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The Importance Of Drums in Classical Music

Dec 25, 2007
The warp and woof of music are rhythm and melody, and the drums are the rhythm instruments par excellence. It is easier to recognize a song by its rhythm without melody than it is by its melody without rhythm, which shows what a basic part of music is rhythm.

Primitive music is more rhythm than it is melody, Some of this primitive music is tremendously expressive. Melody could add very little to the foreboding pulsations of the African war drums.

In fact, melody would detract more than it would add. There is something in the constantly recurring rhythmical beat of the drums which pulsates in the blood. There is something in the incessant and ominous boom of the drums which pounds in the brain.

Melody would relieve the tension, would break the spell. But the dread rhythm of the war drums, beating in the ears, booming in the brain, speaks a terrible message which could be spoken in no other way.

If it be a dirge, how little is melody missed when the drums begin their lament! With a rhythm peculiarly expressive of grief and sorrow, the drums beat out a mournful elegy which asks nothing of either words or melody.

By contrast, what can be gayer than the castanets and tambourines of Spain or the bongas and maracas of Cuba? The quickened rhythm, the joyous accents of these instruments sing a song of gaiety and happiness which melody could scarcely supplement.

What can the melody of the bugle add to the stirring rattle of the military drum, sounding assembly or commanding a charge? The weird, the mysterious, the terrible all can be portrayed with tremendous drama and reality by bare rhythm without melody.

It is no wonder that all peoples, from the most primitive and barbarous to the most educated and cultured, have been lovers of the drum and other percussion instruments.

In earliest history we learn that the Egyptians, Assyrians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans all used instruments corresponding to our kettledrums, tenor drums, tambourines and cymbals. Of these, the most important soon came to be the kettledrums.

In early Europe they were used not only in military affairs, but in the court of Edward I as musical instruments. Later, in 1347, when Edward III celebrated his triumphal march into Calais, kettledrums helped make the music.

Chaucer often speaks of the "nakers" in his Canterbury Tales, and nakers is an Arabic word meaning "kettledrums." In a carving in Worcester Cathedral, believed to have been done in 1396, a pair of kettledrums is shown strapped to the waist of a player, one on each side.

These were small kettledrums, similar to those brought by the Moors into Spain and carried by the Crusaders from Arabia, but larger-size kettles were developed by the Germans, which are practically like our modern tympani. Henry VIII introduced these larger kettledrums into England in the first half of the sixteenth century.

The German historian of music, Virdung, writing in 1511, describes the kettledrums of his day. He even draws some pictures of them which look much like the modern kettledrums. About a hundred years later, Praetorius, another German historian of music, talks about the kettledrums; and so does the Frenchman Mersennus, writing in 1627.

These ancient kettledrums were hemispherical and had skin heads stretched across the top by hoops which were held in place and tightened by adjusting screws around the rim.

Kettledrums graduated from the army and the military band into the orchestra during the time of Lully and were used commonly by him and other French composers of the seventeenth century.

As early as 1713 kettledrums had become popular in Germany, for Johann Mattheson, of Hamburg, composer and musical authority, writing of the musical instruments of his day, says that kettledrums were often used in both church and opera.

These he says were used in pairs and were tuned a fourth apart, a practice which existed for many years. Handel knew about kettledrums, using them in his "Water Music." Bach also used them, as did Haydn and Mozart and all the other great masters who came later.

These early kettledrums, or tympani, as they are now called, were hand tuned and were pitched in C and G, the tonic and dominant of the key in which the music was written.

The large kettle was tuned to the G below the C, while the small kettle was tuned to the C, making them a fourth apart. The reason for this inversion was the limitations of the instruments.

If the tonic had been given to the large kettle and the dominant to the small kettle, the dominant would generally have been higher than the small kettle's compass. Therefore, the tonic was given to the small kettle, and the dominant an octave below was given to the large kettle.

Kettledrums were treated mostly as military instruments, for they were hardly ever allowed to play except with the trumpets, in marches, overtures and other such music. This is only another example of following custom.

Trumpeters and kettledrummers used to accompany royalty wherever it went and were used to signify rank, much as rank is signified today by cannons, a certain number for each rank.

Later, when trumpets were admitted to the orchestra, the kettledrums naturally followed; also, when the trumpets played, the early composers thought it appropriate that the kettledrums play, too.

It was Beethoven who freed the tympani from these shackles, not only those imposed by the custom of pairing the kettledrums with the trumpets, but also the universal tuning to G and C, a fourth apart.

In his First Symphony in 1800, Beethoven startled the tympani player and the audience by having the tympani play a sort of bass part to a melody of violins and flutes. Seven years later, in his Fourth Symphony, he elects the tympani to the great honor of stating a theme of two notes which was repeated by the other instruments.

The following year, in his great Fifth Symphony, the same symphony in which the piccolo, trombone and contrabassoon all make their debut in the symphony, Beethoven causes the tympani to make their debut as a solo instrument, creating for the tympani a solo effect in the scherzo movement.

In 1814, in his Eighth Symphony, he tries still another innovation by having the tympani play in unison with the bassoons. By this time the fatal tie between the Siamese twins had been broken and the tympani was no longer restricted to duets with the trumpet.
About the Author
Malcolm Blake is devoted to music, modern and classical. He aims to help people learning to play guitar and trying to learn tricky guitar chords.
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