Instruments | Timpani | Modern Era | Classical

The most widely used tuned percussion in early twentieth-century classical music are the timpani. These instruments, often called ‘kettledrums’, are metal hemispheres with a tense membrane (formerly leather, now plastic) across the top and are tuned to play a single note.

An instrument with military origins (as the timpani/trumpets combination in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, 1607, reminds us), timpani had intervened only occasionally in classical music to provide strictly limited local effects: the surprise chord in Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony No. 94 involves timpani and his ‘Drum Roll’ Symphony No. 103 (1795) opens with a roll on the timpani. Classical orchestration used timpani to emphasize the tonic and dominant in unison with the natural trumpets, and the timpanist as a result usually had two instruments to play; the modern orchestral timpanist will usually have three, sometimes more.

Revolutionizing Rhythm

In the early twentieth century, as composers began to experiment with rhythm in an unparalleled way, so the role of percussion was revolutionized. In Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the time signature changes not from movement to movement but from bar to bar. Here, the percussion has a vital role in establishing the pounding, driving force of the music. There is no sense in this piece that the percussion is providing local effects or is in a supporting role.

The tension in the membrane of the eighteenth-century timpani had been maintained either by rods or ropes. In the nineteenth century, mechanically tuned drums had made rapidly changing pitch possible and Adolphe Sax patented a pedal-operated system. Nevertheless, timpani continued to be used to provide such operatic and programmatic effects as thunder, drum rolls and gunshots (as in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf). However, in his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), Bartók made use of the pedal timpani for a novel effect. Here, the pedal alters the tension in the membrane while it is actually being played, making the instrument capable of glissando.

Styles & Forms | Modern Era | Classical
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