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Instrument Of The Week

Instrument Of The Week



Since time immemorial, humans have used percussion instruments to accompany their music, dances and rituals. In the West, percussion in the orchestra gradually evolved and grew over time into a powerful section of the group, with an imposing range of tools and roles at its disposal. In recent times, non-Western percussion has further expanded that variety and served as an inspiration for many composers.


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The kettledrum seems to be the grandfather of percussive instruments in Western music; it probably arrived in Europe in the 12th or 13th century via the Middle East with crusaders. In early times, as a drum of war, it was often used to add bass to the brilliant treble of the trumpets. In a later age, it occupied a privileged place in the music of royal processions and courts, in the religious compositions of Bach and Handel, and in the opera orchestra of Lully--its first known scoring. But the kettledrum really came into its own during the Romantic period, when it was recognized as a proper instrument. The works of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and especially Berlioz bear witness to this new status. In Beethoven, the kettledrum served to control the rhythm of the orchestra, to impose order, or to break away into solo rhythms. Brahms, meanwhile, focused on the colour of sounds: his writing for the kettledrum worked around the harmony and chords, serving, for example, as a support to soloists in the orchestra.

In essence, the makeup of the percussion section reflected the evolving trends of each era. Haydn and Mozart made occasional use of certain idiophones (bells, rattles, snare drums). But Beethoven applied bass drums, crash cymbals and triangles more precisely; in The Battle of Victoria (1813), for example, he developed the spatial use of percussion by dividing the group into two sections placed on either side of the orchestra.

Drums to the fore

Starting in the mid-19th century, the role of percussion evolved more quickly, and by the last third of the 20th century percussion instruments were a major part of the orchestra. Their impact since Berlioz has been immense. It was he who first created a percussive orchestra within the larger symphonic orchestra. In most of his works, he wrote for two timpanists to play at least eight kettledrums. In his Requiem (1837), Berlioz used eight timpanists to play 16 kettledrums. Symphonie Fantastique (1830) went even further, bringing crash and ride cymbals, large bass drums, tenor drums, kettledrums and church clocks into the orchestra.

Aside from Berlioz, percussion was embraced most enthusiastically outside of France, especially by Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia) and Manuel de Falla (Spain). Snare drums, tenor drums, crash and ride cymbals, castanets, tambourines, tubular bells, xylophones and glockenspiels are now all a part of the percussion section. This newly expanded group represents a major development in the 20th century orchestra. Its range is demonstrated by the sonic colours and textures found in such works as Debussy's La Mer, or Strauss's Don Quixote and Alpine Symphony; membership even reaches such extremes as in the Parade of Satie (1913), in which the percussion includes sound effects such as sirens, pistol shots, and a typewriter.

Thus, by the early years of the 20th century, the percussion section had been enlarged and amplified thanks to an increasing interest in rhythm. It was no longer limited to adding rhythmic accents and exotic flourishes in the background. Where once percussion was defined by the need for a certain touch at a certain point in time, it next found itself used to create impressionist textures and render more complex, obscure sonorities. The Viennese were especially keen to explore new percussive ideas, superimposing figures like tremolos and trills as a way to reach new poetic images (e.g. the third of Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10, and the first of Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6).

Other factors at the start of the 20th century influenced this creative context. Noise as a part of the environment served as an inspiration for new sonic landscapes, and percussion emerged as the ideal means of evoking them. Knowledge of non-European music was also on the rise, and interest in more driving rhythms opened up a new dimension for composition involving percussion. The foundations of this new music were found in Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók and especially Varèse. These composers placed new importance on the role of percussion in the orchestra: in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, for example, the percussion players played in the foreground for the entire piece. At the same time, the rise of Latin dance music in the 1930s spread knowledge about new percussion instruments, which would eventually be added to the orchestra's arsenal.

The Americans arrive

During the First World War, Europe discovered American jazz. This new form of music made a great impression on composers like Stravinsky, Milhaud and Ravel. The jazz drum set introduced a completely new style of percussion: drums and cymbals of various timbres played at the same time by a single musician. In the symphonic orchestra, percussionists had been limited to a single instrument. By 1945, a more general approach to percussion replaced this single-instrument specialization. The change was made possible worldwide by the opening of percussion courses as part of conservatory training, allowing percussion to be recognized as a formal musical discipline. By training players to be skilled at all percussion instruments, these schools allowed "multiple percussion" to see the light of day.

This idea had already been explored by the likes of Varèse, whose Ionization in 1930 represented the first orchestral piece created entirely for percussion, with 13 musicians playing 37 instruments, some of them borrowed from jazz and Latin American music. This work set the precedent for repertoires based solely on ensemble or solo percussion. John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Carlos Chávez were some of the composers that built upon the work of Varèse. They developed percussive colours, textures and rhythms to a high level of complexity.

In writing Ionization, Varèse was the first to focus on the behaviour of raw sonic material. But this musical approach would take several more years to come into its own as composition based on the material itself, i.e. where the timbre of basic materials initiated the music, not a coded language in the form of sets of scales. The sound of the instrument became the primary reference point for composers.

For several centuries, the percussion section has continued to expand in size and complexity. Over the course of the 20th century, instruments from around the world enriched the roles it could play, and the list of works devoted to it grows ever longer. As much as wind and string instruments, percussion is now an integral part of the modern orchestra.

Rollins Percussion Ensemble Plays A Super Mario Medley Part 1

Sburban Jungle - Eisenhower High School percussion Ensemble @ CWU 2012

Rollins Percussion Ensemble Plays A Super Mario Medley Part2

A Short History of Orchestral Percussion. http:// November 5, 2003.  October 19, 2012 <>

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