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Instruments of Mass Seduction IV

Part IV: Percussion

Other than the human voice, the drum is the oldest of all musical instruments. Since the earliest man struck a log with a stick, the percussive sound has been an accompaniment to the natural rhythms of life. There is something elemental about the unpitched meter of ancient instruments and primitive tribes of today still use the sound of drums to punctuate rites of initiation into manhood, the hunt and the exodus to the spirit world. The very structure of the ear itself is centered around the tympanic membrane or ear drum. Ancient armies went into battle to the sound of drums and steady drumbeats were used to control the working of slaves. In medieval times detachments of drummers were employed by kings and noblemen to motivate and direct troops in battle. In his Art of War (1521), Niccolo Machiavelli discusses the importance of drums as a signaling device, their clear sound penetrating the confusion of the conflict. Side drums were used for infantry maneuvers while some German cavalry employed the pauken, or kettledrums. In the seventeenth century a set system of military commands was standardized by the army of Louis XIV, with trumpet (or fife) and drum signals including March, Retrait, Troupe, Battalion and Come to Colors. A vestige of this system still exists today and marching bands of high schools and universities use their percussion interludes to alert the ensemble to marching maneuvers such as stepping in place and parade rest. Borrowing ancient rhythms from the Greek parados and exodus of the chorus in a play, armies began to develop their own distinctive metrical patterns and, when melody was attached, created the first marches. Early marches had three functions: the slow march was reserved for parades, the quick march for maneuvers and the double quick for attack. In the wars of the eighteenth century, such as the American Revolution, the fife and drum corps was an integral part of the battle and the "Spirit of '76" is not just an artist's conception of heroism but an actual element of a formal style of hostilities.

Although drums were used in medieval ensembles and Elizabethan theatre bands they were not part of the early orchestras of the Baroque until composers like Handel began to use marches in operatic contexts. In the Music for the Royal Fireworks, Handel employs tympani and drums for flourishes indicating the regally ceremonial nature of the event. Drums (and trumpets) were relegated to the quickly developing military band and did not enter the Classical orchestra until the Janissary craze of the late eighteenth century. Janissary music came from Turkey and was inspired by the military bands of the Levantine region. Entire Turkish bands were absorbed into European regiments, with such exotic instruments as "jingling johnnies" (bells on poles) and regulated beats on the snare and bass drums. Haydn's "Drum Roll" and "Military" symphonies are examples of this music and there is a very famous passage in the last movement of the Symphony #9 of Beethoven that reflects the Janissary fad of the era. The contemporaneous Napoleonic Wars were orchestrated by both great and minor composers, with battlefield marches written by Gretry, Gossec, Cherubini, Mehul, Suessmayer, Hummel, Haydn and Beethoven (composer of the Yorck'scher Marsch of the British). By the time of Beethoven a standard orchestra would have two tympani tuned to individual pitches and be able to enlist the services of a player familiar with the snare and bass drum as well as a battery of other percussion instruments such as the tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel and cymbals.

