Tympano

As a boy I was fascinated by the orchestral kettle-drummer. We dare confess as weaknesses of childhood oddities which would stamp us, grown men and women, as decidedly queer. I shall not confess that as a man I am still fascinated by the kettle-drum of the orchestra. It is easier to ask you whether, on your honor, the little baldheaded man behind his battery of polished mortars from which he dauntlessly fires single booming shells and rattling showers of grape has not helped you to pass more than one musical evening without disgracing yourself byfalling asleep. If you do not care to commit yourself, at least own that you too have been amused and interested in watching his flying sticks and his bobbing head; for unless you are an admirer of Tympano, these reminiscences will mean nothing to you.

The important observation has been made that the blowers of wind-instruments are invariably bald or baklescent, while the sawyers of strings are adorned with locks to make a Delilah’s fingers itch. Clarinet, oboe, horn, trombone, tuba, and bassoon have blown each other’s heads as bare as sirocco and simoom the plains of Africa. But of all bald heads, Tympano’s is the baldest. His radiant scone beams out in the musical storm like the moon amid broken clouds, and, I have no doubt, gives as much confidence to the navigators of the musical sea. He is never at a loss. He glares at the score. His uncompromising attitude shows you that, he, at any rate, knows what it is all about. How admirable is his self-possession as he screws up his diaphragms, taps them gently, caressingly, with critical ear inclined, and allays their throbbings with unfevered palm. (And all this amid an avalanche of sound, like a man artistically tying his necktie while sliding down the Jungfrau.) How wonderful is his ability to keep one eye fixed on his score and the other on the leader, ever ready to insert, jauntily or circumspectly or decisively, into the theme his punctuation of stops, dashes, and exclamation-points; yet also ready at any moment to set his sticks flying till they hover over the agitated surfaces of his drums, an indistinguishable cloud, out of which rise ominous mutterings of mobs, rumblings of thunder, roar of surf, bellowings of all the bulls of Bashan. Tremendous tumult to be the offspring of a tempest, — not, it is true, in a teapot, but in a soup-kettle!

Never shall I forget the thrill that danced up and down my spine the first time I heard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite played by a great orchestra. The elfin music of Anitra’s dance was done; the funereal dirge of Ase had died into silence like the groanings of Hamlet senior having his sins burned and purged away. Then Tympano arose and girded his loins for battle. He tested the knobs of his sticks, he turned his screws, he patted his sheepskins and ‘over them softly his warm ear laid.’ All was right and tight as a cruiser in fighting trim. He bent forward, alert and ready, but majestically calm.

The Mountain King’s ball began. The wild orgy rose and swelled. Winds howled in gorges, pines whistled and screamed, demons laughed, the sea moaned in far fiords. Superhuman buzzings sounded from the bass viols, demoniac chords from the ’cellos, shrieks of pain from the clarinets and oboes, defiant challenges from the horns, piteous complainings from the bassoons. On and on, up and up, swept the tides of sound, but Tympano stood unmoved. Higher and nearer, till they threatened to engulf him, but he quivered not an eyelid. I had given him up for lost, but suddenly at a nod from the leader he came to life, he let loose his thunders, he roared his defiance. Low and uncertain at first he rumbled, but waxed in volume until, little man that he was, he all but drowned his toiling, sweating comrades in a long-drawn rattling peal that shook the seat whereon I sat and turned my blood to water within me.

I dreamed of Tympano that night. I saw him riding the wind, a new Hermes with a drumstick for a caduceus.

This exploit of Tympano’s took place in my twelfth year, and for a long time he occupied a niche of honor in my mental gallery of heroes as the most redoubtable of drum-drubbers. Of course, I realized that I would rather listen to the orchestra without him than to him without the orchestra, yet I felt that the Mountain King’s ball would be a poor affair without him, like a thunder-storm without any thunder.

Perhaps a year later I discovered his soul-brother. It was at a seaside resort, and along the board-walk came marching a band of Highland bagpipers in full costume. They were tremendous fellows, but their music, to my untutored ears, was like the squealings of forty stuck pigs. Yet I have never heard strains to compare with theirs for arousing a desire to die for one’s country.

I think the bagpipe music must have been fashioned back in the old days by some demon of perversity out of the whistle of arrows, the clash of claymores, the neighing of war-steeds, and the shrieks of the dying. When I hear it, I think of the wheel of fortune, the car of Juggernaut, the mills of the gods, and the inquisitorial rack and screw. If whirls along with a cyclonic rhythm that sets the feet to tramping and the blood to boiling.

And such a yell was there,
Of sudden and portentous birth,
As if men fought upon the earth,
And fiends in upper air:
Oh, life and death were in the shout,
Recoil and rally, charge and rout,
And triumph and despair.

This particular band of six-foot Roderick Dhus came swinging along with the precision of a machine, twelve elbows and twelve legs moving as one, six grave faces set. resolutely to the front, chins held high, fingers flying, bonnets and plaids flashing, plumes waving. With the same jaunty gravity they would have led a wedding procession or a forlorn hope, and not missed a whistle or a squeak. I felt extremely small as they went by, but was all eyes. For behind them strode the most prodigious figure I had ever seen.

He was seven feet tall if he was an inch, and resting on his wish-bone was the biggest bass-drum seen on earth since Tubal smote the chorded shell. Yet this astonishing man not only carried it with ease, but smote it with a vivacity and vigor which even Tympano could not outdo. And, what is more, he buffeted it on both sides, for he wielded a drumstick in each hand, and not only displayed all Tympano’s precision, but managed to execute the most marvelous evolutions between whacks, brandishing his sticks alternately behind his head, hitting the left side of the drum with his right - hand stick, and vice versa, throwing the sticks into the air and catching them again in the nick of time; and all this with a high devotion and a heroic joy that made me catch my breath and grit my teeth to keep from shouting aloud in ecstasy. Never have I seen a man so extremely busy who made so light of business.

The wailing chorus with its thunderous accompaniment swept on and away. The musicians were employed only by a traveling show; they had sunk low from a high estate; yet for one boy they were a bit of old-world pageantry, an episode in high romance which illuminated the pages of Scottish history for many a day.

My Scotchman could have tucked Tympano in the nook of his plaid, yet I cannot help feeling that, they were of the same stuff at heart. Just what makes a man take to playing a drum, —snare, kettle, or bass, — in preference to more dulcet instruments, it would be hard to say. It is the music of unadulterated rhythm, and the mysteries of our love of rhythm have occupied more than one keen mind. However, one does not have to possess the ear of a Disraeli — who is said to have preferred the Sultan’s serenade of three hundred drums to Jenny Lind’s singing — to feel that there is something to he said for the pereussives.

I think that Tympano and the Scotchman are of an uncompromising, even dogmatic turn, that they suffer from no illusions, that for them two and two always make four. Of course, Tympano dwells on a loftier æsthetic level than the Scotchman; he knows music, and can usually play every instrument in the orchestra a little; yet, like him, he sticks to his drums. It expresses his instinct for plain language, his desire to bring order out of chaos. As the Scotchman straightens out the spirals and involutions of his Gaelic pibrochsand coronachs, soTym-

pano, among the evasions and ambiguities and elusions of modern music, thumps and pounds and rumbles and roars, in much the same spirit as Doctor Johnson stamped on the ground in his argument with Bishop Berkeley. Rightly understood, they become a symbol. But moral applications have gone out of fashion.