In England there had been little change in orchestral percussion since Handel's day until the revival in British music towards the end of the nineteenth century. With Elgar and his contemporaries the activity of the past was renewed. It is obvious that percussion fascinated Elgar: rarely extravagant, he made full use of the instruments at his disposal, and created some unique effects, such as the tremolo on the small gong (tam-tam piccolo) in E flat in 'Dawn' Part I of The Apostles (1903). In this same work as an accompaniment to the singing of the morning psalm, Elgar calls for a tuned cymbal (cimbale antico) on the note C
Later, there is part for the keyed glockenspiel, obviously to illustrate the weighing of the thirty pieces of silver. He made equally attractive use of the more usual percussion instruments engaging them frequently to supply local colour, dramatic and otherwise. In the Wand of Youth Suite No. 2 (1907) there is the scurry of the wild bears portrayed on the xylophone (and what a scurry! - one of the busiest two bars in the instrument's repertoire). By contrast we have the tremolo on the tambourine in imitation of the chain around the neck of the more patient creature, the tame bear. The glockenspiel typifies the pealing of 'little bells', the effect of small bells being intensified by the use of occasional strokes on a tubular bell. The harness on the horse drawing the cab through London streets is clearly portrayed in Cockaigne (1901) by the jingles (schellen).
In addition to the majesty of the kettledrums in the Enigma Variations (1899) there is the gentle colour of the triangle, with its grace note
depicting the tinkle of the medal on the collar of the great bulldog Dan as he gives himself a shake after his glorious plunge into the Wye (opening of Var. II). Elgar also knew how to harness his forces on the occasion of a great moment, such as the combination of four kettledrums (played by individual performers if available), bass drum, side drum, cymbals and tam-tam (fffz with a wooden beater) at the moment the Lord appears to Gerontius (The Dream of Gerontius 1902).
No composer before or since has shown greater care and forethought than Elgar in the assembling of his 'drum parts', especially in preparing the way for the timpanist. With the exception of the use of four drums in The Dream of Gerontius Elgar confines himself to the normal three symphonic timpani. In compass, he employs e.g. the low E flat (Caractacus (1898) and Gerontius) and the high G (Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 (1907)). Elgar was most precise in his directions regarding tunings. At the start of every movement the required notes are indicated, e.g.
Every change of pitch is given and ample time to effect the change (Elgar never asked for machine drums). He was also careful to notify the change at the first convenient moment, allowing the drumhead maximum time to settle. Though earlier composers had given similar directions for tuning, few were as precise over this matter as Elgar. In general, he preferred the full round tone of the timpani produced by the normal felt sticks. His requests for other types were not numerous, the more notable occasions being The Dream of Gerontius (mit dem Griff), Variation 13 of Enigma Variations (with side drum sticks), The Apostles (wooden sticks) and Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 (with the stick). In The Dream of Gerontius there occurs a smart change from soft to hard ends which Elgar ensures by his use of mit dem Griff. Here, the normal felt-headed sticks are used in one bar and reversed for the following bar. (Mit dem Griff: 'with the handle' is a rare direction in orchestral scores, though it is frequently adopted by players.)
In Variation 13 of Enigma occurs one of the few occasions where Elgar presented the timpanist with a problem, i.e. the execution of a roll with side drum sticks (solo) followed immediately bv a rhythmic figure to be played naturale. To follow Elgar's instructions would not be impossible. For example, recourse could be had to side drum sticks with heads of felt affixed to the butt ends, and the sticks reversed at the appropriate moment. Even so, the combination of side drum sticks and timpani sticks would have been even less commendable to the timpanists of Elgar's day than to the players of to-day. Elgar's request for side drum sticks for this particular tremolo may have been prompted by a desire for an unusual roll to give the impression of the pulse of ship's engines, the drum's purpose being at this point to illustrate this mechanism. It is well known that this tremolo is rarely played with side drum sticks: instead, two coins are normally used. Of this, Thomas F. Dunhill says: '. . . a mysterious roll on one of the tympani, in the score, to be made by side-drum sticks, but actually played with two coins held tightly between the finger and thumb of each hand by the drummer. This device was invented by that superb tympanist Charles Henderson, who was in Richter's orchestra at the time, and it is now generally adopted.' Professor Kirby, in a conversation with the present author, related the circumstances surrounding the first rehearsal of the work, as given to him by the timpanist. Charles Henderson said that after he had played the passage with side drum sticks, Elgar commented that he did not like it. Henderson then used coins, at which Elgar said: 'Good! How is it done?' Henderson replied: 'Sir, if you will give me two gold coins I will show you!' Whether Henderson at this early rehearsal was confronted by the immediate change from side drum sticks to naturale is open to question, for the original score in Elgar's hand which was used by Richter who conducted the first public performance of the work, at St. James's Hall, London, 19th June 1899, does not call for a change from side drum sticks to naturale as do following editions. In the original score the direction naturale occurs only at the end of the movement, preparing the normal timpani sticks for the finale. Possibly the request for the change of tone colour was discussed at rehearsal with Henderson demonstrating to the composer the various possibilities. Unfortunately no reference can be made to the particular score from which current editions are taken, the manuscript having been lost.
Elgar, in portraying the character of his intimate friends makes cunning use of the timpani in Variation 7 'Troyte'. Here, the stirring pattern on three drums so adroitly arranged as to present no problem in execution, is heightened by the use of contrasting dynamics. The motif typifies in a bantering manner the attempts of Elgar's friend Troyte Griffiths to play the pianoforte.
Much has been written for three (or more) drums since Elgar committed this frolic to paper. Troyte, however, remains an example of superb writing for the timpani.