Once known as 'kettledrums' - a term championed for years by plain-English adherents such as Delius and Percy Grainger but now no longer used in polite orchestral circles - the timpani are the only orchestral drums with definite pitch. In constructional terms, each drum comprises a bowl (originally in copper but nowadays often fibre-glass) covered by a taut skin, the tension of which can be adjusted to produce the desired note when struck. At one time, the skin was of calfskin, but plastic skins are more commonly used today. In traditional manual timpani, the tension is varied by adjusting a number of screwed 'taps' around the circumference, while modern pedal timps make use of an ingenious series of levers attached to a pedal to achieve the same goal more rapidly.

Between them, the timpani (usually three in number with diameters ranging from 20 to 30 inches) cover a range of around two octaves; each individual drum has a practical range of roughly a fifth. The normal point of impact is about four inches from the edge; when struck too near the edge the sound can be harsh and brittle, whilst the centre of the drum produces an unsatisfactory note of indeterminate pitch. In classical times, wooden sticks were used. Berlioz was the first composer to specify specific types of stick in his scores: wooden, sponge-headed or leather-covered. Over the years, customs have changed and nowadays players usually use felt-covered sticks of varying softness or wooden sticks (or other devices) when specifically demanded by a composer. Unusual requirements include Elgar's Dream of Gerontius in which the composer asks for the handle of the stick to be used rather than the head. Elgar was, in fact, meticulous in his instructions to timpanists. For the thirteenth of his Enigma Variations, two old pennies are traditionally used instead of sticks, to give an impression of the pulse of a ship's engines. [Some years ago, the writer presented Raymond Lomax, then principal timpanist of the BBC Philharmonic, with a pair of old pennies for  
this specific purpose; they were dated 1899, the year of the work's first performance].

The notation of timpani parts is as delightfully ambiguous and confusing as is the case for most other instruments of the orchestra. In the early days, composers did not even feel it necessary to write out a part for the unfortunate timpanist, requiring him to invent a part for himself as the performance proceeded. In classical times, two timpani was the standard complement, traditionally tuned to the tonic and dominant of the prevailing tonality. Notes were written as C and G on the part, the actual tuning required being indicated at the start of each movement thereby turning the timpani into transposing instruments [see (a)]. But, confusingly, this was not the universal practice: Bach, Mozart and Schubert (but only in his Second Symphony) used this system, but Handel, Haydn and Beethoven did not. They preferred to shown the notes at their actual pitch on the score [b].

A further ambiguity relates to the matter of rolls: the rapid alternate use of two sticks on a single drum to give a virtually continuous sound. Some composers (for example, Mozart) indicate this on the timpani part as a trill [c], despite the fact that for every other instrument such an instruction would require two adjacent notes to be played in rapid succession. But to confuse the issue, other composers (such as Haydn) prefer to show a roll as a sequence of semiquavers, demisemiquavers or even hemidemisemiquavers, often with no consistency even within a single work [d]. Beethoven even managed the rare feat of using both notations within a single prestissimo bar at the end of his Fifth Symphony [e]. Exactly what he had in mind is really anyone's guess. As might be expected, Hector Berlioz (himself a timpanist) left nothing to chance, specifying his requirements in absolute detail [f]. It is also typical of Berlioz that he should hold the record for the greatest number of timpani in a standard repertoire composition: eight pairs of timpani played by ten timpanists in his Grande Messe des morts.

Before the introduction of pedal timpani, composers had to take care to allow a timpanist time to retune if they wished to change key within a movement (timpanists are adept at retuning their drums even while the orchestra is playing at full volume all around them). But where this was inconvenient musically, composers would often accept an out-of-tune timpani stroke rather then having to manage with none at all; where such a situation is encountered today, a pedal timpanist will invariably correct the note without the audience, the orchestra or even the conductor being any the wiser.

A word about the Alderley Edge timpani might be in order to conclude this article. They were manufactured in London around 1920 by Hawkes & Son, a company founded in 1865 by William Henry Hawkes. The company followed a rival course to Boosey & Company, concentrating on band and orchestral music publishing, but also diversifying into the manufacture of instruments, fittings and reeds. A merger of the two companies, to form Boosey & Hawkes, took place in 1930. Although these venerable drums have acquired a few understandable dents over the years, they have regularly been fitted with new skins as required and are now playing as well as when they left the Edmonton factory 90 years ago.

Principal timpani: Rohan Shotton
“I began playing percussion as a seven year-old, largely on the grounds that I was the only one tall enough to be able to use or move the equipment. Since then I have kept up with regular playing in various places, and music has provided many of my happiest experiences.

“The other part of my life is as a student doctor in South Manchester, having also studied in St Andrews. Whilst in Scotland I was lucky to find an enormous number of playing opportunities with various University and public groups, mainly sitting behind the timpani but also in the percussion section. Highlights included Mahler 1 in Dundee, a thrilling Dvorak 9 and a Dream of Gerontius on an utterly packed stage.

“I also took up conducting in St Andrews, mainly with the University Wind Band and assisting with the Symphony Orchestra, having studied with Sian Edwards, a truly wonderful teacher. I currently conduct the Manchester Medical Orchestra.
When not playing I spend a lot of time watching concerts. I have been reviewing concerts for Bachtrack for a couple of years, and in that time have been privileged to cover many excellent events, including Daniel Barenboim ’s Beethoven cycle at the Proms. I mainly review in Manchester and Birmingham, but also get to London quite frequently, and even Norway on one occasion.

“Between playing, conducting and reviewing, I enjoy quite a busy music diary, and I greatly enjoy playing with the Alderley Edge Orchestra.”
Rohan timps.jpg
The Alderley Edge Orchestra
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