New Information

from Rodney Newton
former Timpanist - English National Opera - London - UK

Whereas it is known that Charles Henderson played the timpani at the first performance of Engima, he was never a member of the Hallé Orchestra (you can check this for yourself on the Hallé's website where there is an amazing, complete archive of orchestral lists going back to Sir Charles Hallé's second season) and, at the time of the Enigma first performance, Willem Gezink was in the Hallé's timpani 'chair' (he was my teacher's teacher!). Therefore the orchestra at the first perfomance (in London) was unlikely to have been the Hallé. It was more likely to have been the Queen's Hall Orchestra of which, I think, Henderson was timpanist before leaving to become a founder member of the LSO in 1904.

During the latter quarter of the 19th century Hans Richter gave a series of concerts at St. James's Hall, Piccadilly, London (now long gone) for which an orchestra was contracted for him by the Philharmonic Society of London (a bit like the freelance film session orchestras of today). Although the membership would be 'floating', the orchestra would have included the best players available, of which Charles Henderson was certainly one. The concert on 19 June 1899 at which Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme was first performed included a Dvorák overture, Mozart's 'Prague' symphony and the final scene of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, for which, of course, two timpanists would be needed, but we know that Henderson played solo timpani in Enigma Variations.

There are, of course, two spots in Var VIII where a quick change of stick (or 'striking implement') is necessary (rehearsal figures 58 and 61) and this may have been the reason for Henderson adopting his 'coin' method. It is, of course, perfectly possible to grip both coins and sticks together (I've done it myself, although I found it a little awkward, which is why I tried other solutions), but at the first performance it would have been perfectly possible for 'timp II' to play the soft stick entries while 'timp I' busied himself with his coins. One story has Elgar asking Henderson how he was producing the sound, to which the timpanist is said to have replied, 'Sir, if you will give me two gold coins I will tell you!'


Some Tips on Interpreting Elgar's Enigma Variations

by Andrew P. Simco
former Principal Timpani - Oslo Philharmonic

The "Enigma" Variations (or "Variations on an Original Theme", opus 36) by Sir Edward Elgar is generally considered to be the composition that made Elgar's reputation as a composer of note. There is no doubt that it is the most often played of his orchestral works, particularly in the United States, where much of his musical output remains largely unknown. In addition to being one of his most often-played compositions, it is one of the works that is both challenging and musically rewarding for timpanists.

In this article, I will not concentrate on the entire composition, but will confine myself to two of the most well-known "problem" variations. By "problem variations", I mean those that provide the timpanist with more than the just the usual technical and/or musical challenge.

For most of the composition, Elgar presents no really insurmountable problems. The work is scored comfortably for three timpani. At the time it was written (ca. 1898-99), in Great Britain this meant hand-tuned timpani. Although pedal or machine-tuned timpani were being developed and manufactured on the Continent, British players were leery of such instruments, as they felt that any type of machine-tuning apparatus would interfere with the pure tone provided by hand-tuned timpani. This feeling persisted in Britain right up until the mid to late 1950s.

Nowadays, we have the luxury of larger drum sizes for projection, as well as the use of a fourth drum to cover the upper register (in the case of the Variations, the high g in Variation VII ("Troyte"). As this variation is one of the two "problem" variations, we will discuss it first.

Variation VII (Troyte)

For those of you unfamiliar with the "Enigma" Variations, the work consists of an introduction and 14 variations. Each of the variations is subtitled with the initials of a person. These are the initials of Elgar's friends, whom he portrayed in the music, and to whom he dedicated the work. Variation Number One, for example, is subtitled C.A.E. This is Elgar's wife, Caroline Alice Elgar. Variation 14 is subtitled E.D.U., which was Mrs. Elgar's nickname for the composer. Variation VII is subtitled Troyte. Troyte was the middle name of one Elgar's friends, Arthur Troyte Griffith. The variation describes in musical terms Troyte Griffith's maladroit attempts to play the piano. The variation is marked Presto, (76 = whole note), and is marked one in a bar! Timpani, accompanied by celli and bassi, start the whole thing off with a rhythmic figure on C, G, & g , and this figure (with some rhythmic displacement) underpins the entire variation:

