Goat Skin


‘I have experimented with skins of dog, sheep and calf. I have found dog and sheep skins to be lacking harmonically; goatskin is stronger and more harmonic, but a little harsh; the most preferable skin is that of premature calves because it is more harmonic. It is, however, very sensitive to atmospheric variations; this creates an inconvenience of no little importance. Added to this is that it is difficult to find [and] are rarely suitable because of their insufficient size. Because of these problems, the best skin is goatskin.[1] - Carlo A. Boracchi, extract from his timpani method published in Italy in 1842.

It should be said that the use of goat skin is relatively rare, however three timpanists I spoke with while writing this paper were from the three cities which have a strong tradition of using goat skin and a particular make of timpani, that of Hans Schnellar, who was at the end of the 19th century timpanist in the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zürich, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, before holding the same position with the Vienna Philharmonic for almost 40 years. All three of these orchestras continue with the tradition of timpani sound and performance style which Schnellar bought to their cities. Since Schnellar played with these three orchestras, their timpanists have continued the tradition of playing on goat skin stretched over deep, egg-shaped kettles, for more than a century. Schnellars influence spread from the Philharmonic throughout the city of Vienna and now timpanists in many orchestras can be seen using his unique design of timpani.

Again it is not just tradition alone which causes the sound of the goat skin to be still heard in these orchestras, but also the uniqueness in both orchestral sound and concert hall acoustics of each ensemble. Dieter Dyk explains : ‘These three cities are very well known because of their famous concert halls! Tonhalle in Zürich, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Musikvereinssaal in Vienna.  For a long time, they were the three best in Europe. Schnellar has been solo-timpanist in all three places. It is a fact, that these three famous orchestras have a very strong tradition, and they are proud of their special warm but not heavy sound, and they keep on with the Schnellar-timpani tradition. As far as I know, the only three in Europe, if not in the world. Somehow we have the same approach to the music.’

The Viennese timpani (as Schnellar’s drums are known, more about them on this page) share an important property with the baroque timpani, an instrument also often found with a goat skin head : their kettles are “free ringing”. This is because of their tuning mechanisms; the baroque with individual hand turned screws, and the Viennese drums where the kettle is pushed upwards onto the skin. In particular the goat skin is well suited to the Viennese timpani; it is sharpened, but thinning is not necessary because, with the smaller diameters of these drums, the tension on each skin is less. [2]

Gerald Fromme – ‘The lips of Hochrainer-bowls don’t hang in a rim, they move up and down while tuning. There are no unnecessary materials like push-rods or other things around the bowls therefore they sounds free and friendly.’

But all of this, the history, the tradition of goat skins aside, why do timpanists choose this skin, what can it do that the calf skin cannot? The timpanists who use goat skin see it as having a warmer sound, which blends more easily with the timbres of the orchestra, but other players have the same opinions about calf. Marinus Komst, solo timpanist with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, thinks that goat skins retain their qualities for a longer period of time than calf skins; the skin does not become thinner and lighter in colour to the point where it is almost see-through around the playing area, as calf is prone to after long periods of use. He says also that the sound of calf skin can be too soft and round for some repertoire.

Dieter Dyk - ‘I prefer goat, because it is more easy to play – the roll for example - it keeps the tuning better, is dryer in our overwhelming acoustic, lives longer, costs less!’

A final point to mention is that the thicker goat skin requires a harder mallet covered with flannel – whereas on calf skins the felt mallet produces the best sounds. A different technique is used to play these drums creating a sound which blends more with the sound of the orchestras who use this type of drum, particularly in the case of the orchestras of Amsterdam, Zürich and Vienna, performing in their unique halls. So everything is interconnected, and one causes the other while being influenced by another.

[1] Carlo A. Boracchi, Manuale pel timpanista, 2nd ed. (Milan 1842) p. 20

[2] Dyk, Dieter  Of Calf Skins, Goat Skins and Other Coincidences p. 4

[3] Thanks to Wiener Pauken Werkstatt for this photo


© Scott Weatherson 2013

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Goat skin from Sonnberg Ziegen Pergamente on WPW timpani [3]