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.
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.
A pair of kettledrums
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).
Timpani and their diameters
- D bass kettledrum: 76 cm
- F kettledrum: 73,5 cm (29 in.)
- A kettledrum (or G, large kettledrum): 66-71 cm (26 in.)
- D kettledrum (or C, small kettledrum): 58,5-64 cm (23 in.)
- E kettledrum: 53 cm (21 in.)
- A kettledrum (piccolo kettledrum): 52 cm
The largest part of the kettledrum is the bowl, or pan, which is made of sheet copper. Its shape ranges from hemispherical to funnel-shaped, depending on the period it dates from, its size and the acoustic demands made on it - large kettledrums have a deeper bowl. The bowl is the resonator.
The open top of the bowl is covered by calf or goat skin stretched across a counterhoop. The counterhoop is joined to the bowl by a pull ring; the skin tension can be altered by means of a screw mechanism which presses the pull ring against the vellum. On the underside of the shell there is a small aperture; this does not serve to project the sound but to maintain even air pressure inside the bowl. A closed bowl would hinder the free vibration of the vellum after it had been struck.
The bowl is mounted on an iron stand which rests on a heavy metal base. The iron bars do not touch the bowl so as not to damp its vibrations.
The most sensitive part of the timpani is the vellum, an evenly-surfaced calf skin which has been smoothed during production with a scraper or pumice-stone. To attain a pure tone it is vital that the skin tension is absolutely even over its entire surface. In addition, the vellum is very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity; during a concert or an opera the instrument's tuning must be checked several times because the change in temperature and humidity caused by the audience quickly affects the vellum and therefore the pitch. A high level of humidity slackens the vellum. Since the middle of the 20th century plastic skins have also been used, and these have the advantage of being impervious to changes in the atmospheric conditions.
Modern timpani are tuned with a tuning pedal which operates the pull rings by way of rods on the outside (and occasionally on the inside) of the shell. Activating the pedal increases the tension of the vellum, which raises the pitch. In this way a kettledrum's pitch can be altered by as much as a sixth. The purest tone is produced in the middle of the compass. A tuning gauge with a scale of pitches is mounted on the rim and is used as a rough check on the tuning. For fine-tuning, which is done with a handle, the so-called fine-tuning handle, the timpanist must rely on his own exceptionally sensitive sense of hearing.
Timpanists use a variety of sticks, or mallets, which have different head sizes, coverings, weights and handle lengths. Each particular mallet produces a different sound. Mallets can be divided into roughly five categories:
Mallets with a wood or cork head which is covered by felt of varying thickness. These heads result in hard, medium hard and soft mallets. In addition, special wood mallets and flannel sticks are used. Wood mallets, which were widespread in the Baroque era, are nowadays regarded as a separate category.
Timpani mallets, from soft to hard.
Ash, tonkin, ebony, cherrywood, beech
30-35 cm (felt head)
30-32 cm (flannel head)
Wood (hard), cork (soft), flannel, hard felt
2.5-4.5 cm (felt head)
2.5-5 cm (flannel head)
Soft felt of various hardness, leather
Non-transposing, always in bass clef.
Detailed and precise notation of the dynamic behavior of the timpani part is recommended due to the instrument's enormous dynamic range. It must also always be borne in mind that the timpani can drown out other instruments.
Since the middle of the 19th century instructions as to the type of mallet to be used have become increasingly common in scores. In the 20th century changes of mallet began to be precisely indicated by individual symbols. This system applies not only to the timpani but to all the other percussion instruments as well.
Until about 1800 timpani were transposing instruments. The notes were notated in bass clef as C and G with no accidentals, regardless of the key the piece was in. At the beginning of the score the actual sounded notes of the timpani were written: timpani in C and G, Bb and F, D and A.
This made sense for as long as the timpani only played the tonic and the dominant; it was also the reason for which the large kettledrum was also called the G drum while the small one was known as the C drum. When other notes began to be demanded - from Beethoven - composers began notating the actual pitch.
A kettledrum has a range of about a sixth.
A timpani group composed of several instruments covers approximately three octaves.
