Republic of Lebanon
Wednesday 4th - 10 - 2023



(It.; Fr. timbales; Ger. Pauken)

European kettledrums. The timpani are the most important percussion instruments of the orchestra, mainly because they are capable of producing notes of definite pitch and so can take part in the harmony of a composition. They are tuned precisely, each to a given note, according to the composer's directions in the score, and these notes may be altered as required during the performance of a work (typically for a change of key), by tightening or slackening the drumhead by means of screws or other mechanisms.

To avoid the necessity of playing a wide range of notes on each timpanum (i.e. to avoid too taut or too slack a drumhead) and to confine each instrument to its ideal compass (middle register), a minimum of three drums is required for orchestral purposes. The diameters of the once popular so-called ‘symphonic set of three’ hand-screw drums are approximately 74 cm, 66 cm and 61 cm, covering a compass of an octave and a major 3rd: Eb to Bb; G to d; c to g. Modern pedal timpani range from 81•5 cm to 51 cm, giving a musical range from D to bb. The diameters of a standard pair of timpani are 71 cm and 63•5 cm, covering a range of over an octave. It is not unusual for a timpanist to supplement a standard pair of machine drums with a larger and a smaller hand-screw drum. However, a late 20th-century symphony orchestra may have a set of five or more pedal timpani to accommodate any musical requirements, such as unusually high or low notes or two or more timpanists playing at the same time.

Timpani are played with a pair of drumsticks varying in design and texture according to the work being played, the instructions of the composer and the choice of the performer. To meet the demands of the modern era, a timpanist is equipped with a variety of mallets ranging from those with large ends of soft felt to those with small ends of wood. Increasingly, with the use of plastic heads and the penchant for greater volume of sound, players use harder sticks to increase the necessary ‘bounce’.

In timpani playing alternate beating is the general rule. This is particularly applicable to the roll, which consists of a succession of single strokes of equal power. The speed of the roll is related in part to the tension on the drumhead, a greater speed being required to keep the head vibrating when tensioned to a high note. Conversely, a slower roll is used on large drums with more slack to avoid a ‘belting’ sound. In orchestral performance a pair of timpani is placed side by side, the playing areas adjacent, while three or more drums are placed in an arc. The height and tilt of the drums are adjusted to suit the performer. The majority of Dutch, German, central European and Russian timpanists position the large drum(s) to the right. Most American, British, Italian and French players position the large drum(s) to the left, following the layout of keyboard instruments. Today, with the almost universal use of pedal timpani, the instruments are usually played from a seated position, especially when tuning during a piece is required.


The true introduction of the timpani into the orchestra took place around 1670. Lully made full and interesting use of them in his operas. By the close of the 17th century kettledrums were firmly established as orchestral instruments, their improvisatory role restricted to ceremonial field music. Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Te Deum (c1690) contains a majestic timpani part. Purcell gave them what is considered their first solo passage in the Symphony to Act 4 of his opera The Fairy Queen (1692). He also included the timpani in the Ode for St Cecilia's Day (1692) and The Indian Queen (1695).

In the first decades of the 18th century numerous festive and ceremonial compositions including timpani were written for the French court: for example, Lalande's Symphonies pour les soupez du roy and Mouret's Suite no.1 (c1729). Boyce, Handel and Telemann followed the same tradition in their use of timpani: the parts were chiefly rhythmical, the instruments generally played in consort with trumpets as well as in major choral sections, and there were no changes of pitch during a work. For his oratorios Handel constantly requested (and was granted) the use of the huge artillery train drums, also known as the Tower Drums. Uncommon tunings are found in works by Salieri, whose treatment of the timpani could well have influenced his pupil Beethoven. In his overture to La secchia rapita (1772) Salieri wrote for three drums; in La grotta di Trofonio (1785) he called for two, unusually tuned a diminished 5th apart (C and Gb), and in Tarare (1787) for two a minor 3rd apart. Further unusual tunings are found in F.L. Gassmann's opera Issipile (1758), where a small drum in a is used, and in Sacchini's opera Oedipe à Colone (1786), which is scored for four drums tuned Bb, F, bb, f (an early use of octaves). J.F. Reichardt's ‘Battle’ Symphony (1781) calls for drums in E (a first), G, B and c; his Cantus lugubris in obitum Friderici Magni (1786) features stepwise tuning in G, Ab, c, db and d. Georg Druschetzky wrote several concertos, including some with six and eight timpani, as well as a concert piece for violin and orchestra (‘Ungarica’, 1799) with seven. Mozart, too, made superb use of the timpani, particularly in his operas, where they always serve to underline and enhance the dramatic impact.

