Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Editing timpani parts (II)

Continuing on the issue we previously discussed, I´d like to show you my version of the “Sanctus”, from Verdi´s “Requiem”.

I recommend listenig through full range speakers so the bass end can be clearly perceived.

To better follow the music, this free and legal link allows you to download the score:

This other link contains the compared parts:
The peculiarity in the “Sanctus” is that we are dealing with an eight part fugue for double choir (something similar to those I had to write in Venetian style when I was a counterpoint student). Because of this, the static character of the timpani part doesn´t match in a form where the independence of the lines and melodic construction are crucial.

Verdi writes C and F constanly but, if you analize the chord sequence (have a look at the score), you´ll see that, due to the frantic harmonic rhythm, those notes don´t match and, when they do, they produce a weird sensation, as they produce a first or second inversion feeling.

In the first entrance, I double bassoons, bass trombone, oficleide, basses in choir II and double basses. I also take a lower dinamic level to clarify the contrapuctual texture:

I decided to add the accents so as to phrase like the brass does (see that I´m not accenting those lows F´s: I´m trying to taper the phrase down).

For the next beat, I used the same criteria: to double bassoons, bass trombone, oficleide, basses in choir II and double basses.

Those notes circled in red don´t have an accent because, in the first case, they are the ending of the previous phrase (remember the previous cell started with a half note rest and an upbeat consisting of two quarter notes). In the second case, because I´m trying to taper the phrase down.

The same criteria is used for the next entrance:

I substitute the roll for a quarter note, as no one else plays that same figure. It also interferes with the phrasing in the brass:

The problem with this edition is a concept one. As you should remember from my previous post in the blog, one of the main things to take into account when modifying parts was to respect the character, meaning and concept of the work in our hands... Does my edition respect the character of the “Sanctus”?

I must recognize that, maybe, I have taken my modifications quite far. This work is not the waltz from “Die Rosenkavalier” (R. Strauss) or the “Intrada” in Janacek´s “Glagolitic Mass”. The problem is, as I previously explained, the frantic harmonic (and agogic) rhythm: if I was Verdi, I wouldn´t have writen timpani part for this movement.

As I explained in my previous post, composers, due to the intrinsic limitations of timpani writing at that time, had two options when the two available notes didn´t match the context: writing obvious wrong notes, or muting the timpani... The part by Verdi (Euterpe forgive me!) sounds really bad, what takes me to the following question: What is more disturbing for an educated ear, a part whith obvious wrong notes, or a part with maybe many notes?

To my ear, the original part is not satisfactory at all. Maybe my edition is not satisfactory for being excesive, but the notes are correct. I would have opted for not writing timpani part in this number, but Verdi did it, so the “tacet” option is unviable... Something has to be played! So, if something has to be played, I prefer my version, even knowing this part calls too much attention to itself (other reason for lowering the dynamic levels was to make the part a little bit more discreet). I apologize for been such an iconoclast but, in my modest opinion, the part writen by Verdi is not musically satisfactory. 

Verdi by Giovanni Boldini

The “Sanctus” doesn´t admit half-measures:  if we are going for changes, they have to be dramatic. Playing the original part (in this case) doesn´t convince me at all. The ideal situation would be to edit without clouding the musical line, not calling too much attention to the timpani part, not getting caught in the pedaling fun... In this case, my editing work contradicts these fundamental ideas (apart from implying some kind of “show off”) but, I don´t think it´s worth making subtle changes (in this case) which imply still playing wrong notes: we must change everything or nothing.  

What is more disturbing to the global carácter of the “Requiem”?

a)      Wrong notes
b)      Timpani doubling the oficleide part

In my modest opinion, option a) is the most disturbing one.

What´s your opinion on this subject? I´d love to know it.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés


  1. This topic came up during a University orchestra rehearsal today. We're playing Massanet's Scenes Pittoresques, and the timpani part in the fourth movement often plays A and D despite Bb and Eb chords orchestrated (if I remember correctly). While I've been aware of this topic for a long time, there isn't a whole lot of comprehensive material like you've written here. Thanks for these articles; I'll be passing these on to our conductor, as he requested I find material about this sort of stuff.

    If you know of anything book-wise that compiles and analyzes repertoire like you've done here, I'd really appreciate information. John Tafoya has a book out about interpretations of articulation and dynamics, but without much about editing pitches.


    Kyle McCoy - krm8919@sru.edu

  2. Dear Kyle.

    Thank you very much for your comment.

    I´m sending you an email.

    All the best!

    David Valdés.

  3. It's great that you've gone to all this trouble, but I have to say that Verdi's writing for timpani is not only far superior to your own (which isn't very idiomatic), but also far more appropriate in a performance of... Verdi! It's very inventive of you. May I suggest that you write your own Requiem and show more respect to the one which Verdi bothered to write. Finally, consonance is not "correct," and dissonance is not "wrong." Dissonance is a question of scale, and Verdi was certainly aware of musical theory. Farmiliarise yourself with the excellent "dissonances" in the timpani writing of Beethoven, for example. I agree that you could change the odd note in Verdi (and I have done so myself), but if he was happy to write that note, and if it's not one of the really embarrasing ones, then why not consider playing that note? In my opinion, although I believe he did have machine drums available in certain theatres, he purposefully wanted to avoid too much chromatic writing, so that his timpani parts sound like timpani parts, not bass trombone parts.