The purest tone is produced in the middle of a kettledrum's compass. Very high notes sound too strained and too thin, very low notes sound too “woolly” and weak. For this reason timpanists allocate the pitches demanded in the score to the available drums in such a way that the pitch each drum plays is in the middle of its compass.
- D kettledrum (bass kettledrum: 75-80 cm): C2, D2 - H2, C3
- G kettledrum (large kettledrum: 65-70cm): E2, F2 - D3, E3
- C kettledrum (small kettledrum: 60-65cm): Ab2, Bb2 - G3, Ab3
- F kettledrum (high kettledrum: 55-60 cm): C3 - G#3
- A kettledrum (high kettledrum: 50-60 cm): C3, D3 - Bb3, C#4
- B kettledrum (45-50 cm): G3 - C4
The range of historical (baroque, classical) timpani was limited solely to the octave F2 to F3.
This meant that certain keys could not be played in the instruments' usual tuning - low drum = dominant, high drum = tonic. In such instances the usual tuning was reversed: low drum = tonic, high drum = dominant (e.g. A major).
Pair of timpani
The drums are placed in front of the timpanist, the higher one (small bowl, C or D drum) on his left, the lower (large bowl, G or A drum) on his right.
The same principle applies as to the pair: the highest drum (smallest bowl) is placed on the extreme left, the lowest on the extreme right. The timpani form a semicircle in front of the musician.
This arrangement does not correspond to the sequence of notes on the piano.
Pair of timpani
The drums are placed in front of the timpanist, the lower one (large bowl, G or A drum) on his left, the higher (small bowl, C or D drum) on his right.
The same principle applies as to the pair: the lowest drum (largest bowl) is placed on the extreme left, the highest on the extreme right. The timpani form a semicircle in front of the musician.
This arrangement corresponds to the sequence of notes on the piano.
The use of timpani in the modern-day orchestra is dependent on the work being performed: either the classic pair is used or four timpani. In works from the Romantic literature it has become standard to use four timpani.
A timpanist can play a set of six or seven drums at the most. This is not usual, however, and is only asked for in 20th century solo works (and then very rarely).
The drumstick rebounds after every beat. This bounce is exploited for rapid repetitions and rolls.
The “striking spot” is the mysterious part of the skin that produces the purest tone. It is a hand-width from the rim. Strokes on the middle of the skin (“second striking spot”) do not produce a clear pitch; they sound like a drum and are only asked for in more modern music.
The marked resonance is generally damped with the fingertips.
Modern tuning techniques
In contemporary orchestras pedal timpani are used. Rapid retuning is possible by means of a gauged pedal, the pitches are shown as a scale on the tuning gauge on the upper rim of the shell. The range, i.e. the relation between the used scale of pitches and the tuning, must be set with the fine-tuner before playing.
On a pedal drum roughly half an octave can be played as a scale (maximum range: a major sixth). Up to a tempo of quarter note = 150 a new step of the scale can be played every quarter note. Scales or parts of scales are played on one kettledrum - the sound is more consistent. The wider the interval the longer it takes to retune.
During a performance timpanists must retune unobtrusively in the background; this is done while the timpani are pausing (usually, (-;).
Historical tuning techniques
The traditional hand-tuned kettledrums, a few of which could still be found in orchestras in the 1950s, were tuned with six or eight screws which all had to be turned the same distance. This was relatively time-consuming and the timpanist needed at least eight bars' rest for it. Fortunately for the timpanists, works of the Classical era hardly ever required retuning during a piece. When from the Romantic period onward this began to be demanded the machine drum and later the pedal drum were invented, which made it possible to retune fairly quickly. In addition, the number of timpani used in the orchestra increased from two to three from the middle of the 19th century.
Rapid scales are not usual due to the marked resonance.
Legend of sticks
In the past the vellum was covered by a piece of flannel and struck. Nowadays a piece of felt is placed on the skin. This reduces resonance and produces a dry tone.
Legend of sticks
Dry-sounding single stroke, immediately damped.
Legend of sticks
With the hand
The head is beaten by the fingers.
Hand to hand strokes.
