David Valdés

Editing timpani parts (I).

He who has ever played repertoire by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Dvorak, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Weber, Gounod, opera (mainly Italian and French works) and, as a particular case, Spanish zarzuela, is very likely to have found on many occasions notes that do not “match” with the harmonic/melodic context and, depending on his audacity or conservatism, would have decided to leave those notes as they are or change them looking for a better solution.
It is shocking, indeed, to find so many dissonances in the Classic and Romantic repertoire. So obvious dissonances that I tend to think that the composer, lacking a third drum or the possibility of a quick note change, prefered to write that note (even “wrong” or out of context) rather than sacrifying the effect that a timpani stroke could add to the dramatic effect on a specific part of his work.
Sometimes the contrary occurs, and the composer opts for silencing the timps (while trumpets, for example, go on playing). That makes me think that, would have had the composer the resources to improve his timpani writing (more drums or the possibility of quick changes), he would definitely had continued the line that, due to the limitations on timpani writing, was left interrupt.
We have, then, both cases: when the composer writes down a note knowing full well that it doesn´t match the context, or when the timpani get silenced because he can´t write down a note matching that same context. I´ll write refering to the first case.
timbal barroco
We already know that, due to the intrinsic limitations on timpani writing at that time, composers used undeniably wrong notes, but my opinion is that those dissonances are not intentional, nor mistakes (I don´t that think Verdi wouldn´t have realized that a G natural clearly clashes in an A flat context). If composers have had more developed instruments at hand, permiting quick changes, we woulnd´t be disscusing this issue, as it would have been solved two hundred years ago.
Controversy arrises when, having to play these works, we have to make a decision on wether to “play the ink” or modify the part to correct those errors.
I´m a firm supporter of the editing option, but always agreeing with the conductor and keeping the style, character and nature of the work. Almost every conductor I have worked with has been keen and receptive to this kind of “part altering” when not clearly involved in the process (Óliver Díaz considers these changes even before I can arise them to him!). Always considering the musical, historical, aesthetic, harmonic and melodic context, I can´t think of re-writing parts as a problem as long as we show the maximun respect for Music. I´m sure composers would have writen differently should they had the resources.
timbal antiguo

My method consists in a preliminary study of the score together with the “particella”. It´s crucial to use your ears in a very critical way, both to identify mistakes (wrong notes, lenghts, articulation, phrasing…) and to propose solutions. In order to justify the changes, I investigate the harmonic context, the bass line, what other sections are playing (depending on the repertoire I look into one section or another), who is playing in my same octave (a dissonance at a distance of a second is harsher than one at a distance of 16th or a triple octave). With all that information I make a decision whether to make a change or not and what change to make once I decide to go for it. Once the part has been edited, it has to fit the musical context perfectly and, again, your ears will have the last word. As a precaution, never assume that the part is correct (specially in opera, and more specifically, with Kalmus editions).

As an example, we can use Verdi´s “Requiem” and, more specifically, the begginning of the “Dies Irae”. This video was recorded live on January 29, 2010 at Teatro Jovellanos featuring the Gijón Symphony Orchestra and the Orfeón Donostiarra under the baton of Óliver Díaz. For a better listening experience I recommend using full range speakers or headphones so that the low end can be heard.

To better follow the process, here´s a link to the full score (free and legal): IMSLP.

It is in bar nº3 that we encounter the first problem, as the second and fourth parts (at least in the Ricordi edition) have no accent.


My interpretation is to accent those notes in bars 3 and 4 in order to imitate the phrasing of trumpets and horns. The last two notes are played with more emphasis to prepare the choir entrance. That G in bar 5, I let it ring for four bars (plus downbeat on the fifth one) to match the ornate pedal played by winds and strings. I mute that note once the choir ceases its intervention and the strings start they diabolic 16ths.

Requiem Verdi
Requiem Verdi

The next beat is a mixture of the motive played by woodwinds (the 32nds are taken from them) and the rhythmic cell by the fourth basoon, trombones, oficleide and double basses (see bar 20 in the score).

Dies Irae

Offbeats coming next have to be played very precisely, as timpani are the only instrument playing that rhythmical cell.


I like starting the roll on the A a little bit softer so I can play a crescendo to accompany the upwards scale by woodwinds and strings.

timbales dies irae

The next bars are the most problematic ones, as the notes chosen by Verdi have nothing to do with the harmonic context. The chord sequence is G9b-Cm-F9b-Bb-G7dim-Ab (see bars 31 to 36 in the score), so it´s very clear that G and D (the notes used by Verdi) create obvious dissonances.

Keeping the original descendent interval of a fifth, I double the bass trombone, oficleide and basses in the choir. Also, I play the 8th notes which Verdi leaves in blank twice, so as to match the motive played by the trumpets.
In the edited part do not understand the tie as “legato”; what I want to mean is the existence of two different expresive units, one represented by the tie and the other by the dots.

In an E major context a G natural doesn´t match at all, so it is for this reason that I play the next roll on E natural (same note played by basoons, oficleide and double basses).


Two bars afterwards, I play A flat instead of G because that´s the harmonic context (no need to say that minor second dissonance is unacceptable).

Dies Irae

The rest of the interventions present no problem, as they literally double the basses part.


The problem with these kind of modifications is that, if no change is made, the result is obviously dissonant but, if we edit the part, many changes have to be made.


To prove my decision I have to say that Verdi knew pedal timpani (he maybe wrote with Carlo Antonio Boracchi´s instruments in mind -he was timpanist for La Scala-), that he wrote a roll with changing notes (“Otello”, first act, six bars before letter I) and that he wrote an ascending line from B flat do D (“Requiem”, “Dies Irae”, bars 74 to 88). If Verdi wrote these changes, why he didn´t so in other parts in the “Requiem” or other of his operas? It´s surprisingly contradictory that Verdi had, at the same time, such a conservative timpani writing in some parts and such an innovative one in others in the same work


My criteria is to make Music and, if that implies changing notes, I see no problem in doing it.


In my next post I´ll write some more on this fascinating issue and, for that, I´ll use the “Sanctus” as an example.


I´d love to hear your oppinions on this subject, so any comment is welcome.



…et in Arcadia ego.

© David Valdés