Stradivarius Tympani: Like Itzhak Perlman, Only Louder

[SKF NOTE: Three musical discoveries in this story: The Stradivarius drums, a copyist mistake in a Vivaldi concerto, and the identity of the musician for whom Stradivarius built the tympani. Nice.]

A Sale Is Booming: Rare Stradivarius Drums Up For Auction
APRIL 01, 2015 8:03 AM ET — MARK MOBLEY

DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

Timpani are also called kettledrums. These instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari were, for a time, more kettles than drums.

[A] pair of lovingly restored Stradivarius timpani…were lost roughly a century after they were built by Cremonese master luthier Antonio Stradivari, whose violins, cellos and…violas…sell for millions…of dollars. The drums were rediscovered…last year at the Vatican…during a routine inventory of kitchen equipment.

The two copper bowls, 26 inches and 29 inches in diameter, were secreted for decades behind…pasta-making and cannoli-filling machines. Apparently the vessels had been used to make…soups [for] 19th-century Pope Honorius V….

“It’s an astonishing discovery,” said Metropolitan Philharmonic Principal Timpanist David Sheppard, who supervised the cleaning/restoration…. “Once we were able to remove the remaining traces of pasta and parmesan, all we needed to do was stretch calfskin for the heads.”

The mysteries that have perplexed musicologists since the unlikely emergence of these drums include: Why did Stradivarius make timpani? Did he make any more? And why did they fall out of use? Some answers appear…in a piece that has intrigued scholars since…nearly a century ago.

For decades, musicologists…assumed…one…concerto by Vivaldi, “Il Cammelo” (The Camel)…was for double bass. It…feature[s] a solo part…of only two notes, G and D, played over and over…. Vivaldi’s biographers…assumed he composed the piece for a Venetian nobleman and amateur bassist of modest gifts named Gianluca Wimpani. It now appears the W on the title page was erroneously substituted for the correct T by a copyist long ago.

“This shows the piece in a whole new light,” Sheppard said. “And it explains the subtitle. Back in the 1400s, Mongols and Turks had armies with timpanists riding on camels.”

Thanks to markings etched on the drums, scholars now believe Stradivarius crafted them especially for Giorgio Della Giungla, an adventurer, strongman and musician whom Stradivarius referred to in his diary as “amico per te e me” (friend to you and me).

“Della Giungla played a number of instruments, and quite well, but he was best known for riding elephants,” said Yale University symbologist B. Reid Morris. The Stradivarius timpani appear to have fallen into disuse when, after repeated collisions while swinging from tree to tree on vines in the instrument maker’s beloved Musical Woods, Della Giungla had a fatal encounter with an heirloom spruce.

How the Vatican came to acquire the Stradivarius drums is unknown.

“You just have to hear them,” Sheppard said. “When I play Also sprach Zarathustra with the Philharmonic, I swear I feel like I’m Itzhak Perlman. Only louder.”

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