Percussion instruments may be the oldest music makers outside the human voice, but it took some time for Western classical music to embrace them. Even in the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, they were seen as tools for adding a little extra oomph to big moments, or as a way of conjuring up an exotic atmosphere—a novelty, and not much more. But as composers sought new ways to express themselves, percussion came more to the fore, becoming firmly entrenched as not only an essential—and exceedingly exciting—part of the orchestra, but also as a viable participant in chamber and solo repertoire. Enjoy this very cursory glimpse of percussion in classical music, with each thump of a drum or mallet a moment in the history of Keeping Time.
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1. W.A. Mozart – Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Overture – The sound of the Janissary band (military music from Turkey) reached Europe in the mid-18th century, and it didn’t take long for composers to employ its characteristic bass drum, cymbal, and triangle whenever a rousing Ottoman flavor was desired. Ever the maverick, Mozart was more than happy to spearhead this new trend in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which was set in Turkey.
2. Ludwig van Beethoven – Wellington’s Victory: The Battle – Generally dismissed today as one of Beethoven’s lesser compositions, Wellington’s Victory did make spectacular use of percussion as a means of illustrating a battle scene, causing it to be a popular novelty in its day. And to be fair, the composer’s response to critics of the piece is spot on: "What I s%!# is better than anything you could ever think up!"
3. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – Peanuts Gallery: III. Snoopy Does the Samba – In 1990, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was referenced by Charles Schulz in a Peanuts strip, and a few years later she returned the favor with her Peanuts Gallery, for piano and orchestra. A driving samba rhythm on a drum set is used to portray Snoopy, because, like the samba, he is both hot and cool, sophisticated and fun.
4. Mark Duggan – Gamelan Solo: II. Delicate – The gamelan is a traditional Indonesian percussion ensemble, but Duggan drew much of his inspiration for this piece from the landscape of rural Canada, where it was written. In his words, “The intended mood is one of open spaces, simplicity, and elegance… The overall aesthetic is not at all Indonesian but rather, draws from a dramatic, minimalist language.”
5. Joseph Schwantner – Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra: I. Con forza – It’s always fun to hear a concerto performed by the soloist for whom it was written, and that makes this recording of Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto quite special. Percussionist Christopher Lamb displays his mastery of a variety of instruments throughout this colorful work; featured here is the exciting opening movement.
6. Philip Glass – Concerto Fantasy for 2 Timpanists and Orchestra: III. — – Timpanists Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett take center stage in this recording, which features a wind band transcription of the original orchestral version. Glass’s trademark repetition is restrained here, but the music itself certainly isn’t, with this final movement employing a thrilling bombast that gets the adrenaline surging.
9. Evelyn Glennie – Little Prayer – Probably more than any other classical percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie has made a hugely respected name for herself as a soloist, and she has also crossed over into the pop world at times to collaborate with Björk, Béla Fleck, and others. She has been responsible for the commissioning of a wide array of works for percussion, but here we feature a lovely composition of her own for marimba.
10. Georg Druschetzky – Timpani Concerto: II. Andante con variazione – Druschetzky’s several works to feature timpani feel like an anachronism, their light sound and style very firmly set in the Classical Era, but their need for 6-8 timpani predating Berlioz’ grand demands by two generations. The movement included here also has prominent mallet percussion parts, another unusual idea for the day.
11. Hector Berlioz – Grande Messe des Morts: Tuba Mirum – Speaking of Berlioz, it was his Symphonie fantastique and Grande Messe des Morts that changed the game for timpani usage by demanding larger forces than ever seen before. The latter work calls for a whopping sixteen timpani played by ten musicians, a thundering roar that can be heard in the passage here.
12. Kalevi Aho – Symphonic Dances, Hommage a Uuno Klami: IV. Dance of the Winds and Fires – Finnish composer Kalevi Aho is noted for his broad and colorful use of orchestration. His Symphonic Dances is based on an incomplete ballet by Uuno Klami that told of the forging of the Sampo, an artifact from Finnish mythology. The percussion is integral in establishing a fierce, primeval atmosphere.
13. Tan Dun – Water Passion (after St Matthew): Water Cadenza – Tan Dun is certainly not afraid to use non-traditional instrumentation for both symbolic and aesthetic reasons, so it would make sense that he’d choose to use the cyclical nature of water to represent a story of death and resurrection. Whether his Water Passion in actually listenable is a matter of taste, but this cadenza is a chance to dip a toe into this sound world.
14. Steve Reich – Nagoya Marimbas – Steve Reich is another composer whose work is polarizing; the concepts are often quite revolutionary, but it sometimes seems more about the process than the product. This selection is quite enjoyable, however. Reich describes Nagoya Marimbas as having “repeating patterns…one or more beats out of phase, creating a series of two-part unison canons.”
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