Hector Berlioz, a tympanist himself, wrote extensively for the new and exotic instruments. Not satisfied with just two tympani (the singular, hardly ever used, is tympano), Berlioz groups four kettledrums as two pairs in his Symphonie Fantastique, but requires four performers for the thunder effect at the end of the third movement (Scene in the Country). He writes for three of these tuned drums (each with its own performer) in the overture to the opera Benvenuto Cellini and a whopping eight pairs (and ten players) in the Tuba Mirum section of his Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem). Brahms followed Beethoven's example and punctuated some of his most intense melodies (such as the very opening of the Symphony #1 or the powerful hymn in the second movement of A German Requiem) with strident tympani strokes, but only felt the need for a third timp once (the Scherzo of the Symphony #4). Drums were standard equipment at the opera house (like bells and harps they were not always available in a symphonic orchestra but were fixtures at the theater) and the Italians of the nineteenth century did not hesitate to use them. Rossini's La Gazza Ladra begins with two side drum rolls, one on each end of the orchestra platform (when this overture is played at the beginning of a concert in Britain, invariably audience members begin to stand, thinking that it is their national anthem) and Verdi uses the tympani in the memorable storms from both Rigoletto and Otello. Although not an extensive user of the percussion section as a whole, Wagner was the first composer to write melodically for the tympani, using the pitches of the instrument to introduce motifs in his Ring cycle and beginning his extremely frightening introduction to Act II of Siegfried (in which the boy will be instructed on the nature of fear) with a foreboding tympani solo. Interest in Native American music flowered at the turn of the twentieth century and drum chants can be found in the music of Dvorak ("New World" Symphony), Coleridge-Taylor (The Song of Hiawatha), Herbert (Natoma), MacDowell (From an Indian Lodge), Busoni (Indian Diary) and Honegger (Le Chant de Nigamon).

The twentieth century has been the golden age of percussion music. Gustav Mahler wrote extensively for tympani and drums in his symphonies. The third movement of his Symphony #2 begins with a motto for tympani, two quick notes followed by the same notes played slower and with more space between them. This introduction emphasizes the staccato nature of the movement as a whole and anticipates the jerky rhythms of the third movement (Schattenhaft-like a shadow) of the Symphony #7, a work which features very complex writing for the percussion section in its first movement and which begins its fifth movement with an extended solo for tympani. In the Symphony #3 Mahler writes a long passage for snare and bass drums alone emphasizing the march that is the huge first movement. Dmitri Shostakovich writes memorable tympani parts in his Symphony #5 and memorably recreates the sound of Nazi bullets with drums in his "Leningrad" Symphony (#7). Many composers used drums to suggest the horrors of war including Alban Berg (Three Pieces for Orchestra, Wozzeck), Carl Nielsen (Symphony #5) and Benjamin Britten (Billy Budd). Igor Stravinsky was a master of percussion color, employing complex rhythms for the tympani in his ballet The Rite of Spring and evoking the world of the Russian fair in the ballet Petroushchka by composing interludes for drum ensemble that heighten the listener's excitement in the way that a little boy would feel when first exposed to this magical world. Stravinsky also includes a poignant coloristic master stroke when he writes in the score for the tambourine player to hold his instrument horizontally over the floor and to drop it when the puppet-hero's neck is broken. Bela Bartok, who rightly thought of the piano as a percussion instrument, composed some of the most affecting drum music of all in his Piano Concerto #1, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and Concerto for Orchestra, whose second movement, The Game of the Pairs, begins and ends with the snare drum. Ravel's Bolero demands over twelve minutes of steady strokes from the snare drum as does the Shostakovich "Leningrad".

Music written just for percussion is also a twentieth century innovation. Edgard Varese wrote his Ionisation in 1931 for three bass drums, two side drums, two snare drums, tarole (a snare drum with no snares), two bongos, tambourine, tambour militaire and a host of other non-drum percussion instruments as well as the lion's roar, the composer's invention which consists of a bass drum with a hole in it through which a rope is pulled, thus imitating the sound of the wild beast. American composers Henry Cowell, John Cage and Lou Harrison wrote for percussion ensemble, often with homemade instruments. Olivier Messiaen was inspired by the percussion orchestras of Bali to write much of the material of his ”Turangalila” Symphony and Britten, after a visit to the island, wrote for percussion gamelan in his operas Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice as well as in the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. Post-Webern music is rife with percussion compositions, including Steve Reich's Drumming, Yannis Xenakis' Okho and From Me Flows What You Call Time for percussion and orchestra by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.

