Monday, 11 January 2016

"The timpani and percussion instruments in 19th-century Italy".

Because I´ve been a very good boy during this last year, the Three Wise Men brought me as a present the book "The timpani and percussion instruments in 19th-century Italy", written by Renato Meucci, translated into English by Michael Quinn and edited by Banda Turca.

© Banda Turca

As you already know, I have a sincere interest in timpani parts containing "errors". I have also explained how I deal with them and my interest in historical instruments and historically informed performance. Because of it, reading this book has been a real treat.

This is a 92 pages delicacy which you will devour in no time... Its size is very handy (so you can carry it on your stick bag for reference), paperbacked, printed on quality paper and uses a very appealing type, making for a very nice reading.

Already on the preface, the author gives us some tasty pills (the italian orchestra and its components as "singers" who play their instruments the same way as a singer would use his/her voice -thus the endurance of three stringed basses, concertmasters conducting from their desk, "peculiar" flutes and clarinets, performance practices in the percussion section already obsolete north of the Alps...-), and what follows is a vast amount of very detailed information, documented with many footnotes

So, there´s a chapter dedicated to timpani, the different models built at that time (I already mentioned some of them and also cited Antonio Boracchi on "Editing timpani parts" I, II and III ), performance practices, notation (which also entails technique, with things like striking one drum with both hands simultaneously or press rolls) and "wrong notes".

Another chapter deals with the Banda Turca, and reveals many interesting issues, like the very improvisatory and open character of the parts, the "ad líbitum" orchestration of the section, the concept behind sistri (which makes me suspect some editions requesting "sistro" may well be wrong) and the inherent flexibility of the percussion forces when it comes to augment or diminish them depending on the available musicians at the theatre playing those works.

The author then explains single instruments in detail: the snare drum, the tenor drum (which, even then, was regularly mistaken and, like I explained on "The tenor drum: the great unknown", it is still the case nowadays), the bass drum, cymbals (making clear that what we now think was the norm -playing "alla turca"- was not regular practice nor an accepted one by composers/conductors), the triangle, the bell lyra, the jingle Johnny, the tam-tam and the glass harmonica (who can now convince flautists that their big solo in the mad scene in "Lucia the Lammermoor"  was not written for them, but originally intended for this exotic instrument!).

The book is completed with an appendix, a vast and very detailed bibiliography and very interesting illustrations.

The only objection I find in this book is that it doesn´t clarify something I´m really interested in: how Italian timpanists dealt with "wrong notes"... Other authors like Blades ("Percussion instruments and their history") and Pfundt ("Die Pauken") make clear that it was common practice to change them. Notes were amended in the United Kingdom and Germany, and I´m conviced Italy was not an exception (I was lucky to have lessons with David Searcy -La Scala- and have talked with Riccardo Muti about this issue, and both confirm it was common practice). I´m convinced Italian timpanists changed "wrong notes" (they had the knowledge and the instruments), but the author doesn´t dig deep and leaves me with the feeling of wanting to know more. 

I´m also not convinced about the chapter on the tam-tam, which is very short and doesn´t clarify much (specially with regard to the measurements of the instruments of that period).

Despite these two tiny spots, the book is magnificent, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in enriching his/her percusive vocabulary, whether he/she is going to apply these ideas to his/her day to day orchestral work or not. Definitely, this book will be a great influence on my future musical decisions when it comes to playing Italian repertory form the 19th century.

You can buy it online on at the equivalent of 26 Swiss Francs. If I were you, I would buy it now.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

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