The timpani, also called kettledrums, have been regular members of the orchestra since about 1700. Their history can be traced back to ancient times in the Middle East, but they first appeared in Europe in the 1400's—they were originally imported from Turkey for use in cavalry bands. Timpani are tuned drums—they play notes, not just booms.
Up until the early 1800's, they were generally used in pairs, in the orchestra, one note to each drum, and their role was usually just to team up with trumpets to provide festive or martial effects. It was Beethoven who liberated the timpani from the trumpets, expanding their role and the range of notes they played, and even writing solo passages for them. Later composers such as Berlioz and Wagner expanded the timpani’s role still further, writing brilliantly for them and expanding the number of timpani regularly found in the orchestra.
A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.