I have a mini-score of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (Edition Eulenburg).

In the first movement, the timpani line specifies Eb and Bb which is not surprising since the piece is in Eb. The surprising bit is that no key signature is used so it appears to indicate E and B natural. I guess that before the development of pedal timpani, the precision was regarded as redundant but it looks rather odd to modern eyes.

I don't have any scores for newer pieces that require pedal timpani. I presume that key signatures will be used.

The question: was this lack of key signature standard or common and what is normal in newer music?

The second movement of the Eroica requires C and G. So, I expect that pre-pedal timpani, four would be required. What would be usual today?

Edit: For the benefit of future readers, I have corrected my original phrase "chromatic timpani" to "pedal timpani".

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    Classical-era timpani took time to re-tune, so you'd change their sound only between movements. And since (before Beethoven) they were invariably used on the tonic and dominant, there wasn't any need to indicate the precise pitch with accidentals - everyone considered this self-evident. In fact, in earlier times you'd not even notate the right pitch: many composers would simply write C and G, expecting the player to know that they would actually play e.g. D and A if the movement is in D major. – Kilian Foth Oct 12 '17 at 6:49
  • It doesn't actually have to be tonic-dominant. For example, Beethoven sometimes tuned the timpani in octaves or tritones, while Bruckner sometimes did in unisons or minor sixths. – Maika Sakuranomiya Mar 6 at 11:23
  • @MaikaSakuranomiya I don't think that anyone is saying that. Kilian said: "before Beethoven" and I just gave one example which happened to be tonic dominant. I also have the score for Beethoven 9 so I have seen other examples. I have not seen the Bruckner examples but I don't listen to him much. – badjohn Mar 6 at 12:07
  • How does the notes come up at the score? Does it appear with note names, like "in C-G"? Or with drawn-on-staff notes, like "in (two notes on five-line staff)"? How does the 2nd mvt of Beethoven's 9th appear as? – Maika Sakuranomiya Mar 6 at 12:26
  • @MaikaSakuranomiya It appears on a normal 5 line staff with the notes positioned as you would expect for E and B. The only oddity is that there is no key signature so they would appear to represent E natural and B natural rather than E flat and B flat. Some of the answers below explain this. I am happy that the question has been fully answered. – badjohn Mar 6 at 18:08

It's even worse than that! Look at a section of the first edition score (available on IMSLP http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/e/e2/IMSLP46066-PMLP02581-Op.55.pdf

enter image description here

The timps (they're on the top line of the score) are given just a 3-line stave, and notation doesn't go much beyond an indication of 'the high one' and 'the low one'. A slightly later convention was to write timps as C and G, whatever the key. That couldn't last long, of course! Even as early as Beethoven's 8th and 9th symphonies the 'tonic and dominant' convention was being broken, he used octave tuning.

Beethoven's timpanist wouldn't have had 4 kettles. He has 8 bars of slow 2/4 in which to re-tune for the 2nd movement. Plenty! The indication is just 'Timpani in C'. C and G would have been assumed.

enter image description here

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    Thanks. So, my score is partially modernised. In my score, Eb and Bb is indicated at the beginning of movements 1, 3, and 4. C and G is indicated at the beginning of movement 2. – badjohn Oct 11 '17 at 17:00
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    I just checked my score for Beethoven's 9th. The first movement specifies D and A, the second specifies F and F, the third F and Bb, and in the fourth we are back to D and A. In all cases, the notes are on the expected lines but the flat is not indicated for the Bb. – badjohn Oct 11 '17 at 17:07
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    Verdi's Requiem: 1 Requiem specifies E and A, 2 Dies Irae does not specify but G and D are used and make sense, 3 Offertorio does not have timpani, 4 Sanctus F and C, – badjohn Oct 11 '17 at 17:20
  • The second movement of Beethoven's third is tuned in C-G instead of Eb-Bb because it is written in the submediant c-minor instead of Eb-major. – Maika Sakuranomiya Dec 24 '18 at 6:43
  • Beethoven's sixth is very unusual because only the fourth movement contains the timpani part, in which it requires a C-F tuning. – Maika Sakuranomiya Dec 24 '18 at 6:45

When valveless brass instruments were in use, the timps were often grouped with the brass in the full score. That meant that the entire group of staves had no key signatures. In fact in the first edition of the Eroica, the timp staff in the first movement is reduced to only 3 lines, to save a bit of vertical space.

The modern practice is to group the timps on their own, or with the rest of the percussion.

Four timps were not required. They would be retuned by hand between the movements, which doesn't take a professional long to do. In fact "non chromatic" timps were often retuned during a movement in 19th century works - this can be done quietly enough to be inaudible. If there are four timps on the platform in front of the player, they will usually be of four different sizes (covering different ranges of notes), and therefore not suited to "avoid retuning" in music of Beethoven's era.

In the baroque period, timps were often written as transposing instruments like the rest of the brass section, with written notes C and G. In fact, there are no surviving written timp parts at all before the 16th century - apparently, the player learned what was required "by ear".

Until composers started to write music that could only be played on pedal timps (the correct term for your "chromatic timp") i.e. starting at the end of the 19th century) all that was required was a textual statement of which notes the drums should be tuned to, with a very few execptions (e.g. Berlioz's use of 16 timps in his Requiem).

  • Do you really mean 'non chromatic'? – Laurence Payne Oct 11 '17 at 16:35
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    Thanks. In modern practice, do the timpani lines have key signatures? So, in the Eroica, the timpanist would need to retune between movements 1 and 2 and again between 2 and 3. I have seen timpanists tuning while the rest of the orchestra were playing but I presumed that they were verifying the tuning. – badjohn Oct 11 '17 at 16:39
  • All timps are chromatic - and can also play quarter tones, or any other intonation. The issue is how fast you can retune them. That distinction is between pedal timps and the various manual tuning systems. I used "non chromatic" (in quotes) to be consistent with the OP's (incorrect) terminology. – user19146 Oct 11 '17 at 16:39
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    Many modern scores have no key signatures for any instruments, so the question doesn't arise. But the standard notation now seems to be "no key signature, but accidentals on the notes as required". – user19146 Oct 11 '17 at 16:49
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    Possible Verdi's "Otello" (1887) where he writes a roll on one drum, and the player has to simultaneously retune the other two drums. (Note, the roll itself is not a glissando). The foot pedal mechanism was invented in 1881. – user19146 Oct 11 '17 at 17:34

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