Symphonic percussion joins forces with ethnic drums in the modern Hybrid Orchestra.
Classical musicians of yesteryear used to refer jokingly to the percussion section as ‘the kitchen department’. This highbrow take on today’s ‘three musicians and a drummer’ joke likened percussion to the noisy clatter of pots and pans, a view I doubt Evelyn Glennie would share. Unsurprisingly, the BBC’s ‘Orchestras and Singers — Guide to the Orchestra’ archived web page perpetuates this old-fashioned attitude, adding the off-colour aside, “What is a percussion instrument? Well, in the simplest terms it’s something you hit that isn’t your brother or sister!” Other descriptions from the same source include: “The piano was originally used in the orchestra to add strength to weak bits of music,” and “The xylophone is made of bits of wood that are tuned to different notes.” Dumbing down, or what?
Thankfully, despite such outdated stereotyping, percussion has thrown off its chains, broken out of the imaginary ‘kitchen’ and now occupies its own suite in the palatial mansion of modern orchestral music. In this article we’ll explore the role of traditional symphonic percussion and explore how it’s been supplemented by non-Western instruments in film and TV soundtracks.
The principal orchestral percussion instrument is the timpani, a large, resonant, thin-shelled metal drum made in various sizes which plays in the bass register and can be tuned according to the needs of the music. The drum evolved from 12th-entury military ‘kettledrums’ to become the aristocracy’s cavalry signalling instruments, thereafter rising even higher up the social scale to symbolise the power of the crown: players were regarded as equal in rank to officers and dressed in the same way as knights (no kitchen duties there, then).
Timpani were originally tuned manually with rim lugs in the manner of tom toms and snare drums, but a design breakthrough in the 1870s enabled players to set pitch with a pedal attachment, which also made comedic glissando effects possible. Nowadays, it’s common to find sets of four timpani on the orchestral stage, though some compositions call for more. The standard timp diameters are 32, 29, 26 and 23 inches, with pitch rising as size decreases; each drum has a range of roughly a sixth and can quickly be tuned to any note within that span, thus allowing composers to write melodic timpani figures in any key.
Its deep, clear pitch places the timpani in the unique position of being both a bass and a percussion instrument.
In the words of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Principal Timpanist Andy ‘Thumper’ Smith, “The modern timpani bridges the gap between the double bass section and the percussion section”. This vital contribution to the overall sound has led some to say that the timpanist is, after the leader, probably the most important member of the orchestra. You can see Mr. Smith demonstrating (but not...
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