For Thanksgiving, the Other Kind of Drumsticks If it's Thanksgiving, it must be time for another musical pun from Miles Hoffman. The music commentator joins Renee Montagne for a holiday review of drums, triangles and other percussive instruments.
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For Thanksgiving, the Other Kind of Drumsticks

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For Thanksgiving, the Other Kind of Drumsticks

For Thanksgiving, the Other Kind of Drumsticks

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Well, it would not be a proper Thanksgiving without one guest: Miles Hoffman, our classical music commentator. This year he joined Renee Montagne in our studios to carry on a tradition of finding music in a turkey dinner.


Steve, in years past, Miles has dished up musical puns. Last year it was musical leftovers, before that, symphonic turkeys. And we've even talked about plucking. This year, Miles arrived with...

MILES HOFFMAN: A very meaty subject, Renee - drumsticks.

MONTAGNE: Well, I can - I kind of know where this one's going then.

HOFFMAN: Yes, it's going toward drums.



(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of kettledrums)

HOFFMAN: Actually, the first drums that were used in western orchestras were the timpani or the kettledrums. And they first appeared in Europe in the 1400s and they had been imported from Turkey where they had been used in Calvary bands.

MONTAGNE: You're serious - Turkey?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, that's right.


HOFFMAN: There's another Thanksgiving pun.

MONTAGNE: Unintentional.

HOFFMAN: Unintentional.

(Soundbite of kettledrums)

HOFFMAN: The thing is that when timpani first came into the orchestra they were used mainly just for marshal effects or for festive effects and they were always paired with trumpets. If we just take a quick example, Renee, listen to the very end of Mozart's "Jupiter Symphony" - "Symphony No. 41."

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 41")

MONTAGNE: Carrying this forward, how did the timpani get parted from the trumpets?

HOFFMAN: When was the divorce made final?

MONTAGNE: Yes, sort of, when were they freed?

HOFFMAN: Well, first of all, they are still very often linked with trumpets. But Beethoven who was the composer who liberated the timpani from always having to be married to the trumpets, and if we play an extremely brief example and a very famous example, in some ways, this one measure represents the liberation of the timpani.

(Soundbite of music)

HOFFMAN: That's the timpani being used thematically as part of the statement of the musical idea.

(Soundbite of music)

HOFFMAN: If we want to get back to drumsticks, there are different kinds of timpani sticks. The head of the stick is usually a wooden or a cork ball wound with yarn and then its wound with felt. So, depending on how much felt you put on and whether it's soft felt or hard felt, you can get a different sound.

MONTAGNE: Miles, how are drumbeats notated by the composer in the score? Is there a symbol? I mean, I'm thinking of notes here, but...

HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah, a composer just writes boom in the score.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: That's the universal symbol, b-o-o-m?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, sure, right, you just write, boom, boom, boom. No. Actually, it's a very good question. It depends on the drum. Timpani are tuned and they play actual notes - notes on the staff. We can use another famous example by the way if you want to hear a timpani playing different notes. The beginning of "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss, which there's a famous timpani solo at the beginning and the timpani is playing the notes C and the notes G.

(Soundbite of "Also sprach Zarathustra")

MONTAGNE: Well, I'm starting to see notes fly out.

HOFFMAN: There you go. And I'm guessing from that recording that that timpani player is using pretty hardheaded sticks with hard felt and not the soft, mushy, spongy sticks.

Now, the instruments that don't play with specific pitches, you have X's marked on the middle of the staff. Now, instruments that fall into that category would be the bass drum, for example, and the snare drum. And there's a wonderful example, actually, an example that set the musical world on its ear in 1817 when Rossini wrote the beginning of his overture to his opera, "La gazza ladra," (The Thieving Magpie). This is lot of fun, Renee. You'll enjoy this.

(Soundbite of "La gazza ladra")

MONTAGNE: Now, why did that cause such an uproar?

HOFFMAN: Well, I don't think anybody had ever heard such a thing in the opera house before, just with naked snare rolls. I think it was quite revolutionary.

MONTAGNE: Let's turn to kind of a different instrument altogether - the triangle.

HOFFMAN: Aha! The triangle, too, while we're on the Thanksgiving theme here, also came from Turkey as part of a fad in the 1700s in Europe - a fad for what was called Janissary music. The Janissaries were the palace guards for the Sultan in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey for 500 years and they had these wonderful bands. One of the important characteristics of these bands was the use of the bass drum, the triangle and the cymbals. And people went wild for this in Europe. And perhaps the most well known example is in the finale, the last movement of Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" where he writes a Turkish march.

(Soundbite of "Ninth Symphony")

MONTAGNE: You know, just quickly, would that have sounded to their ears at that time, Turkish, in a way that it actually doesn't to our ears, I think, today?

HOFFMAN: That's right, absolutely, yes. That would have been identifiable as Turkish music. There's one little thing I should add here about the triangle, Renee. Some people play the triangle better than others.

The best triangle player I ever heard was Tony Ames, who's the principal percussionist of the National Symphony. And when I played in the National Symphony years ago, I never had to turn around to see who was playing the triangle because although everybody in the percussion section played the triangle well, Tony played it beautifully. He had, and has, a very special sound on the triangle. It's a function of the care that you take and the musicianship that you put into it.

MONTAGNE: Let us go out, as we often do with a suggestion from you and that is the best drumstick sound that you could think of right now.

HOFFMAN: Oh, goodness, Renee. I don't know if it's the best but it's a lot of fun. It's cool. It's from an album called "Drums A Plenty" and the selection is called "The Sledgehammer Strikes Back." Perhaps, you can keep this in mind while you're having your turkey. Hope you have a wonderful holiday.

MONTAGNE: Who gets the drumstick in your house? I mean, you could have it from my house. I don't like drumsticks; I like the white meat.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I do, too. So, somebody will get it - maybe the dog.

MONTAGNE: Somebody will fight over it, but not us.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, the dog will get the drumstick.

(Soundbite of "The Sledgehammer Strikes Back")

INSKEEP: And that's Renee Montagne who was on tape by the way. She's busy basting drumsticks right now. She spoke with Miles Hoffman, violist and artistic director of the American Chamber Players. He's also the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion." You can read an excerpt from his book on drums and sticks of all kinds at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Steve Inskeep.

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