Timpani, or kettledrums, belong to the group of percussion instruments known as membranophones, in which sound is produced by the vibration of a stretched membrane or skin.
Timpani consist of a large bowl, usually made of copper, over which is stretched a drumhead of calfskin or plastic. Sound is produced by striking the head with mallets. Pitch is determined by the tension of the head and diameter of the bowl. To this end timpani come in various sizes. In addition, the drumhead may be slackened or tightened in order to alter the pitch of the note produced. On earlier models, pitch could be altered by tightening or loosening the screws around the drum holding the membrane in place; on today’s mechanised instruments tuning may be affected by means of a foot pedal, an innovation which greatly enhanced the timpani’s versatility. This ability to produce notes of definite pitch, allied with its wide dynamic range, renders the timpani among the most indispensable of the orchestra’s percussion instruments.
Tone can be varied by altering the striking position (in the centre of the head, close to or on the rim, on the bowl); changing the weight and density of the mallets (soft, medium or hard); and muting the sound produced by covering the head with a section of cloth.
Baroque and Classical orchestras typically included two timpani, tuned in fourths so as to emphasise the tonic and dominant at cadential points in the music.
However it was Beethoven who assigned a more soloistic function to the timpani, freeing them from their hitherto purely rhythmic function.
Haydn’s opening timpani roll on E flat in his Symphony No.103 gave the work its name (‘Drum Roll’). Beethoven launches his Violin Concerto with solo notes from the timpani, and later extended the intervallic range to which timpani were tuned beyond fourths and fifths, employing octaves in his Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Berlioz is one of numerous composers to utilise the timpani to great dramatic effect, memorably in ‘March to the Scaffold’ from Symphonie Fantastique.
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