While the bass and celli continue the rhythmic underpinning at bar 5, the timpani remain silent until four bars before Rehearsal 24, where they catch the syncopation:

Here, the timpani make a diminuendo on the second half of the third bar, and then repeat the opening rhythmic ostinato at Rehearsal 24, this time with a big crescendo to triple forte.

This recurs throughout the movement, and while not overly difficult, it is musically challenging for several reasons. First and foremost, Elgar was a first-rate orchestrator with hands-on knowledge of many of the orchestral instruments. In addition to being an excellent organist and violinist, he also played viola and bassoon. He was also curious by nature, and when he found that he was lacking in knowledge about a particular instrument, he went right to the source. In the case of the "Enigma" Variations, he went straight to the timpanist of the Hallé Orchestra! This was the orchestra that gave the world premiere of the "Enigma" Variations under the direction of Hans Richter in June 1899. As we shall see later on, the timpanist was extremely helpful to Elgar in providing solutions to some problems. As a result of the care he took in orchestration, Elgar's timpani parts are a joy to play, with everything laid out beautifully. There are no tricks (for the most part, an exception is Variation 13, which we will discuss below). The parts usually lay within the best part of the register of each drum (particularly nowadays when we have the larger instruments), and what is most important they fit the music like a glove!

In the case of Variation VII, Elgar was particular as to how he placed the accents so that the music made the intended effect:

I mentioned above that Elgar's timpani parts fit his music like a glove. This is another reason why this particular variation is musically challenging! Great care must be taken to be absolutely precise, and to be aware of what the celli and bassi are doing. The problem here is keeping up the pace. It is very easy to rush this movement. A good conductor is helpful here as he sets the tempo and generally keeps things in order. However, the placement of the timpani toward the rear of the orchestra (often at a great distance from the celli and bassi) makes it difficult for the timpanist and lower strings to coordinate this perfectly. The timpanist has to anticipate things a bit (generally speaking), while the lower strings often tend to be a little bit late, particularly with an athletically rhythmic figure such as this is. My advice to the timpanist (particularly one new to the piece) is to take particular care to study the score and be aware of what is going on. As I said earlier, a good conductor, if he has his wits about him, can make this movement go smoothly with the right amount of rehearsal and coordination.

As to the technical aspects of this variation, it is played on the upper three drums. In most cases, that would mean the 28 inch, 25 inch, and 23 inch, depending on their manufacture. I know that the low G and C sound better on the largest drums, but why create more problems for yourself by having the low G on the 32 inch, the C on the 28 inch, and having to hop over the 25 inch to get to the 23 inch g? What I do is to prepare the drums during the previous variation. Up until that point, I have been using the larger drums for the G, C, d, and what have you. At the beginning of Variation VI (Ysobel), I retune the 25 inch drum from d to C and actually play Variation VI on that drum. The roll on the note C at Rehearsal 22 is helpful in getting ready for Variation VII. I also use the time to retune the C on the 28 inch drum to G. In this manner, I am ready for Variation VII.

With regard to mallet selection, I would choose medium hard to hard mallets, as articulation is extremely important here. As far as sticking goes, it is played hand to hand, and the player must be careful to observe the accents and dynamics! With regard to the roll on the C at Rehearsal 28, I would play that as a three stroke roll, as the tempo of the movement is so fast that it does not allow for more than that. The important thing to remember is, don't be late!

