Percussion Background


The short journey of percussion in the early 20th century began with heavy, thunderous explosions.  During the Impressionist Movement it became delicate tinkling sounds to create effect.  As a reaction to that, in the 1920’s music hit the machine age and everything was being used from airplane engines to metal blocks.  Bartok made percussion “normal” again by giving it musical significance in his music.  In the 1930’s percussion was changed by the “art of noise.”  This phase is where the sound is what is important, not pitch or harmony. i.e. tin cans, brake drums, bell coils, etc.


Pre-1930’s the most widespread use of the percussion ensemble was in the marching band.  The percussion section usually consisted of 1 or 2 field drums, a bass drum, and cymbals.


The reasons that the modern percussion ensemble developed when it did has been divided into many conjectures:


The rise in the popularity of modern dance also gave a boost to the world of percussion because of the important need to define rhythmic change.


The traditional role that percussion played in the orchestra was changed by Stravinsky.  He freed percussion from the traditional vertical hits into giving them regular horizontal rhythmic melodies.  Examples of this are present in:  Petrouchka (1911), Rite of Spring (1913), and Les Noces (1923)


The inclusion of percussion into chamber pieces was a radical thought at the time and not widely accepted or appreciated.  “But, after, all, chamber music is an ideal form, the sonnet of musical language.  Why must its purity be degraded with sounding brass and tinkling cymbal?  Let these rhythmic accentuators stay where they belong—in the orchestra of opera, ballet, or even of symphony.”  (Tuthill, Percussionist)


Important uses of percussion in chamber music:

·        Stravinsky Histoire du Soldat (1918)

Written for cello and 10 instruments with the percussionist playing many traditional instruments

For 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, and 2 thundersticks


The Societies


International Composer’s Guild

Expanded into the Pan American Association

Founded by Varese



Pan American Association

Took note of the works of Antheil

Varese was the president, but Cowell took over during Varese’s time in France

Cowell was the leader of North America

Roldan was the leader of the West Indies

Chavez was the leader of Central America


Group exchanged ideas about the use of percussion and the future of it.  Between 1938-1042 over 40 compositions for percussion were created.


Cowell was the editor and creator of New Music Quarterly (the name has since been changed to Music Quarterly), which was an outlet for contemporary scores.



New Music Society

Group of the West Coast composers

Lead by Cage and Harrison

Gave concerts of only percussion music

Other members were Ray Green, Gerald Strang, and JM Beyer



American Composers for American music

Supported those composers who stood apart form the European mainstream




The Composers

George Antheil

Born Trenton, New Jersey July 8, 1900

Died February 12, 1959


Traveled to Europe to become a concert pianist, but ended up studying composition instead

Pupil of Ernest Bloch

Composed rhythmically violent music to escape the “fluid diaphanous lechery” of Impressionism

Autobiography Bad Boy of Music was published in 1945

“In the future, composers would prefer to compose for machines rather than for people, because the machines would be more predictable, and offer a wider range of sound.”

“A conductor does not want temperamental players in his orchestra.  All he wants is a player to carry out the orders of the music perfectly or, in other words, he wants a mechanical player.”


Ballet Mecanique (1924-25)

Instrumentation:  15 percussionists, 4 pianos, and tape (this version was completed in 1953 and considered the standard version to perform—previously it had anywhere from 8 to 16 pianos)

Duration: 18-20 minutes

Purpose:  composed Ballet Mecanique as the music for the surrealist film of the same name created by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Leger.  Film features shocking images of machinery and other objects disjuctly added.

Premiere:  Paris premiere on June 19, 1926 was decently received, but the Carnegie Hall premiere on April 10, 1927 almost started a riot it was so violently disliked.

Not considered the first piece written for percussion ensemble because the melody line was given to the pianos, not the percussionists.


Thought to ponder:

He was ostracized as a child for being born out of wedlock, so did he try to go against the grain of what society considered as traditional music as a way of not accepting them, they way they never accepted him?



