The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (242): Nailed it

The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (242): Nailed it


norman lebrecht

November 24, 2020

Best piece ever written for percussion?



  • Alan K says:

    Forget whether it is the best piece ever written for percussion. It is simply magnificent music and Janacek was one of the most original composers in all of Western Art music.

  • marcus says:

    this is a no brainer. the best piece for percussion, by a country mile, is ionisation. Fact.

    • Hilary says:

      Pioneering undoubtedly.
      Many fine (why is there a compulsion to find the ‘best’ ….so inane!) works have followed in its wake, not least Xenakis’s Pleades of which this is one movement :
      Rebonds B for solo perc is pretty pretty much a rite of passage for any percussionist these days as well.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Arguably one of the best fanfares ever.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    Other timpani candidates-
    Le Sacre du Printemps
    Strauss Burlesque
    Berlioz Requiem
    Mahler 2nd

    Suggestions from other SDers? Especially from timpanists?

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Best orchestral timpani part, perhaps; but best work for percussion, really? How about Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, just to get the discussion started?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “Best piece ever written for percussion?” HAHAHAHA
    There are so many things wrong with this statement….
    1) The opening of Janacek’s Sinfonietta (which is a brilliant work written by a composer of genius) is written for BRASS AND TIMPANI – it is not a “percussion” piece.
    2) Look at the personnel listing in the last program you cadged when you went to an orchestral concert – the timpani chair is ALWAYS differentiated from the rest of the percussion section (even though timpani are in fact percussion instruments).
    3) “Best piece ever written for percussion?” Hardly. Varese – Ionisation. Bartok – Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Cirone – 4/4 for Four…. just to name a few.
    4) As for works for orchestra WITH timpani, the Sinfonietta is the “best piece”? Really, Norman? How about Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra? How about Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man? How about Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony? How about Mahler’s First Symphony? How about William Kraft’s Timpani Concerti?
    As an aside, the Sinfonietta is not a particularly difficult timpani part to play – I have played it, and found it to be somewhat easier technically than, say, Beethoven’s 5th or 9th Symphonies. Ask any timpanist!
    BTW, the timpanist on this video clip plays beautifully….

  • Bratsche brat says:

    Can only hope the question mark denotes sarcasm in this case. Shosty 1, Shosty 11, Bartok Music for Strings, Perc & Cel, Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Messiaen Turangalila, etc. ad infinitum. Oy vay dude!

  • As for the percussion in Janacek’s Sinfonietta, there is an interesting enigma about what percussion instrument Janacek intended to play the “bell” part in the 3rd and 4th movements which Sir Charles Mackerras pointed out to me and which he never quite solved completely. In the autograph score, Janacek wrote “zvonky” which would be smaller than “zvony” or bells, however, that does not necessarily mean “glockenspiel”. The published score tried to avoid this problem by merely printing “camp.” neither specifying one nor the other, however, both of those choices are wrong. I have recently found evidence in Brno which definitively shows that Janacek had a specific local instrument in mind, which we tried to imitate in my 2014 Youtube recording, and I will just say that the bells need to be neither too large nor too small 🙂

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Paul it is interesting to read that this “issue” exists with the Janáček Sinfonietta because I believe pretty much the same issue/dispute/ambiguity exists for the Sibelius Symphony No. 4 – is “glock” to be taken as shorthand for glockenspiel, or does it means orchestral bells. I can recall an extended back-and-forth in the letters section of Fanfare magazine on that matter back in the 1980s. The smart money is on bells but there are plenty of recordings that employ the glockenspiel. Stokowski with typical insight, uses both for fine effect!

      I always liked hearing the Sinfonietta over the radio and on recordings but it was not until I heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, back in the Solti era so you know what THAT brass section and that tympanist could do (not to mention the extra brass who sat in), play it “live” that I fully realized just what Janáček could and presumably was trying to arouse in the way of overall effect and audience reaction. The conductor might have been Claudio Abbado – I know it wasn’t Solti himself. But it was a feeling of being physically pushed back into your chair, almost threshold of pain stuff. Your body and mind were being manipulated by the music – an astounding and stunning sensation. Perhaps (speaking of Stokowski) the brass-heavy Khachaturian Symphony No. 3 in concert or the Berlioz Requiem would have something of that same effect; from personal experience I can only think of the opening of the Dies Irae from the Requiem of Verdi as being of this nature.

      As far as other works for percussion, I second the motion of others for the Nielsen “Inextinguishable” Symphony and its battle between the rival tympani players, as well as for Ionisation and other works by Edgard Varèse. I’d also nominate Michael Colgrass’s variations for four drums and viola, and Paul Chiara’s “Redwood” also for viola and percussion; both are pieces to really clean out the ears. Perhaps the various works (and unique instruments) of Harry Partch are just too specialized to be compared to anything else. For subtlety: the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and I’d also mention the opening of William Schuman’s New England Triptych, where the tympani taps out the actual “melody” of the Billings hymn tune. It may not excite the audience but it is a real test of artistry.