The tympani is the major instrument of the drum family. A pair of timps is tuned to the tonic and dominant of the individual piece with the lower note (larger drum) on the left in American orchestras, although this is often reversed in other countries. The instrument is a metal vat covered with a calfskin (now increasingly plastic) head which can be altered in pitch by means of a number of screws placed around the circular stretched top. This system of tuning was time-consuming so earlier composers needed to build in long rest periods for the tympanist to accomplish his modulations. The invention of the pedal for tuning facilitated the process immeasurably and a twentieth century instrumentalist can retune very quickly, although they still must place their ear almost directly on top of the head in order to hear the pitch (especially when the orchestra is continuing to play at a high volume). The pedal also allows the tympanist to perform an impressive glissando, the most famous of which appears in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. A peculiar phenomenon of the tympani is that an individual drum may have a different pitch when played pianissimo than when played fortissimo, a frustrating conundrum in the solo from the Shostakovich Symphony #5, where the same figure is played first loudly and then echoed softly. The type of stick has a major effect on the instrument's sound. Sponge-headed mallets of the nineteenth century have been replaced by fluffy felt and produce the standard sound, but wooden-headed sticks were also common in the nineteenth century and there even exists a mallet with felt on one end and wood on the other. One of the signature sounds of an early music performance of a Beethoven symphony is the much stronger pauken sound of the wooden mallet on the calf's skin (here a modern plastic head would be susceptible to damage by the hard stick). In Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra there is a fine example of an entire tune played on these regal instruments. The principal timp player is an orchestral aristocrat, enthroned on his high platform and never deigning to participate in other percussive effects, forcing harried orchestra managers to sometimes hire a performer for just one cymbal crash or triangle ring. Second or third timps are recruited from the general percussion pool. The bass drum can be played from a horizontal or a vertical position, again with a variety of sticks. The bass drum has no standard pitch and composers like Bartok, trying to achieve a more primitive sound, love to replace the more sophisticated timp with its untuned, barbaric sonority. Sometimes cymbals are mounted on the top of the bass drum to produce either a Janissary sound or the unique timbre of the Italian street band (the most famous example being in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci). The snare drum is the concert version of a marching drum played with hard sticks. The snares are wires strung on the bottom of the drum and the sound of the instrument can be regulated by tightening or loosening the snares. A crisp military sound is achieved by snares at full tightness while a more somber sound comes from looser snares. Muffled drums are used in funerary music, usually by putting a damper pad on the head, but more visually and aurally impressive if the drums are actually covered in black cloth. The arcane world of the press roll, flam and paradiddle (the so-called "rudiments" of the snare drum) is evoked in the Nielsen Symphony #5 as the drummer is told to improvise wildly on these rhythmic exercises to suggest the scourge of war.

Most percussionists are not known as individuals to the general public but in recent years the proliferation of drum music has created several notable ensembles such as Canada's Nexus, Denmark's Safri Duo and England's Ensemble Bash. However, one remarkable woman has become justly famous. Evelyn Glennie was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and began study at the Royal Academy in London in 1982. She quickly displayed her mastery of all percussion instruments from anvil to Zyldian cymbal and won a Grammy in 1988 for her work on the recording of Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Sir George Solti and Murray Perahia. She was voted Woman of the Decade in 1990. Ms. Glennie, who also plays the Highland Bagpipes, has had over twenty concerti written for her unique talents including City Adventures by Geoffrey Burgon, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra by Joseph Schwantner and Veni, veni, Emmanuel by James MacMillan. She has become a celebrity on British television, has written many pieces for TV, and collaborated with Bjork on the pop song My Spine. Particularly adept at the difficult fast mallet instruments like the marimba and xylophone, she tunes her tympani by feeling the vibrations that the heads make when struck. In fact her autobiography is entitled Good Vibrations. Incidentally, Evelyn Glennie is deaf.

Drums have affected man viscerally since Paleolithic times. They are the principal vehicles for rhythm in the orchestra and supply more than their share of tonal color and primordial drive. The interest in drumming is growing as the Western world discovers the rich music of Asia and Africa and it seems logical to speculate that drums will play an even larger part in the serious music of the new millenium.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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