A visit to Wiener Pauken Werkstatt


As a student in Amsterdam 10 years ago the main 'up close and personal' exposure I had to various types of timpani was by listening to the original Hans Schnellar timpani of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, or through my own practice/performance on the drums (primarily Adams Philharmonic Lights) at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.

In January 2013 during a concert tour in Vienna, I had the opportunity to visit the showroom of Wiener Pauken Werkstatt (Viennese Timpani Workshop) or WPW, makers of Viennese timpani in the Schnellar tradition. As a student of the Amsterdam school of timpani playing - in which the Schnellar timpani of the RCO have a pivotal role - it was interesting to see, hear and play on the Viennese Schnellar drums. Through a very informative conversation with WPW managing director Bernd Lanner, I learnt a lot about the traditional Viennese timpani and how the modern design closely follows the traditions of the original Schnellar drums built over 100 years ago. The WPW showroom is a veritable treasure trove of timpani history, displaying some original Schnellar timpani, baroque timpani which were used by orchestras under the direction of Haydn and Mozart, and a Schnellar timpani with a wooden bowl, built in the post-war years when copper was rare – with a surprisingly full and clear sound even with this type of bowl material.

The Viennese timpani have an important place in the development of timpani in the orchestra. The majority of the great composers of the Classical and Romantic eras, from Haydn and Mozart through to Mahler, all lived in Vienna at some point in their careers. These composers would have been well acquainted with the sounds and styles of timpani playing in Vienna. When Mahler was appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he invited Hans Schnellar to come and be his timpanist in that orchestra, but Schnellar declined.

As is common with all Schnellar timpani, the kettles have the traditional egg-shaped design and are 'free-ringing', in that the only points which are in contact with other parts of the timpani is the lip of each kettle and a central clamp at the base, thereby allowing the rest of the kettle to resonate and vibrate freely, as well as being a reflection chamber for the vibrations produced by the skin. The Schnellar tuning system raises and lowers the whole kettle in order to change the tension on the skin, in contrast to other systems where the kettle is stable and the skin is pulled downwards to increase tension.

© Scott Weatherson 2013

Myself with WPW managing director Bernd Lanner in the WPW showroom. [1]

All drums were fitted with goat skin, lapped over the top of the flesh hoop – rather than under as is common with calf skin lapping. Holes drilled through the flesh hoop allow for the attachment of the tuning rods to the central tuning system. This is similar to the clamp system used on some other timpani (and is also available on WPW timpani) in that the tuning rods attach to discrete sections of the flesh hoop, and no counter hoop is used or required. The original Viennese drums had the tuning struts positioned outside the flesh hoop; the modern equivalents from WPW attach the struts to the inside of the flesh hoop, reducing the angular stress and general wear and tear on the hoop. Additionally, while a screw and clamp arrangement was used on older designs of these drums to attach the struts to the flesh hoop, these timpani use a simple hook arrangement to enable the connecting between strut and hoop, called the ‘Belan’ system by WPW.

The WPW timpani have two styles – the 'Classic' and 'Romantic' sets. The size of the ‘Classic’ drums range between approximately 23”-29” (59-73cm) and these drums produced a huge sound, rich and powerful, even with the relatively shallow bowl compared to their ‘Romantic’ counterparts. Both styles feature the traditional master tuning handle which is designed such that a turn of 90º changes the pitch by a whole step. The 'Romantic' timpani also come with a Berlin-style ratchet pedal, so that now even Bartok and other compositions requiring glissandi can be played on Viennese drums! In the picture above the ‘Classic’ series drums are on the lower left, and the middle set of 5 drums is the ‘Romantic’ series.

[1] Thanks to Wiener Pauken Werkstatt for this photo

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