  4. I really appreciate you have spent some time not only reading my blog, but also making a comment. Having said that, I would have appreciated it not being so paternalistic and condescending. I like to consider myself not as a mere "timpani banger": I have studied harmony, theory, counterpoint and fugue. Despite I being not worth one of Verdi´s pinkies, I can assure I know my stuff. Honestly, I don´t want to refute your points in this tiny "comment space", as mine are quite clear (and deeply reasoned) in those three extensive articles I wrote (and which are only a tiny part of the process I undertook to make the decisions I made at that moment). You like it? Fantastic! You don´t? Fantastic too! We sometimes forget musicians are not mere "players", but "interpreters" (that´s how latin based languages -like Spanish and Italian- name performers). That´s what I did at that moment: to interpret the part (not only to read it). I was happy, and the conductor was uber-happy. So, what´s the problem? Is Verdi revolving in his tomb? DON´T THINK SO... Don´t worry: should you were the conductor, I would play what´s written. Should I had to play this piece again (under you or not, who knows?), my approach would vary depending on the context and, why not? Stick to the ink and, why not? be happy playing literally. So, please don´t treat me as if I was fiddling around with the part at random, not knowing what to do, as it´s not the case, and don´t ask for respect when you are treating me with arrogance and, for what I see, you seem to not have read the whole thing. I like reviews if they contribute to make my playing better but, to be honest, this is not the case with yours. Any constructive criticism is more than welcome; any non-constructive one will be simply ignored. Just one last thing: I don´t like anonymity.

  5. Thank you for replying to my post. I apologise, but I must respectfully remain anonymous. May I say that I have the utmost respect for your right as a performer and as a musician to interpret any work as you see fit. May I also say that I believe there is a good case for editing things that don't seem to fit. I also believe that the timpani are a special case, for the reasons discussed in your article. If I went to a performance of Otello and the timpanist wrote their own part I think I'd thoroughly enjoy it. Especially if it was the late great David Searcy! It's just that to my taste though I would certainly try to correct a misprint or a copyists error, the case for "improving" on a composers' part is a lot more difficult to accept. If a composer writes an accent in the trumpets and not in the timpani there is probably a reason. I find it more fulfilling trying to get behind what the composer meant than just playing what I think he/she should've written. There is plenty of room for interpretation, but based on understanding and respect (not for me please, I don't care. For the composer)!! I hope I am being constructive. I certainly don't think that there's a right and wrong in this instance.

  6. I think people tend, sometimes, to interpret a tought as an absolute, and I think that´s what happens with this series of three articles. I have been told by people who have read them that I´m a "pedal juggler", just based in those there essays. There´s a saying in Spain that goes something like "kill a dog and you´ll be named dogs killer". People tend to judge the whole by a part. What I did whith that Requiem, is something intended for that very specific occasion. That doesn´t mean I´m always messing around changing notes. I´d be more than happy if I had to stick to the ink in a future performance. The funny thing is that it was David Searcy who inspired me to edit the part the way I did. I also think there´s a reason for everything: if the trumpets have an accent and timpani don´t, that reason can be an orchestration one, a balance/dynamics one, a missprint one... As an interpreter, my duty is to find out the reason behind all the notes I´m playing. If I think I don´t have an accent the trumpets do due to a missprint, I´ll play it for sure. To a lesser extent, we are also interpreters with the classic repertory: many, many times we get a printed eighth note when our colleagues in the trumpets section are playing halfs (for instance). Should we stick to the print? Don´t think so. As an open ear musician, I like to match the instruments I´m doubling. Should I take editing further in the classic repertory? I, for instance, profoundly dislike the timpani parts of the Beethoven symphonies "arranged" by Maazel. Looking for "unidiomatic" in a dictionary, you´ll find a photo of them next to the definition. I do belive those editions are unrespectful... All my edition was done with the outmost respect, and I think it was done respectfully because I used all my knowledge (vast or limited is something I leave to others to judge) to get to reasoned conclusions. I agree with you: interpretation must be made on understanding and respect (that´s mentioned in the articles), and that´s what I modestly did with my edition. And yes, you are absolutely right: there´s no right or wrong in this instance. I think this is where the beauty of Art and Music resides: it can be interpreted in many different and wonderful ways (also in horrid ones!). Please, don´t missunderstand my point: just because I edited the part in that way for that very specific performance, doesn´t mean I´m trying to "improve" every single part that gets to my music stand. Yes, you´ve been constructive with your comment, which I deeply appreciate: thanks very much for that. Just one last thing... Don´t be shy! ;-)

  7. Gracias David! I've enjoyed these articles greatly, as a Timpanist myself, and tend to agree with your justifications and reasoning 100 percent. I believe one should have an open mind when interpreting parts, especially Timpani parts. Verdi is indeed a Master and should be given all the respect you have given him, as do I, but one must always consider the limitations of the instruments at the time. One must also be aware of editions and copyists, even those as authentic as from the time of the composers themselves. Many, many many discrepancies exist. Look at how many different editions of Beethoven there are! So adding notes, rhythms, accents or rests where they would or could exist is, in my opinion, our JOB as interpreters. I personally love dissonances and maintain them whenever I truly conclude that they were the composer's intention. It often takes a great deal of research. After all, it is integrity we are trying to preserve.
    I have written many of my own parts over time, but am curious as to what resources you have come across with timpani parts or even other articles that may shed some additional light. (Similar to Kyle's inquiry above) Opera, in particular is a beast of a subject!

    Thank you for your diligent work on this very involved topic! I hope to read more and to hear from you soon.

    -Ben (paysen@eden.rutgers.edu)

  8. Dear Ben.

    Thank you very much for reading my blog and taking some of your time to write a comment.

    To be honest, I haven´t found many articles regarding timpani edition. My main inspiration was David Searcy, with whom I took some lessons while at the Royal Academy of Music. During one of those lessons he handed me (at also the other students) a booklet he prepared containing information regarding notes changes, editing, and his views concerning this issue. That booklet, together with a deep analysis of the score is what led me to this edition.

    Thanks very much for reading the blog.

    Best regards.

    David Valdés.