Amadeo Roldan

Born in Paris July 12, 1900

Died March 7, 1939

Composer, conductor, violinist, teacher

Violin performance, Madrid Conservatory

1921 moved to Cuba

1935 professor of composition at Havana Conservatory

Used Afro-Cuban rhythms and brought a revival to Cuban art

Introduced to the concert hall black Cuban folklore such as the tango, conga, son, and rumba.

Regarded as the founder of the modern school of Cuban music

Used indigenous instruments of both the melodic and percussive nature

First one to use Cuban instruments in orchestral works


La Rembambaramba (1928)

Ballet in which one of the suits requires six different groups of percussion instruments


Ritmicas No. 5 and No. 6 (1930)

A set of 6 pieces grouped together, the first 4 are scored for woodwind quintet plus piano, whereas the last 2 are purely for percussion

Number of percussionists:  11

Instrumentation:  all except for 2 of the performers play only one instrument.  Instruments are both pitched and non-pitched.  Most notes are short in duration

Ritmica No. 5 is a study of the son.  See attached pages

Interesting notation and instrumentation—see attached pages

Technically, the first piece written for just percussion ensemble, even though it is not traditionally recognized as such. 


Thought to ponder:

Is Ritmicas not seen as the first piece written for percussion ensemble because as a group, the movements are not just for percussion, or because this is a Euro centric country and we were more aware of what was happening in Paris than in Cuba?



Edgard Varese

Born Paris December 22, 1885

Studied with D’Indy and Roussel

Founder of the International Composer’s Guild in 1921

One of the of the founding fathers of percussion music, but his music is still seen today as avant-garde


Ionisation (1931)

Instrumentation:  13 players with 37 indefinite pitched instruments and 3 with definite pitch.  Piano is included but for noise, not the melody

Form is either sonata form with an exposition, development, abridged recapitulation, and a coda or ABC.

Credited as being the first piece written for percussion ensemble.

Styles are a mixture of Latin American and  jazz, with uneven rhythmic patterns and meter changes

Other important pieces featuring percussion:



Jose Ardevol

Born Barcelona March 13, 1911

Studied piano, composition, and conducting with his father

1930 moved to Cuba

Taught at a variety of universities in Cuba

Director of the underground National Music Committee during the Revolution

Castro secured him many positions in the government including the national director of music

Music is typically Cuban nationalistic with a touch of neoclassicism


Study in the Form of Prelude and Fugue (Estudio en Forma de Preludio y Fuga, para 37 intrumentos de Percussion, Friccion, y Silbido) (1933)

Number of percussionists:  22

Interesting instruments:  (mostly singular in nature rather than multi-percussion setups)  slapsticks, maracas, claves, guiros, police whistle, sirens, hand clappers, and 2 pianos


Suite (Suite, para 30 Instrumentos de Percussion, Friccion, y Silbido) (1933)

Number of percussionists:  15

Interesting instruments:  almost the exact same instrumentation of Study in the…

John Becker

Born Henderson, Kentucky January 22, 1886

Died January 21, 1961

Contemporary of Ives, Ruggles, Cowell, and Riegger

Member of the American 5 of avant-garde

Pushed to have Americans discover the own experimental tendencies instead of always talking them from Europe

Received his doctorate from Wisconsin Conservatory

Member of the Pan American Association of Composers and ISCM

Director of Federal Music Projects

Compositions revisited German Romanticism, but were more known for their abstract polytonal rhythms and chordal outbursts

Believed a composer’s duty is to “add new resources, evoke new techniques, and develop new sound patterns”

Music was typically programmatic


Abongo (1933)

Number of percussionists:  15

Interesting instruments:  (some play only one instrument, others play more)  many sets of timpani, water drums,  and hand clappers, tin pans, and barrels

Form/Purpose:  Large percussion ensemble and ballet


Vigilante (1935)

Percussion and ballet


A Dance (1938)

Number of percussionists:  6



William Russell

Born Canton, Missouri December 26, 1905

Began as a violinist at age 10

Graduated from Quincy Conservatory

Dropped the Wagner from his last name to avoid musical tie-ins

Attended Columbia Teachers College were he also studied composition

Eventually moved to and spent the rest of his life in New Orleans


Compositional Information/Style:

Fugue was on the same concert that premiered Ionisation in 1931

Influenced by Cage, Cowell, and Harrison

One of the first to integrate African, Caribbean, and Asian instruments

One of first to write for individual intensive multi set-ups for each percussionist

Huge jazz influence.  Focused on this because it was the only true American form of music that was not of a European origin.  Big promoter of American music.