Legend of sticks
Alternating striking spot
The head is struck alternately on the striking spot and in the middle or near the rim.
The right hand crosses the left, or vice versa: either right over left or left over right. Nowadays this technique is only used if it cannot be avoided
Double cross beat
Historical technique: both hands cross alternately, right over left and left over right. This old technique was used primarily for show and is no longer usual.
One or more lightly struck auxiliary notes before the principal note. The grace notes can either have the same pitch as the principal note or a different one. If they have a different pitch they are played on a different kettledrum from the principal note.
Legend of sticks
Simultaneous strokes with two sticks on one or two timpani. It is even possible to play single strokes on four timpani with four sticks - two in each hand.
Two sticks in unison on one drum
To achieve striking fortissimo effects the vellum is struck with both sticks simultaneously. Strokes with both sticks in unison are used to achieve a higher dynamic level (e.g. in Gustav Mahler).
Even length stroke, the same pitch being struck once or twice on two timpani in succession. Effective American drumming technique.
Nowadays notated as a tremolo at one pitch (= two sticks on one kettledrum) or one after the other or as a chord consisting of two pitches. Either as sixteenths (measured) or thirty-seconds (unmeasured). Before the 20th century the roll was indicated by the trill sign. Timpani rolls can last some considerable time (e.g. in Beethoven).
Legend of sticks
Rolls with dynamics
Rolls with changing dynamics.
Legend of sticks
A roll performed by one player on two timpani.
The roll moves as smoothly as possible from one kettledrum to the next; no break should be discernible.
The stroke that ends a roll. It is usually sharply accented and often sounds together with the final note of an orchestral piece, for which reason its resonance must be damped with the hand.
The glissando effect is achieved by operating the pedal shortly after the note has been struck, in other words, while the note is still ringing. This glissando is very effective rising, but rather weak falling. This is a solo effect, as it is barely audible in tutti passages. It can only be played on pedal drums.
Legend of sticks
The glissando effect is achieved by operating the pedal during the roll. It is possible at any volume and both upward and downward. Glissando can only be played on pedal drums.
Legend of sticks
Dull, thunderous, booming, deep, heavy, powerful, mellow, velvety, substantial, resonant, round, rumbling, dead, dry, hollow.
Due to its great dynamic range the timpani part must be precisely planned and regulated and carefully balanced with its partner instruments. This exactitude must be reflected in the notation. Although when played piano and mezzoforte timpani allow other instruments to the fore, it is very easy for them to drown them out in forte and fortissimo passages.
Basically the timpani sound is composed of two elements, the attack and the resonance. The resonance of a mf tone lasts about 4-5 seconds on the large drum and 3-4 seconds on the small one.
The timbre is determined by three factors: what the mallets are made of, where the head is struck and how hard the head is struck.
How the mallets influence the sound
A mallet with a small head stimulates the higher harmonics (which are inharmonic on timpani): the sound is brighter and more incisive. Wood drumsticks produce the same effect.
A mallet with a broad head stimulates the deeper harmonics: the pitch appears more definite (the first six partials are relatively harmonic), and the timbre becomes darker.
In funeral music muffled mallets are used.
The sound produced from different parts of the vellum
Ideally the vellum should be struck at a point a hand-width from the rim. This guarantees that the pitch remains clearly defined even in low tunings in which the pitch otherwise tends to lose clarity.
In general, the number of higher (inharmonic) partials decreases toward the middle the vellum, while striking the head on the rim stimulates them. The closer to the middle the vellum is struck the less definite the pitch becomes. If struck in the middle, the timpani sound like a drum.
Played in unison and in unison with additional octave doubling with the bass instruments of the other instrument groups (bassoon, bass clarinet, cello, double-bass, bass trombone and bass tuba) the timpani produce a fairly homogeneous blend. A blend between the timpani and the rest of the orchestra is created.
If the timpani double an octave on their own (above or below, without any other instrument) their sound becomes more individual.
