History of the Timpani

from La Scene Musicale

Since time immemorial, humans have used percussion instruments to accompany their music, dances and rituals. In the West, percussion in the orchestra gradually evolved and grew over time into a powerful section of the group, with an imposing range of tools and roles at its disposal. In recent times, non-Western percussion has further expanded that variety and served as an inspiration for many composers.

The kettledrum seems to be the grandfather of percussive instruments in Western music; it probably arrived in Europe in the 12th or 13th century via the Middle East with crusaders. In early times, as a drum of war, it was often used to add bass to the brilliant treble of the trumpets. In a later age, it occupied a privileged place in the music of royal processions and courts, in the religious compositions of Bach and Handel, and in the opera orchestra of Lully–its first known scoring. But the kettledrum really came into its own during the Romantic period, when it was recognized as a proper instrument. The works of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and especially Berlioz bear witness to this new status. In Beethoven, the kettledrum served to control the rhythm of the orchestra, to impose order, or to break away into solo rhythms. Brahms, meanwhile, focused on the color of sounds: his writing for the kettledrum worked around the harmony and chords, serving, for example, as a support to soloists in the orchestra.

In essence, the makeup of the percussion section reflected the evolving trends of each era. Haydn and Mozart made occasional use of certain idiophones (bells, rattles, snare drums). But Beethoven applied bass drums, crash cymbals and triangles more precisely; in The Battle of Victoria (1813), for example, he developed the spatial use of percussion by dividing the group into two sections placed on either side of the orchestra.

Starting in the mid-19th century, the role of percussion evolved more quickly, and by the last third of the 20th century percussion instruments were a major part of the orchestra. Their impact since Berlioz has been immense. It was he who first created a percussive orchestra within the larger symphonic orchestra. In most of his works, he wrote for two timpanists to play at least eight kettledrums. In his Requiem (1837), Berlioz used eight timpanists to play 16 kettledrums. Symphonie Fantastique (1830) went even further, bringing crash and ride cymbals, large bass drums, tenor drums, kettledrums and church clocks into the orchestra.

Other factors at the start of the 20th century influenced this creative context. Noise as a part of the environment served as an inspiration for new sonic landscapes, and percussion emerged as the ideal means of evoking them. Knowledge of non-European music was also on the rise, and interest in more driving rhythms opened up a new dimension for composition involving percussion. The foundations of this new music were found in Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók and especially Varèse. These composers placed new importance on the role of percussion in the orchestra: in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, for example, the percussion players played in the foreground for the entire piece. At the same time, the rise of Latin dance music in the 1930s spread knowledge about new percussion instruments, which would eventually be added to the orchestra’s arsenal.

During the First World War, Europe discovered American jazz. This new form of music made a great impression on composers like Stravinsky, Milhaud and Ravel.

The jazz drum set introduced a completely new style of percussion: drums and cymbals of various timbres played at the same time by a single musician. In the symphonic orchestra, percussionists had been limited to a single instrument.

By 1945, a more general approach to percussion replaced this single-instrument specialization. The change was made possible worldwide by the opening of percussion courses as part of conservatory training, allowing percussion to be recognized as a formal musical discipline. By training players to be skilled at all percussion instruments, these schools allowed “multiple percussion” to see the light of day.