Beethoven liberated the timpani from their purely rhythmic function, in which they were wedded to the trumpets, as well as from the conventional tuning in 4ths and 5ths. He not only made use of other, more unusual, intervals, but occasionally called for dramatic solo passages or chords By the 1830s there was a general call for more timpani. Berlioz, among his other innovations in orchestration, began to utilize the timpani's possibilities of dramatic effect. He was tremendously impressed with the orchestral effects in Meyerbeer's Robert le diable and Les Huguenots (1836), the latter including a roll for two timpanists. During the 19th century numerous inventors in almost every country, often working hand-in-hand with mechanics, locksmiths and metalworkers, developed mechanisms for rapidly changing the pitch of a drum. Russian composers also made full use of timpani, often writing very high notes. Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila (1837–42) includes an effective solo for three drums. Rimsky-Korsakov also used a drum tuned to g, in his Russian Easter Festival Overture (1888), while in his opera-ballet Mlada (1889–90) he called for two timpanists, each with three drums, as well as a third player with a piccolo timpano. Tchaikovsky consistently scored for three drums, often with unusual tunings; he occasionally called for four timpani, as in the Polonaise and Waltz in Yevgeny Onegin (1877–8). Stravinsky, who wrote very complex, rhythmically demanding parts for the instrument, required two drummers plus an occasional third in The Rite of Spring (1911–13).

By the early 20th century pedal timpani were in use in virtually all major orchestras. Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony (1914–16) includes a passage for two timpanists, playing a minor 3rd apart and rising chromatically from F and A to d# and f# respectively. Bartók employed the glissando frequently, for example in his Cantata profana (1930), Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937) as well as in his Concerto for Orchestra (1943–5). Roy Harris's Symphony no.7 (1952) and Panufnik's Sinfonia sacra (1963) call for glissandos. English composers favoured the deep, resonant quality of big drums; they are used, for example, in Elgar's Sea Pictures (1897–9), Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony (1903–9) and Britten's Peter Grimes (1944–5). Elsewhere, Casella's Italia (1909), Busoni's Rondò arlecchinesco (1915) and Hartmann's Seventh Symphony (1959) call for a low drum tuned to E, while Berg's Wozzeck (1917–22) uses timpani in C and D. In rare cases timpani bassi are requested. Stokowski, in his arrangement of Bach's Komm, süsser Tod, wrote a drum in C and in the Toccata and Fugue for one in D Composers also began to call for unusual tone colours and special effects.

Challenging parts for the timpani are found in Tippett's First Symphony (1944–5) and King Priam (1962), Copland's Third Symphony (1944–6) and Carter's Concerto for Orchestra (1968–9). Works for unaccompanied timpani include Daniel Jones's Sonata for three unaccompanied kettledrums (1947), Carter's Eight Pieces for Four Timpani/Recitative and Improvisation (1950–66), Ridout's Sonatina for timpani (1967) and Graham Whettam's Suite for four timpani (1982). Concertos for timpani and orchestra include Donatoni's Concertino for strings, brass and timpani (1952), with effects such as hitting the centre of the drumhead.

Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

"Timpani" Teachers:

  • Anna Kokenyessy
  • Christopher Michael
  • Garabet Nerces
  • Ibrahim Jaber
  • Mia Ionica Popescu
  • Szymon Pawel Urbanszyk

Page created at: 25-05-2015

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