Timpani are a type of drum and are therefore part of the percussion family.
Before we look at the history of the instrument, we should get the name sorted. The word ‘timpani’ is an Italian word and is plural, but in English it is completely acceptable to use the word for just one drum. Italians would call lots of drums ‘timpani’ and one drum a ‘timpano,’ but you would be hard pressed to find an English percussion player who is that pedantic. They would call one drum a ‘timpani’ or more likely just a ‘timp.’ They can also be known as ‘kettle drums.’
Evolving from a military drum, timpani are well known for their deep resonant sound. The original drums came in different shapes and sizes depending on their purpose (for marching, or for soldiers mounted on horseback).
They were first used in orchestral scores in the 17th century. Jean Baptiste Lully scored for timpani in his 1675 opera ‘Thésée’, but even earlier was Matthew Locke’s ‘Psyche’ written in 1673.
The instrument consists of a large bowl with a skin (called a ‘head’) stretched over the top. It can be tuned to different pitches, and is struck with a special timpani stick or a mallet. In early music usually two timpani were used, and were tuned to just two pitches for each piece- the tonic and the dominant. They were played at important cadence moments to emphasise the brass.
Early instruments could not have their pitch changed with any kind of speed, but the industrial revolution helped in the advancement of this. Composers altered the way they wrote for the instrument as rapid tuning became easier. For example in Haydn’s Symphony 94, written in 1791, the timpanist was required to change the tuning of both drums within a symphonic movement, from G & D to A & D, and then back again.
Several people had a go at advancing the instrument with various moving parts and metal rings, including Johann Strumpff in Amsterdam who worked out a way to change the pitch by rotating the drum. However, it still required the timpanist to put down his drum sticks in order to work the machine.
The big change came around 1840 when the first foot activated tuning system was invented by a German gunsmith (yes, a gunsmith) August Knocke. One can wonder what Beethoven and Haydn would have written for such an instrument, but alas we shall never know…