Timpani + brass instruments
Timpani + trumpets
Timpani and trumpets form a pairing rooted in history; the significance of their sound and symbolism lies in the tonal development of magnificence: the timpani form a powerful base upon which stirring trumpet fanfares resound. There is no tonal blend between the two instruments, their sounds complement each other to marvelous effect. In pieces from the Classical period the timpani's tonic-dominant foundation is doubled by the trumpets one and two octaves higher - often in climaxes - so that a solid pillar of sound over three octaves results.
Timpani + horns
The horn - the orchestral instrument that blends with all the instrument groups in the orchestra better than any other instrument - plays the typical cadences in pieces from the Classical period along with the timpani and the trumpets. The horns play the notes of the tonic and dominant triads in parallel thirds and sixths - about an octave higher than the timpani, while the timpani play the root notes which are usually doubled in two octaves by the trumpets.
The horns can also double the timpani in unison, in which case the first horns play in unison with the timpani, while the second horns play an octave higher. This results in an excellent blend.
If the horns play an octave above the timpani without playing in unison the higher voice is the principal voice and the lower voice (timpani) reinforces its sound.
Timpani + trombones
Often play in unison. Timpani rolls played piano which are doubled by long trombone notes played in unison are very effective.
Timpani + tuba
Some parts of the tuba's timbre are absorbed by the sound of the timpani. The tuba often plays an octave below the timpani. The effect of this is dark and powerful.
Timpani + woodwinds
All the sound combinations with the woodwinds develop best in piano passages.
Timpani + flutes, oboes
The sounds of these instruments are very distinct from one another.
Timpani + bass clarinet
Produce a melancholy effect played in unison. Part of the bass clarinet's timbre is swallowed by the timpani.
Timpani + bassoon, contrabassoon
The bassoon often plays in unison with the timpani, the contrabassoon an octave lower. The mellow overall sound that results is rich in overtones and develops best when played piano.
Timpani + strings
The strings' tremolo chords, played over a foundation of timpani rolls, are tremendously dramatic and one of this combination's most thrilling effects. String tremolos coupled with timpani rolls are well suited for dynamic shifts - crescendo and decrescendo.
The timpani roll together with a bowed tremolo played fortissimo provides a vibrant mass of sound in tutti passages.
Timpani + cello
Often play in unison. Both single strokes and tremolos together with the cellos are a common sound combination. The necessary resonance is provided by the double-basses an octave lower.
Timpani + double-bass
The double-basses complement the timpani an octave below them; the timpani are the principal voice. Usually the cello also plays in unison with the timpani at the same time. The double-basses' pizzicato an octave below gives the timpani additional resonance.
Timpani + harp
Played pianissimo or piano and in unison these instruments produce a good effect. Timpani, harps and pizzicato strings lend each other additional resonance.
- Elliott Carter
- Recitative and Improvisation (1966)
Chamber and ensemble music
- Béla Bartók:
- Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion (1938)
Concertos for timpani and orchestra
- Concerto for organ, strings, and timpani (1939)
- Concerto for timpani and orchestra (1954)
George Frideric Handel
- Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), 6 timpani
- Messiah (1742)
Johann Sebastian Bach
- B minor Mass (1724-49)
- Christmas Oratorio (1735)
- Symphony E-flat major (no. 103)
- "Drum roll" (1795)
- The Creation (oratorio, 1799)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Divertimento (1776) for 2 flutes, 6 trumpets, and 4 timpani
Ludwig van Beethoven
- Fidelio (opera, 1805)
- Symphony no. 7 A major (1813)
- Symphony no. 8 F major (1814)
- Symphony no. 9 d minor (1824)
- Symphonie fantastique (1830)
- Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts) (1837)
- Robert le Diable (opera, 1831)
- Faust Symphony (1857)
- Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-74)
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- Romeo and Juliet
- Fantasy Overture (1870)
- Russian Easter (overture, 1888)
- Symphony no. 9 New World, op. 95 (1893)
- Enigma Variations (1899)
- The miraculous mandarin, op. 19 (1919)
- Music for strings, percussion and celesta (Sz 106 / BB 114), 1937
- Concerto for orchestra (1944)
- The Rite of Spring (1913)
- Symphony no. 1, op. 10 (1924)
- Symphony no. 1 (1935)
Hans Werner Henze