First, a little history about kettledrums or timpani. Expanding on this information would make a fasinating study for any percussionist or timpanist working on a paper relating to orchestration or music history.
Some Introductory Notes
The few sentences that follow are meant to encourage continuing research on this topic:
The modern timpani evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries from the simple 12th-century membranophone of the Naker to a complex instrument, consisting of a suspended kettle with a foot operated clutch, capable of rapid tuning. The technological evolution of the instrument led to increased interest in its capabilities and sound among such composers as Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz.
Initially used only outdoors, the instrument underwent modifications in the 16th and 17th centuries that led to its incorporation into chamber ensembles. During the 18th and 19th centuries, modifications in its design and construction, and rising interest in the symphony orchestra led to changes not only to the ensemble’s size, but also to composers’ use of specific instruments within the orchestra.
These new and challenging compositional demands influenced the design of the timpani, how timpanists played the instrument, and also helped to raise the standard of playing to a whole new level.
The combination of composers’ and players’ interest in the timpani during the 18th and 19th centuries helped to make the instrument what it is today.
I started performing on kettledrums or timpani in grade school. My teacher would put a set of headphones over my ears and in a moment of time, I would find myself performing the last movement of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. Very inspiring. In a few years, I studied timpani at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music with none other then Cloyd Duff – Timpanist with the Cleveland Orchestra. Robert Shaw was the associate conductor of the orchestra, so through hard work, some talent and a lot of lucky connections, I became Principal Percussionist and Assistant Timpanist with the Atlanta Symphony in 1967.
I will now share two truths about those positions, since it is now 50 years later and I am retired from the orchestra. The first is that to try and hold down two principal positions in a major orchestra is not wise. If I had to sub for the timpanist on an unexpected occasion, I could easily be facing a very difficult part to perform instantly and unprepared. That happened to me twice before I resigned from the assistant timpani post and remained as principal percussionist. Second, a timpanist is performing on an instrument of sliding pitch meaning using the foot pedal to put tension on or off the head combined with a fine tuning handle to further adjust the tuning of the drum which results in the most subtle changes in pitch possible – Changes in pitch as fine as can be controlled by a master string performer. Thus, a timpanist at a professional level, must have as fine of an ear for tuning their instrument and hearing subtle differences in pitch as well as a fine violinist!
I had the technique and I knew a good bit of the basic literature for timpani BUT I did not have the ear of a fine violinist! My career behind the timpani lasted well over 25 years and consisted of performing dozens upon dozens of church performances and recording sessions – local, regional and national. And I was very happy to simply remain only Principal Percussionist with ASO!
Werner Thärichen 1921 – 2008
Konzert für Pauken und Orchester, Op.34
(Please see “special comments by Jack Bell” below, performer and Melodious Merchant host, before listening to a performance of this piece)
Two versions of the Konzert für Pauken und Orchester, Op.34 are available:
one with the printed music, and one with images of famous timpani performers. Although I have performed a number of quite outstanding featured timpani music pieces over the span of my professional career – this is the only piece, that after 50 plus years, still has a recording of my performance available.
Please note special comments by Jack Bell, the performer:
I ‘attempted’ to play the timpani part from memory and now 50 plus years later as I listen to the original recording for the first time, I am more then a little taken back to see how many times I had “bad memory attacks” and began a series of random improvisations until I finally found a place in the piano part that I could recognize and was eventually somewhat accurate again but obviously shaken up a bit. As you know, timpani in a solo setting such as this is not easily judged in terms of accuracy – in fact my ‘improvising’ probably sounded convincing to a first time listener.
Also, since Cloyd never had a chance to coach me on this performance, unless he happened to really know the concerto, he probably was only slightly aware something was out – yes – by the way, Cloyd and the entire Cleveland Orchestra Percussion Section attended my senior recital at the Oberlin Conservatory!!
They knew I would freak out if I found out they were there so they quietly set in the last row until after the standing ovation and, of course, showed up for the food at the reception!
The mind has a wondrous ability to permanently suppress such moments over the decades. So, you might enjoy looking over the music which is posted for insight and then listening to the version that contains images of famous timpanists rather then suffering through my momentary mistakes. It all sounds much better without the music detracting from my improvising!
As a former Cloyd Duff student, I am dedicated to lifting my sticks in order to produce a melodic but highly rhythmic sound from the timpani. Therefore, I debated releasing this performance publicly, as the powerful sounds of my drums over powered the single non-adjusted overhead microphone and distorted the performance. That element, mixed with the reproduction from my 50-year old 7-tape reel preserved and removed from my storage bin, contributed much to the additional pop and crackle throughout the entire performance.However, my expert sound engineer loved the raw power and rhythmic vitality of my performance! He said with his historical insight, that the performance represented the real sound of solo timpani being recorded from many years ago. He convinced me. So, I now present to you that noble king of all instruments in its natural habitat Enjoy!