Variation XIII (Romanza) (***)

This is the penultimate variation in the work, and the only one without a name. Elgar calls it "Romanza", and then puts three asterisks in parentheses. Apparently, these asterisks might stand for one Lady Mary Lygon, a friend of Elgar who was away on a sea journey at the time of composition. Elgar's orchestration in this variation certainly supports this, particularly in his use of the timpani. I mentioned earlier that Elgar was very clear in his instructions to the performer for the execution of his parts, with very few exceptions. This, in my view, is one of the exceptions. In order to imitate the sounds of the engines of an ocean liner, Elgar directs the timpanist to play the passage at one bar after Rehearsal 56 with side drum sticks:

This is all right in itself, but as the music continues, we come to Rehearsal 58, where he directs the player to use natural sticks, but without giving the player a chance to make the change:

One solution to this is to use a pair of double-ended timpani mallets, where one end has wooden ball or egg-shaped ends, and the other is covered with medium to medium hard felt. I used a pair of Hinger mallets in this fashion quite successfully on several occasions. However, in performing the work under the direction of the noted British conductor and Elgar specialist Vernon Handley, it was brought to my attention that the sound of the double-ended sticks, or even the snare drum sticks that Elgar specified in the score would be much too loud for the passage. It so happens that after the printing of the orchestral parts Elgar was very anxious that the proper effect be obtained for this passage and went up to the timpanist of the Hallé Orchestra, Wilhelm Gezink. The Hallé Orchestra gave the world premiere of the work, and naturally Gezink was the one responsible for obtaining the proper effect. He agreed with Elgar that perhaps the sticks would be too heavy, and suggested that coins be used instead, near the edge of the timpani head. At the time, the half crown was used, and apparently produced the effect that the composer was after. But this leaves the player with even more of a problem: How does one put the coins down and switch to the "naturale" mallets at Rehearsal 58?

[DAT] The Norwegian one krone coin pictured on the left is nearly an exact match with an American nickel in size ($0.05). The Norwegian 50 ore (1/2 krone) coin pictured on the right is nearly an exact match (it is slightly thicker) with an American penny in size ($0.01). [end comment]

Many players solve this by playing the passage with coins themselves, and having a colleague from the percussion section come over to play the passage from Rehearsal 58 to 59. This is perfectly legitimate, and works very well. A variation on this is to have the timpanist allow his colleague to do the tremolo with coins while playing the naturale passage himself. I have tried the passage with sticks and coins, and agree that the coins near the edge are quite the thing to use here. It gives the eerie feeling of a ship's engines and underlies the clarinet quotation from Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" four bars after Rehearsal 56 perfectly. I use very small coins myself. The new Norwegian half crowns are small and thin enough; perhaps the American dime would work well also. I know of a colleague who actually plays the passage with his fingernails! With regards to switching to the regular mallets at Rehearsal 58, I have played the passage with coins until one bar before 58, where I make a diminuendo on the very last part of the bar, then snatch a mallet from under my arm (where it had been during the entire passage played with coins), then play the naturale section with one mallet. In order not to make too much noise when putting the coins down, I make sure that the surface where I lay them down (usually on the adjacent stick tray) is covered with felt, which absorbs the sound of the coins as they are put down. The problem repeats, although on a smaller scale the bar after Rehearsal 60, when the tremolo recurs on the note G for the last nine bars of the variation.

This is not a problem in itself except for the fact that many conductors like to go right into the finale (Variation XIV) with only the most minute of pauses. Again, what I do, is to play the passage with coins, making the most of the diminuendo on the last bar. I have a mallet to hand to grab quickly for the first offbeat of the next variation, and I play this one-handed until I have safely (and rapidly) disposed of the coins and have grabbed the other mallet. Another way to do this is to have one of the percussionists standing ready to hand you the mallets and take the coins off your hands at the proper moment. Make sure all of this is coordinated with the conductor! There are lots of ways to do the thing and make it work, and it is my hope that whatever way you choose, that it works well for you and adds to your enjoyment of one of the most beautiful and well-written timpani parts of the last 100 years! Enjoy!

Comments and More Alternatives by DAT

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