Used classical forms, but in avant-garde ways

Stopped composing after studying jazz extensively in New Orleans because he believed that the musicians that would improvise could make up music that would be so much more interesting than he could every hope to write

For his 85th birthday, there was a concert of only his works to premiere some of his pieces that had not been played before on December 24, 1990



The Music:

March Suite (1933)

Number of percussionists:  3

Interesting instruments:  flat Haitian drum, slide whistle, and piano


Three Dance Movements (1933)

In 1990, became Four Dance Movements with the addition of a Tango movement

Number of percussionists:  4

Interesting instruments:  slapstick, bottle, small dinner bell, and anvil


Three Cuban Pieces (1939) (also titled Percussion Studies in Cuban Rhythms)

Number of percussionists:  4

Interesting instrumentation:  cowbells, guijada (jawbone), and marimbula


Fugue for Eight Percussion Instruments (1933)

Premiered on the same concert as Varese’s Ionisation in 1933

Number of percussionists:  8

Instruments:  snare drum, bass drum, triangle, glock, xylo, piano, 4 timpani, 2 suspended cymbals


The Chicago Sketches—7/18/1940

Ogou Badagri—1932

Made in America—1937

Trumpet Concerto—1930’s



Henry Cowell

Born March 11, 1897

Died December 19, 1965

Composer, writer, and pianist

Played violin at age 5 and was on his way to becoming a prodigy, but his health suffered so he had to settle on composition

1914 he went to University of California, Berkley to study traditional harmony and counterpoint as well as free music

First to come up with the idea of the prepared piano, but this was more developed by his pupil John Cage

Created the use of the tone cluster and ways to notate it

Wrote a book on his new standards of music and his notational practices New Music Resources

1936 he was sentenced to prison on a “morals charge.”

Taught such famous pupils as Cage, Harrison, and Gershwin

Composition for him was not long and complicated but a spontaneous explosion to a musical experience he had just had

Oriental feel to his music using gong, rice bowels, and tom toms


Ostinato Pianissimo (1934)

Number of percussionists:  written for 9 but can be played with 8 (this means 7 percussionists and one pianist)

Instrumentation:  13 indefinite pitched instruments and 3 with definite (2 pianos and a xylophone), including 8 rice bowls

Duration:  3 minutes and 30 seconds

Form:  “the form of the work is an ostinatos which varies in length for each performer and in accent for the repeats.”

no large tonal centers

very soft of very loud dynamics, there are not cresc. or descresc. written.


Pulse (1939)

Number of percussionists:  5

Duration:  4 minutes

Interesting instrumentation:  temple gongs, pipe lengths, break drums, and rice bowls


Return (1939)

Number of percussionists:  3

Interesting instrumentation:  Japanese cup gongs, Japanese wind glass, and pane of glass



Johanna M. Beyer

July 11, 1888-1944

Born and studied in Leipzig, but moved to US when she was 35

Earned her living as a piano teacher

Close association with Cowell, Cage, and Percy Grainger

Associated with 1930’s experimental composition

One of the premiere composers in the Western world to focus on percussion

Most of her works are not published or recorded as of yet, but there are new movements going on to try to bring more fame and credit to her work

Signed her scores JM Beyer to not bring attention to her gender

Died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but the symptoms misunderstood as those of someone suffering for alcoholism

Music was typically programmatic


IV (1935)

Number of percussionists:  9

Instrumentation:  none is listed in the score

Continuous change in tempi and dynamics


Three Movements for Percussion

Dedicated to John Cage

Number of percussionists:  9
Percussion Suite (1933)

