The beat of a drum stirs some ancient center deep in our psyches. Opera presents numerous opportunities for percussionists. Alas, anemic conductors often fail to realize their impact. Here are a few excerpts in which the drum(s) plays an important part.
First, three by Verdi. Everybody knows the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. The struck anvils alternate with the drums, but typically so loud are the anvils that you don’t notice the drums. On this recording from London’s Royal Opera House you can clearly hear the drums. There’s a video of this performance, but it’s too goofy to reproduce here.
In the Act 2 scene 2 of Aida (The Triumphal Scene), Aida’s father Amonasro, who is the captured Ethiopian king, is recognized as her father, but not as the king. He implores her (Aida) not to reveal his identity. He tells the Egyptians that the king is dead. This false assertion is punctuated by a dramatic beat of of the drum. It should jolt the listener, but often is rather feeble as in this example.
Verdi depicted the end of the world in the Dies Irae section of his Requiem Mass. You won’t have to search for the drum part. It almost knocks your head off. There’s a rousing Rataplan in Act III scene1 of La Forza Del Destino. Rataplan is defined as the sound of the beating of a drum.
Puccini made great use of drums in two of his operas. In Act II of Madama Butterfly Sharpless tries to read Pinkerton’s letter about Butterfly to her, but he hasn’t the heart to reveal its true contents. When he asks her what she would do if Pinkerton never returned, she says it would be better if she died. This statement is followed by the portentous thud of the drum. It’s intended to shock the audience into the reality of Butterfly’s situation. A lot of conductor’s make little of it. Not so Karajan in this recording. Maria Callas is terrific in this excerpt. The complete scene tears your heart out. Alas, Italian opera died with Puccini in 1924.
There’s just one strike of the drum in the Butterfly scene, but Puccini uses a battalion of then at the end of Act 2 of La fanciulla Del West. This is the scene in which Minnie cheats at Poker to save the life of her lover. Halfway through the scene the drum starts to beat, increasing in intensity as the scene plays out. A tympanic tour de force. Poker scene
Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci opens (after the prologue performed in front of the curtain) with the beating a drum announcing the arrival of Canio and his troupe of players; the Calabrian locals are invited to attend a performance at dusk. This is the show where everything goes murderously wrong.
The Japanese are famous for an athletic style of drum beating – Taiko drumming. Taiko is the Japanese word for drum. Early taiko drumming goes back about 1500 years. “The art of kumi-daiko, performance as an ensemble, originated post-war in Showa 26 (1951). It was created by Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer who serendipitously stumbled across an old piece of taiko music. Wondering why taiko were never played together, he broke with tradition by forming a taiko drum ensemble. More recently, taiko has enjoyed not only a resurgence of interest in Japan, where there are over 4,000 taiko ensembles, but also transplantation and evolution in North America.”
The video below is a good example of Taiko. But nothing comes close to the impact this percussion playing has when heard in the flesh. It’s a raucous rush that will stay with you for a long time.
Drums have led soldiers to war for thousands of years. As shown immediately below the Brits are very good at it.
Gene Krupa (1909-73) is considered “the founding father of the modern drumset”. His drum solo on Benny Goodman’s 1937 recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing” elevated the role of the drummer from an accompanying line to an important solo voice in the band. This extended version of the number was made more than a decade after the famed Carnegie Hall concert.
Buddy Rich (1917-87) is thought by many to be the greatest drummer of all time. His techniques is awe inspiring. He often appeared with Krupa; they even made a record together.