As the timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1942 until his retirement in 1981, Cloyd Duff earned a reputation as one of the finest timpanists of the twentieth century, known the world over for his beautiful, singing sound and his flawless musicianship. He was an absolute master of touch, finesse, and intonation, and also a master at the myriad details of the instrument – stick making, head clearing, head tucking and mounting, instrument maintenance and so on. For his students he was an inspiration; for his colleagues, he was the rock-solid foundation of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Duff graduated from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he was a student of Oscar Schwar. Recognition came early in Cloyd’s career when he was chosen by Leopold Stokowski for the All-American Youth Orchestra, touring South America and the U.S. His first orchestra job was as principal timpanist with the Indianapolis Symphony for four years before moving on to Cleveland.
Cloyd had a wonderful career with the Cleveland Orchestra: four decades working with many of the foremost conductors of his time and performing in concert halls around the world. The recordings he made with the orchestra continue to be reissued and many have become a standard reference for young timpanists learning the repertoire.
Like all legendary figures, stories abound about Duff’s performances. Cleveland Orchestra percussionist Joe Adato tells about a performance in 1962 of the Strauss tone poem “Symphonia Domestica”: The timpani part has a passage traditionally added at the top of the last page: a D-major scale pedaled across the two center drums. Just as the orchestra arrived at that moment in the music, the head on the 28-inch drum broke! “Cloyd still managed to play the rest of the composition with only three working drums. I might add that he played it better with three drums than most timpanists can play it with four.” Adato was so impressed that he had Duff autograph the head for him, had it framed, and it still hangs in his home.
George Szell, the conductor that brought the Cleveland Orchestra to world-wide prominence, was not known for effusive compliments to his musicians. But one evening after a performance of the Beethoven 6th Symphony he took Duff aside to say, “You know, Cloyd, I conduct this symphony all over Europe, and no one plays that storm movement the way you do.”
During his years in Cleveland, Duff taught hundreds of students through the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Baldwin-Wallace College, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. Following his retirement, he started the Cloyd Duff Timpani Masterclass at Colorado State University. At the time, Cloyd hoped the class would continue for several years before starting, as he put it, “a gradual diminuendo.” To his amazement, it became an annual event for almost two decades, attracting both students and professionals from the U.S. and Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia.
He may have expected a diminuendo, but what he got was a crescendo: In his retirement he gave clinics and master classes across the United States, Europe and the Far East, including PASIC ’82, ’88 and ’92. In 1977 he was elected to the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.
Cloyd Duff was a great player and a master teacher, but he was also an extraordinary and unforgettable person. He was a man of great personal warmth and unfailing good cheer who touched the lives of students around the world through his generosity of spirit – generous with a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and expertise, generous with praise, and generous with his support and encouragement.
Through personal example, he taught his students so much more than simply how and when to hit a drum. This great man imparted a love of the music, a sense of uncompromising integrity about the craft, respect for colleagues, and an enduring fascination for something as fleeting and ephemeral as the glorious sound that the timpani can produce.