A moment to savour: the nagging timpanist in Mendelssohn’s first symphony

Timpani players can have a fairly perfunctory role to play in music from the Classical era, largely (though not always) confined to articulating cadential moments in a symphony, or underlining a moment punctuated by the brass. (I’m aware this isn’t always the case, before people start writing in about later works such as Beethoven 9 and Berlioz to start with; and then there’s Bartok in the twentieth century…!). Timpani at the time were limited in pitch to a fourth or a fifth apart, tuned (until late in the nineteenth century) by a somewhat laborious method of ‘taps’ located around the head, which players had to turn by hand until the tension at the required pitch was uniform across the whole skin of the instrument.

Portrait of Mendelssohn Eduard Magnus (1846)

And then there’s Mendelssohn’s first symphony, and in particular, the third movement. In the Scherzo, Mendelssohn uses the timpani in an understated dialogue with the strings (although ‘nags the strings’ might be a more apt description), gently cajoling them out of the central Trio section and encouraging them back to the reprise of the Minuet.

It’s a striking moment; there’s not much happening melodically, sustained chords high in the violins over gently undulating legato phrases rising and falling the lower strings; it’s as though the timpanist thinks ‘right, I’ve had enough of this: time to get back to the start of the movement, folks!’ and so insistently begins to play in a way that provokes a response from the strings, forcing them out of their lull and back to the urgent, insistent character of the opening. (The timpani part is marked ‘solo’ at this point, so it’s definitely intentional). It’s ever so slightly menacing, at one point prodding the strings into an uncomfortable, diminished chord – and played with hard mallets rather than soft ones, it gives a wonderfully crisp, penetrating edge to the sound. It’s only two notes, but boy, do they work…

Hear that moment for yourself 18 1/2 minutes into the performance given here by Natalie Stutzman and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo – and then come and hear it live with us in Canterbury Cathedral on Saturday 12 March…

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