David Valdés

"Xilofono basso" in "Turandot" (G. Puccini).

“Turandot”, by Giaccomo Puccini, is scored for timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, tubular bells, glockenspiel (keyboard), tuned gongs (the same as in “Madama Butterfly”), triangle, xylophone and bass xylophone in the pit; a tam-tam and a temple block onstage. I will write about the tuned gongs in a future article, but today I will deal with the bass xylophone, a very rare instrument, used only in this opera and not very well understood by percussionists and conductors.


In order to clarify what instrument a “xilofono basso” is, we need to know a crucial character in this story: Galileo Chini. Chini was the stage designer for “Turandot”, but he had previously worked with Puccini in “Gianni Schicchi”. A multifaceted artist (ceramist, painter, decorator, scenographer…), he was booked by king Chulalongkorn Rama V of Siam (present day Tahiland) to decorate and paint the frescos of the new Ananta Samakhom palace. Chini stayed in Siam between 1911 and 1913 working for the king (Rama VI, as Rama V died in 1910), from where he came back to Italy bringing an important collection of oriental objects that he donated in 1950, few years before his death, to the ethnographic museum of the university of Firenze.


Among the objects that Chini brougth from Siam there was a Ranat Thum, a low-sounding “relative” of the Ranat Ek. The traditional Ranat Thum features 18 wooden bars (rosewood or bamboo) over a boat-shaped resonant box, the keyboard forming a “U” shape.

While working together on Turandot, Puccini got to know the Ranat Thum owned by Chini and decided to add it to the score. Together with the tuned gongs, it would provide the oriental “flavor” to the opera.


Puccini did not use Chini´s own instrument, but ordered a copy of it to be made (according to the latter´s website). Why a copy and not the original? My opinion is that the original Ranat Thum was, logically, tuned to some “exotic” scale, making it unusable in a West tempered system. So, a copy, while keeping the original timbre and character, could be used in a modern orchestra (tuned properly).


The bass xylophone part in “Turandot” includes the following pitches (those marked with an asterisk feature, too, their corresponding enharmonics in the part):

See that the instrument that Puccini ordered features exactly 18 notes, which is not a coincidence, as that is the number of bars on traditional Ranat Thums.

The bass xylophone that Puccini scored for is a unique instrument, as it is used only in “Turandot” (in no other work by any other composer). It is, then, a singular instrument that appears only once in the whole repertoire, built on purpose for this opera and that was copied from a Ranat Thum and its intonation modified to fit the Western intonation standard.


Contrary to the “normal” xylophone, which is a transposing instrument (it sounds one octave above), studying the score it is very clear that the bass xylophone should sound at written pitch, real notes, as it always doubles the low instruments (even the timpani). So, a standard xylophone is not a correct solution, as it would not be able to play the correct register (apart from the fact that there is already a “normal” xylophone in the score).


A marimba can be a good substitute, but some problems arise.


1.- A 4.3 marimba, the most convenient one (easy to move and does not take too much space in the pit), does not get to the low G, so we could not play the pitch asked for by Puccini (see the graphic above). On top of that, the upper register remains unused, only taking space in the pit, which is not very practical.


2.- We could use a 4.5 or 4.6 marimba (down to an F or an E, but those marimbas are not very common). We have, again, much instrument “unused” and a bigger problem in the pit.


3.- Only a 5 octave marimba solves the issue, but that is a real headache, as its size is monstruous and much of it remains unused.


Educational and Orff bass xylophones do exist, but none of them provide the correct register:

This is a complex issue, as the bass xylophone was built on purpose for “Turandot”.  A marimba is a good substitute, but it is not very convenient due to its size and, on the other hand, it does not feature the original timbre, as the tuning of its harmonics does not bring the oriental character that Puccini specifically wanted and he found in the Ranat Thum.


The best solution (and the most authentic one in terms or character and timbre) would be to make a bass xylophone, as it was done in 1924, but I reckon that that is not a very practical solution. Taking the specific bars off from a marimba and making a custom frame and resonators could also be a solution but, again…


– – – – – – –

Having clarified the origin and inspiration for the bass xylophone, I think it is important to play on the correct octave, as there is also confusion about this. Nothing better for this than studying the score.

In the first passage  (nine bars before figure 11), the bass xylophone (in green) doubles the bassoon, the low voices and the violas (all of them in blue). There is an overwhelming logic here: the bass xylophone doubles the low voices, the xylophone the tenors and the glockenspiel the soprani. The “place” of every keyboard instrument is stablished at this point, where the melody is reinforced in several octaves.

In the next passage, four bars before figure 14, the bass xylophone (in green) doubles the second horn and the low voices (in blue). See also that the glockenspiel doubles the high woodwinds and that an imitation game is stablished at an octave between the “normal” xylo and the bass one, identical to that happening between the first and second horns.

Four bars after figure 14, the bass xylophone doubles the trombones and the low voices.

The same thirteen bars before figure 15; the bass xylophone doubles the trombones and the low voices. The bass xylophone plays all eigth-notes and does not double the rhythmical pattern exactly to produce, together with the triangle, the bass drum, the glockenspiel and the xylo, that play of on-beats and off-beats.

In figure16 everything is heavily reinforced with octaves, but the bass xylophone doubles the bassoons, trombones, low voices, celli and double basses (I know, I know… The double bass sounds an octave lower).

Here is one of the most solid proofs to play the bass xylophone in the written register, as it plays, together with the timpani, a solo in unison.

Before figure 23 it acts as a harmonic support for the horns, trumpets and xylophone.

And after figure 23, the second trombone, and later on all of them, the bassoon and the double bass join the party.

There is a solo after figure 47.

The second act stars with the bass xylophone doubling the English horn and the French horns. See that this is the highest register in the whole opera.

Thirteen bars after figure 22 there is a solo together with the double basses.

Six bars after figure 56 we double the bassoon.

In the last passage, already in the third act, the bass xylophone doubles the basssoons, the timpani, the celli and the double basses.

It is for all the above reasons that the bass xylophone should play in the real register. The “normal” xylophone is a transposing instrument that souns one octave above than written. It is not rare that, seing the word “xylophone” (even if it is the bass one), our tendency is to associate it with transposition, but this is not the case, as this instrument was made on purpose for “Turandot” and clearly doubles the low parts, leaving the “normal” xylophone and the glockenspiel to double the intermediate and the high ones, respectively.


We face a similar problem with Bartok, who wrote his xylophone parts in the real register, which makes that, today, we are playing them one octave higher than they really should be.


I hope I can get a proper bass xylophone so I can play this wonderful opera with the character intended by Puccini.



…et in Arcadia ego.

© David Valdés