Janissary Pedals

December 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Janissary band originated in Turkey in the fourteenth century as an elite corps of mounted musicians composed of shawm and bass drum players.

In the seventeenth century, the trumpet, small kettledrums, cymbals, and bell trees were added to this ceremonial ensemble, thereby producing a loud and highly percussive effect. The Turkish sound captured the imagination of the Viennese masters, who attempted to re-create it in their orchestral and theatrical works. Haydn wrote three “military” symphonies, Beethoven composed three orchestral works with Turkish percussion (including his monumental Symphony No. 9, which has a Turkish march in the last movement), and Mozart and Haydn, among others, used this military sound in their operas. Mozart noted that “Music must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music.

The influence was felt even in piano music—notably in Mozart’s appealing Rondo alla turca from his Sonata in A major, which we will hear. So popular was this style that some nineteenth-century pianos featured a “Janissary pedal” to add percussive effects.It was a rhythmic and melodic style full of energy and bravura, and German harpsichords were occasionally built incorporating extra pedals that would ring bells, beat a padded drum stick against the underside of the soundboard, or activate a variety of cymbals and snares. Inevitably the late 18 the Century pianos from Vienna featured the Janissary Music pedals as well. Particularly in the period of 1810 to 1826, grand and square pianos made in Vienna were frequently built with these popular stops included. Square pianos made in Vienna between ~1810 and 1828 frequently feature an additional pedal for Janissary effects. Immigrants to America such as Joseph Newman, Joseph Hiskey, and George Huppmann, all of whom settled in Baltimore Maryland, or Andreas Reuss of Cincinnati, Ohio, began producing pianos in America with the extra pedal. These are built on a general style of the wrest plank in the front over the keys, the strings running diagonally from lower left to upper right, and in the upper right corner, the effects of a drum stick and bell are arranged. Depressing the outside rightmost pedal beats the drum, and quickly releasing the pedal rings the bell, giving a boom ring effect with each pedal pump, which can be easily synchronized to the music at the keyboard.

The bell is usually a nicely turned brass bell with a high clear chime. The drum stick is a hardwood paddle hinged at the instrument case struts with a brass hinge, with a horsehair stuffed leather striker, and comes to rest on a similar horsehair stuffed pad. The striker for the bell is an iron rod perched on a thin spring steel arm which is further attached to a wooden paddle hinged in leather to the case, and the travel against the bell is limited to the spring action allowing the heavier iron rod to strike and rebound from the bell on quickly lowering the pedal. At no time does the rod rest on the bell, and the pictures above are of the action under repair. Variants of this basic scheme are to be found in all squares with Janissary pedals.

Although the fascination with Turkish music proved to be a passing fancy, it nevertheless affected the makeup of the Western orchestra by establishing percussion instruments of Turkish origin (bass drum, cymbals, bells, triangle) as permanent members of the ensemble. It’s hard to imagine an orchestra today without them! The Turkish Janissary ensemble also influenced the military band in the West; these same instruments now form the heart of every marching and concert band.


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