The function of the timpani in the orchestra

Everyone has their job in the orchestra: Lars Rapp, principal timpanist of the HR Symphony Orchestra, practicing on his instrument.
Image: Tom Wesse

The timpani, the layman thinks, is a subordinate instrument in the ensemble. But the fascination it exerts quickly becomes apparent when you listen to the musician playing it.

When we say about a friend, a politician, if we perhaps even say about the husband: "He really banged on the drum again", that is only a limited compliment. Even among the men and the few women who literally beat the drum, there may be one or two show-offs. Lars Rapp, however, is not one of them. The principal drummer of the HR Symphony Orchestra is a reserved, often smiling, polite person. At the end of an hour and a half conversation, in which he patiently explained his instrument with the soft singsong of his Upper Swabian homeland and conscientiously answered every question, no matter how naive, the 45-year-old thanked him for his interest: “That’s not the case with the timpani frequently."

Eva sleeper

Editor in the "Life" department of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper.

There are people who have little or no knowledge of classical music, but still enjoy listening to it. When they attend a concert, they are impressed by how synchronously the many strings move their bows, how thickly the brass blow out their cheeks, how quickly the flutists move their fingers and yet always hit the right note. However, the eyes seldom stick to the timpani. He often sits quietly behind his instrument in the back row for a long time. When it's his turn, he's usually not granted more than a few bars of action time. In addition, the complexity of the game seems to be reduced compared to that of other instruments. Of course, the same applies here, and maybe even more so than with others because of the volume: the use has to be right. But what exactly is the fascination with orchestral timpani playing?

On the one hand transparency, on the other hand drum roll

The short answer that Lars Rapp has is: "This power, this sonority, this physical play." At the same time, he appreciates the range of his instrument: the sometimes very fine, transparent way of playing on the one hand, and on the other hand the timpani roll, which has already exceeded 30 bars and lasts around two minutes, as with Bruckner, for example. Actually, you only have to listen and watch the father of two to be fascinated by the instrument. It's like a music lesson at school, only much more exciting when Rapp explains how the four pedal timpani are built and how they work that morning in the big band's studio Hessian radio standing in front of him in Frankfurt am Main.

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