This post is about the timpani pieces I’ve listened to, including some brief impressions. This list includes the solo pieces, and also some ensemble/chamber and orchestral pieces where there are some interesting timpani segments.
Elliot Carter – Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (one player) (1950, 1966)
With all the inventive and innovative use of the extended techniques, this collection of eight pieces was a great introduction to the capabilities of the timpani. The first piece, Saeta, is named after a flamenco-type vocal song. Indeed, many parts with their accelerating notes, like the opening, and the changing time signatures, show the influence of flamenco. Some parts also use the back of the stick instead of the head. Because of the instrument’s timbre, it sounds to me as a kind of religious procession. Indeed, Saeta song is said to be the descendant of the ceremony, during which an arrow – saeta was shot into the sky to release rain. In a certain part, before the recapitulation, timpani reminds of the sound of raindrops a bit.
Second piece is the fast-paced Moto perpetuo, with phrases constantly changing accentuation, creating an almost a “sustained sound rapidly flickering in color.” (Schiff, 148) The third piece, Adagio was particularly interesting to me, because of the use of pedals to create many effects I could never imagine on timpani – vibrato, harmonics, glissandos and simpathetic vibrations. The fourth piece, Recitative combines “a dramatic tremolo, a bolero rhythm and an irregular heart-murmur pulse.” (Schiff, 149) After the piece Improvisation, which depicts the title well, is the Canto. Just like Adagio, it also uses the pedalling, however, here it is constant, which makes the timbre of timpani quite unique, and the melody is quite chromatic.
Panultimate piece, Canaries, refer to a baroque dance imported from the men of the Canary Islands. This piece introduced me to the idea of temporal circle of modulation – something I haven’t heard about before. For example, the dotted crochet is first equal to 90, then 120, 180, 270 and finally returns to 90. I plan to do more research about this in the future. This is how Carter himself explains some of the metric changes in this piece:
“The left hand maintains a regular beat, not participating in the modulations, playing the low notes B and E at the slow speed of MM 64, while the right hand, on F and C sharp, goes through a whole series of metric modulations, which imperceptibly increase the playing speed. Beginning in the same speed as the left hand (MM 64 for the dotted quarter note), the right hand substitutes, as of the second bar, quarter notes for dotted quarter notes (MM 96). In the third bar, these quarter notes are accentuated by two, then change into triplets (MM 144). At the double bar, the notation changes in such a way that the quarter note in triplet in the previous measure now equals a quarter note, which then goes through exactly the same acceleration as in the previous three measures. We have thus gone from MM 64 to MM 216. In the twelfth measure, the process is repeated once more. The quarter note has arrived at MM 324, with a left hand, henceforth noted in sixty-fourth notes, which continues its beat at 64.”
Finally, my favorite was the last piece, March. While in Canaries I’ve already seen some contrapuntal parts, I was especially surprised by how successfully they were executed here. It sounds as if the two drum players are at war, but still remains the most melodious of the eight pieces to me, and many also note its humorous/satirical side.
John Beck – Sonata for Timpani (1969, pub. 1971)
I really liked Beck’s sonata. The first movement is mysterious and dark. From bar 21, there is the sound of hitting the side bowl of timpani mixed into the gloomy atmosphere. The jazz-like second movement also combines the clapping of the hands – it’s nice to have seen that notated, because it wouldn’t have occured to me that this was possible. Even more stricking is the wailing part with some really fast notes before returning back to the first theme. In the fast third movement, the use of pedals and glissando was exciting, but what caught my attention was the interesting trasition towards the repetition of the first theme.
David Maves – Sonata (1979)
This piece is written for six timpani, performed by a single performer. Listening to the first movement, the dramatic Espressivo molto, I was surprised by the coloring of the timpani. Although, I’ve already seen many of the techniques in the previous pieces I’ve looked at, I really like how Maves executed them here. The second, Presto movement is also interesting, but what occupied my interest the most is its overall form, which includes the well thought-out transitions that connect its contrasting meters and musical ideas. In the final movement, Lento, the motives from both previous movements appear again, this time transformed, also including some interesting parts where the fingers are used.
Georg Friedrich Handel – Saul (1738)
Saul is my favorite oratorio by Handel, and for the longest time now, its famous Dead March in Act Three has been my favorite piece. What increased its effectiveness is the use of great kettledrums borrowed from the Tower of London – an octave lower than the common timpani. Of course, besides the Dead march, these kettledrums are used throughout the oratorio. I like how in some parts, the low range of timpani and trombones, the latter of which was also a novelty, is mixed with the high range of the flute. Handel also employed another exotic instrument – glockenspiel. More about Handel’s use of glockenspiel in Saul, read my post here.