Number of percussionists:  5

Instruments:  tom tom, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbal, xylophone, rattle, castanets, 2 Chinese blocks


March for 30 Percussion Instruments (1939)

Number of percussionists:  6

Interesting instruments:  anvil, string drum, metal bowls, thunder sheet, rice bowls, and Chinese wood blocks


Auto Accident (1935)

(discrepancy of actual author—suspected to be Harold Davidson)

Number of percussionists:  9

Interesting instruments:  trap set, Chinese woodblocks, siren, ratchet, 9 musical tumblers and piano


Percussion Opus 14  (1939)

Number of percussionists:  11

Interesting instruments:  metal bowels, anvil, and string drum


Waltz for Percussion (1939)

Number of percussionists:  9



John Cage

See previous packet for background info

Cage continued Varese’s work.  Varese wanted to obtain electronic sounds with conventional instruments whereas Cage relied on electronic amplification for his unconventional instruments.


Quartet (1935)


Trio (1936)


First Construction in Metal (1939)

Number of percussionists:  6

Interesting instrumentation:  5 thunder sheets, sleigh bells, water gong, siren, 12 oxen bells, Japanese temple gongs, Turkish cymbals, anvils and Chinese gongs


Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939)

Number of percussionists:  4

Instrumentation:  variable frequency recording, constant frequency recording, frequency recording, string piano, and suspended cymbal


Living Room Music (1940)

Number of percussionists:  4

Instruments:  unspecified except for any instrument that can be found in a living room ex:  books, paper, door, etc.


Second  Construction (1940)

Number of percussionists:  4



Gerald Strang

Born Clareshorm, Alberta February 13, 1908

Taught by Koechlin, Toch, and Schoenberg’s

Received his doctorate from USC

Editor of the New Music Quarterly (during the time that Cowell as in jail)

Forte was in computer music and electronic music

Concentrated on the linear aspects of percussion, making moving rhythmic lines thorough interplay with other percussion instruments


Percussion Music for Three Players (1935)

Number of percussionists:  3

Interesting instruments:  anvil, maracas



Ray Green

Born in Missouri September 12, 1908

Graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory

Fan of the big band era

Wanted to develop an American style of music

Music was typically programmatic


Three Inventories of Casey Jones (1936)

Number of percussionists:  5

Interesting instruments:  bottle with marbles, pop bottles, and piano



Lou Harrison

Born Portland, Oregon May 14, 1917

Studied with Cowell and Schoenberg

With the aid of John Cage they organized the first concerts of purely percussion music.

Studied in Tokyo, Taiwan, and Korea.  Influence from these is seen in his works

PAS Hall of Fame member

Instrument choices:  Favored different sizes of toms and bass drums as opposed to using snare drums and timpani.  Through travels acquired many different gongs, bells, cymbals and woodblocks.

Unconventional instruments:  flexatones, musical saws, thunder sheets, wind glasses, flower pots, porcelain bowls, glasses, automobile brake drums, tortoise shells, and bell coils.


Bomba (1939)

Number of percussionists:  5


Fifth Simfony (1939)

Number of percussionists:  4


Concerto No. 1 (1939)

For flute and percussion


Canticle No. 1 (1940)

Number of percussionists:  written for 5, but published version says for 7

Instruments: see attached page


Song of Quetzalcoatl (1940)

Number of Percussionists:  4



Carlos Chavez

Born Mexico City June 13, 1899

Died August 2, 1978

Composer, conductor, teacher, writer, and government official

The government wanted to bring music to the masses with an emphasis on Indian cultures in the pre-conquest days.  This started the Age of Cultural Nationalism in Mexico

His compositions were far better received in America than in Europe

Lived in the US for several years where he made contacts with Copland, Cowell, and Varese

Director of the first permanent symphony orchestra in Mexico

Active in the pan American Association


Xochipilli (1940)

His crossover piece from traditional instrumental writing to purely percussion writing.

Instrumentation:  various Aztec instruments with flute, piccolo, and clarinet















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