      But I’ll throw the name of another piece out there and perhaps some percussionists can agree with or dispute my hunch that it is a great deal of fun to play: Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Ballet” for string orchestra and lots and lots (plus yet more!) of percussion. Whether it really works as a ballet or not I cannot say, but I still remember the publicity that attended the Arthur Fiedler recording (RCA Victor) and performances with the Boston Pops, and in an unusual reversal of the usual order of things, Erich Leinsdorf himself took up and programmed the work. The Fiedler recording was made during a time when RCA Victor was utilizing a process they called Dynagroove, which in essence meant the recording was equalized and mastered to sound its best on ‘ordinary’ to low end stereo systems. I didn’t mind at the time because that is the sort of sound system I had. For CD they went back to the tapes and the sound is much more vivid, clear enough that you can hear Fiedler say something about a tentative wrong entrance that is heard and corrected, evidently not caught during initial playback or assumed to be something that normal tape hiss and groove noise would mask. There are other recordings but not with a string section of that size and heft.

      • Balding Commenter says:

        1000% agreement on the ingenuity of Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Ballet”. The choreography of Bolshoi’s modern version (on YouTube) really does work well, worth watching.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Link to your recording please?

  • Jennifer Hillman says:

    Thank goodness to see Bartok’s name reemerge – perhaps the most neglected of all 20C composers. And does anyone know where the first use came of the pedal timp. in glissando? I could say, but might be wrong. Was it with Bartok, a giant among composers, or did someone get there first?

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Dear Jennifer,
      Thank you so much for your comment re: Bartok. I’ve always considered him and Debussy to be the two greatest 20th c. composers.
      As to your query about pedal timp. glissandi: R. Strauss wrote many timpani parts whose rapid re-tunings can only be done on pedal timps, but I can’t offhand think of an example of glissandi in his works (or the works of Mahler or Schoenberg or Stravinsky, for that matter), so I think Bartok may very well have been the first. Strauss, of course, was an early influence on Bartok.
      And Bartok certainly knew the difference between the effect of an upward timpano gliss vs. a downward gliss: if you strike a single note and gliss upwards, the volume slightly increases; if you gliss downwards, the sound collapses as the tension of the drumhead decreases. You can hear this very clearly in the Adagio of the Music for String Instruments, Percussion, and Celesta.
      – best regards, Greg

      • Jennifer Hillman says:

        Thank you Greg for your interesting comments. Yes, I knew upward gliss or portamento were viable whereas downwards not really. Listening again to Neilson’s “Inextinguishable” Symphony I was reminded of his “rolling” timp, predating Bartok’s. I think I’d taken it for granted in earlier listenings, more fool me! But do listen to it. The incidence comes just before the end. Haven’t looked at the score to see how this is notated…… Best wishes, Jennifer

  • Jennifer Hillman says:

    Oh wow! Neilson’s “Inextinguishable”! Will listen today!

  • DML says:

    Going back to timpani, Denis Blyth (timpanist in Britten’s recording) told me that section 5 of the Nocturne was one of the most demanding pieces he’d encountered. This selection from Wordsworth’s Prelude features an exciting timpani obligato.

  • Peter says:

    Composers wrote many great and/or interesting pieces for percussion – the whole family of wood, metal & skin. From the very early (ca 1920-1930) Ritmica’s by Amadeo Roldan, Varèses Ionisation, Milhaud’s use of percussion in Les Eumenides, L’ Homme et son désir and Concerto pour batterie et petit orchestre, to concertos for timpani and / or multiple percussion by Jennifer Higdon, Aho, MacMillan, Rouse etc. Colin Currie, Evelyn Glennie, Gert Mortensen, les percussions de Strasbourg, Amadinda, Nexus, Kroumata, commissioned a whole plethora of new works.
    Janacek’s Symphonietta is a glorious piece and the use of timpani superb.

  • drummerman says:

    It warms the cockles of this old drummer’s heart to read such a spirited discussion!

  • Michael Redmond says:

    Charles Wuorinen: Percussion Symphony (1976) …

  • William Safford says:

    I really enjoy attending percussion recitals. It amazes me what several people can achieve rhythmically, textually, and sometimes melodically (when applicable) with percussion instruments.

    Just one example of such an ensemble:

    When I was in grad school, I really enjoyed attending percussion studio recitals, as well as solo percussion recitals.

    It’s also rewarding attending concerts of percussion soloists with orchestras. I have heard Evelyn Glynnie several times, as well as other soloists.

    Just one example: I heard Glynnie solo with the NY Philharmonic with Slatkin (I think) conducting, in the Michael Daughtery “UFO” maybe fifteen years ago. Excellent piece–and the fact that one movement comprises solo percussion and solo contrabassoon does not hurt my feelings one bit. 🙂 I wish we heard more percussion works like it–and more works by living American composers.

    The Janacek? That’s a good prominent tympani part in an excellent piece of music, rather than a best piece written for percussion.

  • Peter X says:

    André Jolivet : Cérémonial
    Maurice Ohana and Miloslav Kabelac
    And other (even earlier) works by Carlos Chavez (Toccata, Tambucco), George Antheil’s Ballet méchanique, Stravinsky’s Les noces, Alberto Ginastera’s (Cantata para America magica)…

  • Marfisa says:

    Best piece ever written for viola as a percussion instrument? The opening of Jörg Widmann’s Viola Concerto – at least the first seven minutes before s/he discovers a bow and works out how to use it.

    • William Safford says:

      I have heard Jörg perform live, and got to meet him once. Nice fellow, and amazing musician. I haven’t heard that concerto yet, but I’ll do so.

    • William Safford says:

      I listened to it yesterday. That’s a really effective piece. I like it a lot. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.