A (brief) History of the Timpani


The timpani in the orchestras of Bach and Handel were instruments heavily influenced by the drums used by cavalry timpanists and those played by members of timpani and trumpet guilds. Their sizes were generally no greater than 16" or 17", and the depth of each drum was often roughly equal to its diameter. As the size (and sound) of the symphony orchestra grew throughout the second half of the 19th century - the height of the Romantic period - and on into the 20th century, timpani sizes increased accordingly to match this growth. Edmund Bowles in his article '19th Century Developments in the Timpani' writes extensively about the growth of the instrument throughout this period.

Since the middle of the 20th century there has been an increasing demand for the authentic sounds of each musical period, using the correct instruments and also playing techniques of each period, such as was intended by the composers of their time. Terms such as "period instruments" and "historically informed performance” are commonly used when discussing these trends.

The result for the timpanist has been a move away from larger instruments which were designed primarily for the modern orchestra - but often used to play all periods of repertoire - and towards the re-introduction of smaller, older instruments for the older repertoire. Ensembles playing music of the Baroque period, for example, are using small hand-tuned timpani - the largest timpani used by the timpanist of the Orchestra of the 18th Century is only 27" in diameter, compared to 32" in a symphony orchestra.

Wooden timpani sticks, which since Berlioz carried his sponge-headed sticks around Europe with him, had been requested only by composers for special effects, became common again. In many cities and orchestras, Vienna for example, the old traditions were never abandoned and timpanists continue to play on the same instruments which have been in their orchestras for more than a century, instruments which composers such as Mahler and Richard Strauss had distinctly in mind when writing their "modern" music.

In the time of Mozart and Beethoven a certain timpani sound - created by a combination of drum sizes, skins used, and the sticks with which they were played - was known. This sound also came from the need to balance the sound of the drums with the rest of the orchestra, while still meeting the demands of each new composition.

"Playing on smaller drums producing a lower level of dynamics provided a better balance in the smaller-sized baroque and early classical-style orchestras."- Edmund Bowles [1]

Not only did the diameters of the drums increase, but so too did the difference in diameter between each drum in a set; a pair of timpani in the Baroque era may have differed by only 1", but by the later symphonies of Beethoven this difference had increased to 3". Partly this was due to the demands of the repertoire as composers wrote for wider and wider intervals; in the 8th and 9th symphonies of Beethoven the interval of an octave is required (F-f).

This timpani sound changed throughout the early Romantic period : as more wind and brass instruments were added to the orchestra, the size of the string section increased, and the sizes of the timpani also increased in order to maintain balance with the rest of the ensemble. Composers also asked that more notes be available on the timpani at any given point in the music, so the regular pair of timpani became a set of three or maybe four drums. During this time many designs of machine timpani were developed to enable the drums to be retuned to new pitches to accommodate the more chromatic tonality of Romantic music, with varying levels of success or failure.

The operas of Wagner and Strauss made further demands; Wagner often requiring two timpanists playing a pair of drums each. While one plays the other is tunig their drums to be ready for the next change of key. Some of Strauss’s music required the ability to alter the pitch of each drum almost instantaneously - one of the first composers to make full use of pedal timpani. This cycle of adding more instruments to the orchestra, necessitating bigger string sections and an increase in timpani bowl sizes, again to maintain a balance in the ensemble sound, continued into the 20th century. Demands of rapid tuning changes, strange timbral effects and even the varying performance locations of the orchestra meant that pedal mechanisms and the choices of skin became more varied and diverse.

Dieter Dyk : ‘Each period has its own character, and if we want to find out what’s so special about it, we can take the material conditions as a signpost or guide. Independent from acoustic conditions.’

Next I will now look at three important aspects of timpani construction : skins, tuning systems, and kettles. All the timpanists I spoke with have varying opinions about the drums they use in their orchestras and why they use them. What skins produce the sounds and tone colours they prefer? How does the size and shape of each drum affect the sound? What are the benefits of using each style of tuning mechanism?

[1] Dyk, Dieter  Of Calf Skins, Goat Skins and Other Coincidences

[2] Bowles, E.A., “On Using the Proper Timpani in the Performance of Baroque Music” The Percussionist, vol. 17, no. 2 (1980) p. 56

Baroque timpani in the Vienna Instrument Museum

© Scott Weatherson 2015