bach, Handel and their contemporaries the two kettledrums retained the tuning given at the beginning for the duration of the entire work. In the 18th century the bowls had a diameter of between 41 and 62 cm for the smaller drum and 43 and 65 cm for the larger. The difference in size between the pair was relatively small, a ratio of about 4:3, which remains unchanged today.

Beethoven (1770–1827) was the first composer to expand the role of the timpani in the orchestra, which he did in two ways: on the one hand he used tuning intervals other than the fourths or fifths (tonic and dominant) which had hitherto been usual; examples of this are the minor sixth A–F in his 7th symphony and the octave Fs in his 8th and 9th symphonies. On the other hand he entrusted the timpani with rhythmic and thematic tasks (in his violin concerto and his 5th piano concerto). Like his “classical” colleagues, Beethoven scored the timpani parts with great precision and unobtrusiveness. Kettledrum rolls are used mainly in the build-up to a climax, solo passages are rare and produce remarkable effects.

The brilliant orchestrator Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) not only revolutionized the art of instrumentation; he was also a pioneer of new roles for percussion instruments. He was the first composer to include instructions in the score about the type of mallet to be used. This gave him great influence over the overall sound, because there is an enormous difference between striking the drum with a stick the head of which is covered by sponge, felt or leather or with one that is made of wood. This precise style of notation was adopted by later composers. In his requiem Grande Messe des Morts, which requires an orchestra of enormous size, Berlioz scored no less than sixteen timpani for ten players (six of whom played a pair, while the other four played one each); in his Symphonie Fantastique four timpanists are required.

In the course of the 19th century the earlier tasks of the timpani (emphasizing the rhythm, marking the tonic and dominant) changed and it was given new ones in addition.

In the early 20th century Béla Bartók (1881–1945) was one of those primarily responsible for extending the role of percussion instruments in the symphony orchestra and in chamber music. In particular he increased the timpani’s range of playing techniques, requiring them to perform bass lines at a fast tempo (Concerto for Orchestra, 1944) and pedal glissandos (Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, 1937).