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Timpani

Timpani, or kettledrums, are percussion musical instruments. A type of drum, they consist of a skin, called a head, stretched over a large hemispherical bowl generally made of copper. Unlike most drums, they have a definite pitch when struck.

Timpani is an Italian plural, the singular of which is timpano. This is rarely used in English, however, as a timpano is typically referred to as simply a drum.

Drums in the same shape as timpani date back to at least the 7th century BC, although the modern instrument is descended from Turkish instruments played by soldiers on horseback around the 13th century. These instruments were probably introduced to Europe in the 15th century.

Timpani are the most common percussion instruments in the orchestra, with most large-scale orchestral pieces since the 19th century using them. They were first introduced into classical music around the beginning of the 17th century. Orchestras today have at least three timpani as a matter of course, although some pieces may require more. It is possible for one player to play five timpani, and some pieces ask for two or more sets of timpani.

Timpani come in a variety of sizes from around 80 cm (32 in) in diameter down to piccolo timpani of 30 cm (12 in) or less. A typical set of three will have sizes of 75 cm (29 in), 66 cm (26 in), and 61 cm (23 in). Each drum in a set of timpani typically has a range of a perfect fifth, though the ranges of the drums overlap. A set of three timpani has a range from the F below the bass clef staff to the top-line bass clef A, although Gustav Mahler asks for the D flat below the bass clef in his Symphony No. 7, and Darius Milhaud asks for the F sharp at the bottom of the treble clef in La création du monde.

The drums are usually struck with a pair of wooden sticks wrapped with felt or leather material. Using different sticks can cause different sounds to be produced; a heavier stick will produce a darker tone, etc. A timpani head can be made of calf hide or of synthetic material (usually mylar). There is no clear consensus on which kind of head sounds better, but hide heads tend to react to changes in atmospheric conditions to a much greater degree.

The tuning of timpani is changed by tightening or loosening the head. On older instruments, this is done by turning screws located around the edge of the head. On modern pedal timpani, however, a pedal mechanism connects to rods which pull the head around the top of the bowl. A less common mechanism connects the tuning screws with a chain, allowing all screws to be tightened or loosened simultaneously with one handle. An even rarer design allows the drum itself to be rotated which changes the tuning.

The pedal mechanism allows the player to tune the instrument while playing, making a glissando possible. One of the first composers to call for a timpani glissando was Carl Nielsen, who used two sets of timpani, both playing glissandi at the same time, in his Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”). Béla Bartók also made extensive use of the timpani glissando.

Although it is not common, there have been concertos written for timpani. The 18th century composer Johann Fischer[?] wrote a symphony for eight timpani and orchestra, which requires the solo timpanist to play eight drums simultaneously. In the year 2000, noted American composer Philip Glass wrote his Concerto Fantasy for two timpanists and orchestra, which has its two soloists playing a total of nine or more timpani.



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