Timpani and Percussion

    -- by Jeremy Montagu, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002. 268 pages

Why are orchestra intermissions limited to 20 minutes?
So you don't have to retrain the drummers.

“Drummers don’t get no respect” in many circles. To rectify this, Dr. Montagu has published a book on the history of percussion instruments up through the 20th century. (He includes both membranophones and idiophones in most chapters.) This book and The Flute1 are the inaugural volumes in the new Yale Musical Instrument Series.

Montagu brings many credentials to this exemplary study. He has been a professional timpanist and percussion player for more than fifty years, including stints with the Royal Philharmonic and BBC Orchestras. He was the curator of an important collection of musical instruments, and a lecturer in the Faculty of Music at Oxford University. He also served as secretary of the Ethnomusicology Panel of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Montagu studied under James Blade, whose book on percussion has been the standard reference volume for three decades.2 Montagu states that he does not try to duplicate that earlier study, but to make some corrections and bring in new information.

He begins by briefly examining percussion instruments in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome. From there he turns his attention to the precursor of the timpani, the “kettle drum.”

In the Middle Ages the “kettle drum” traveled from Turkey to Persia to India, and thence to Europe. The bowl-shaped bodies of the drums varied from a few inches to several feet in diameter, depending on the culture and if they were stationary or being carried on horseback or by a person. Over the centuries, timpani grew in size as they moved off horseback into the Western orchestra pit.

The history of other drums is also noted. In the Middle Ages, one musician performed on tabor (drum) and pipe (end-blown fipple flute). In the Renaissance period, two different musicians played this role: the players of the side (snare) drum and fife. Now that the drummer could continually use two hands, the percussion music and playing techniques became more elaborate.

There is an interesting section on court minstrels and early musicians’ guilds. “In Germany the timpanists were members of the trumpet guild and were both protected and restricted by privilege. Only aristocrats of above a certain status were permitted to employ trumpeters [and timpanists], as were only those cities and regiments which had been accorded the rights to do so” (p. 58). Such guild privileges had been extant since at least 1415, and the system lasted about 400 years in Germany. Among other things, the Guild members performed the “flourish” which announced any ceremonial consumption of food or drink, and they provided general accompaniment for royal meals.

In 1649 Praetorius published a musical encyclopedia in Germany, now recognized as the first serious survey of non-European instruments intended for a European audience. It included percussion from various parts of the world (see drawings on this page).3

During the Baroque period, the timpani were the first percussion instruments to be regular members of the orchestra. This happened first in France, then in the rest of western Europe at the time of Bach and Handel.

Timpani were still “indissolubly linked” with trumpets during the Baroque, and as a result could only be used in certain keys (C and D major). Composers in England and France were free to use timpani whenever they wished to do so when composing in suitable keys. In Germany, “the old rules of trumpet privilege still held sway and only those composers writing for nobility and cities with such privilege could write for trumpets and kettledrums” (p. 73).

Chapter 9 gives a good overview of “World Percussion” in general. However, some of the details should be taken with a grain of salt. For one example, the notation of the “standard 12/8 bell pattern” of West Africa begins a quarter-note late (p. 191). For a second example, he accurately describes the large rectangular frame drum, called gome in some parts of Ghana. This is played with the hands while the heel of the player’s foot presses on the drumhead to raise the pitch. He also mentions that “very similar drums, played with the same technique, are found in the Caribbean” (p. 192). But he
neglects to point out the connection that slaves from Africa were taken to the Caribbean where they developed carpentry skills, built those types of frame drums, and the drums were later brought to Africa by sailors. For a third example, he claims that xylophones and sanzas are “almost everywhere”
in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a gross exaggeration.

Consider this chapter to be a good introduction to world percussion (on most counts) for the non-expert.

Some of the book’s most entertaining moments come when Montagu shares his wry personal recollections. About his work as a percussionist in film studios, he writes, “I can recall being asked for sounds that would imitate whales, another to characterize a larcenous spider, and I can remember wandering around the studio hitting everything therein to find something which would effectively represent [the sound of] John the Baptist’s head falling to the ground” (p. 95).4

He goes on to say, “Percussion players, more than most musicians, are at the mercy of the composers’ whim. Whatever funny noise they may have in mind, or more often hovering at the edge of their mental ear, it is we who have to realize it…. Still, we do have more fun than anyone else. We create more new sounds than most people, we are more likely to do things ad lib., and if the worst comes to the worst, we can always drown the rest of the orchestra.”5

The book is abundantly illustrated with 80 photos, figures, transcriptions and diagrams. An index, good bibliography, and four appendices complete the book. Percussionists at all levels, from secondary school students to professionals, will appreciate the author’s exemplary efforts in producing a volume sure to become a classic.

1 See review on p. 23 of this issue.
Percussion Instruments and Their History by James Blades, 1970 (revised 1984), London & Boston: Faber & Faber
3 The illustrations on this page are from Michael Praetorius’ 1649 encyclopedia. Reprinted from Timpani & Percussion by Jeremy Montagu, Yale University Press, 2002. Used by permission.
4 The whale movie was called Orca, the spider was in a Peter Sellers film, and the beheading scene was in the television series Jesus of Nazareth.
Pages 206, 211. I assume that the last phrase means “drown out” the rest of the orchestra in the American dialect, but with some of the musicians I’ve worked with…

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of


Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony