The Amsterdam School of Timpani

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has always been blessed with excellent timpanists. The Dutch [Amsterdam] style of timpani playing is renowned worldwide for its beautiful sound and impressive style.
Like with the great European orchestras, the Wiener and Berliner Philharmoniker, the Royal Concertgebouw timpanists have always used timpani with natural heads. The traditional use of these heads has had its influence on the development of the Amsterdam sound and technique. One of the famous timpanists in the history of the Concertgebouw was my teacher Jan Labordus.

img66The instruments Jan Labordus and Gerard Schoonenberg played in the Concertgebouw Hall, and on tour, all over the world, are a rare breed of timpani. A pair of unique pedal timpani made by former Concertgebouw timpanist Hans Schnellar around 1905, flanked by a Schnellar rotary piccolo drum [all Schnellars differ from today’s systems by having the kettle pushed up instead of the rim pulled down and having just one hoop with clasps]. As flanking instruments he used, like his predecessors a 26″ and 29″ brass Van der Hoek machine drum , built by the Amsterdam maker Van der Hoek. The sound of these drums and of the players have always had a important influence on the sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

This style of playing is focused on achieving a round tonal quality combined with a clear focused timpani sound. The use of soft mallets with a bamboo stick and a very flexible movement in fingers, wrists and arms is the secret of this technique. Rather realizing a clear sound through a light and high playing technique and by focusing in hand and fingers than taking hard mallets and loosing part of the total sound of the kettledrum, this technique differs quite from the German and Austrian way of playing. A fine technique is nessecary but seen as a means to create music not as an ultimate goal in itself.

The grip

Although the Amsterdam style has a similarity to the German style in the use of mallets it is based on a totally different movement and technique. The Amsterdam school uses a grip where the stick lies against or above the lower joint of the forefinger, with the thumb underneath. The result is an optimal rebound of the mallet that is reflected in the fingers, wrist and the arm. In this grip the mallet will make an angle with a horizontal hand and arm of app. 75 degrees and has a perfect starting point to begin a beat.

One of the major problems for a timpanist is to achieve a prominent, distinctive sound and the right timing, because the basic colour of the drum is dark and the position of the timpani is at the back of the orchestra. A choice has to be made and in general the first choice and often a conductors suggestion, will be that of a hard mallet. The result is a loss of tone [pitch] and an augmentation of the drum sound, more surface sound, less kettle, enhancing the drum side of the timpano. In Amsterdam we opt for a very clear pitch, thus enhancing the bass character of the drum based on the perspective that a clear pitch will project the presence of the timpani.
We combine this choice of colour with a very active playing, [a lot of speed in the movement] ,which will have a positive affect on the timing.
Of course there is a lot of repertoire that demands various hard mallets, to blend with the colour of the music.

The Amsterdam sound of timpani playing is just a fundamental starting point, an idea of how the timpani can fulfill their role in the demands of today’s orchestral music to the fullest, based on strong traditions, yes, but that is what symphonic music is all about. There is much more to it than I can explain in these few lines. Listen to the old [and new] Concertgebouw recordings, where Jan Labordus as an exponent of this style, is exhibiting his artistry, and judge for yourselves.