I have the pleasure of being able to sell this really nice pair of early pedal timpani made by Parsons. These are the “Super Ideal 24” model which were top of the range at the time. So with the Premier Deluxe Timpani, I now have for sale both both premium brand timpani made in the UK during the early 20th Century. The Premier timpani have been on my books for a while now, this both surprising and not. At over 100 years old, they are now unusual instruments now and certainly not up to date with modern styling and those ugly oversized wheels, etc. However, if playing timpani in classical and baroque orchestras is your thing, then why would you not want to buy drums that are actually the correct tool for the job? The alternative are the old hand tune pots or modern versions of the same with some sort of cable tuning mechanism, or modern, out of period instruments with a more compromised shape.
The advantages of these drums over more contemporary drums are numerous: at the top of the list is the size and shape of the bowls being nice and deep and using thicker gauged copper. Then factor in that the pedal mechanism was specifically designed for calfskin heads which has reliably worked for 100 years without irreparably breaking. Not only do they both look the part and sound good, they also have a historical heritage. The downsides are few; they weigh a bit more than modern drums, but that is primarily due to the amount of copper in the bowl which was on the list of advantages; the pedal mechanisms on modern drums are smoother and quieter with the exception of the Ringer or Dresden style ratchet, and spare parts are not readily available. However, spare parts on modern drums in my view are not worth the money even if you can get them – after all things break for a reason. Regarding the pedal mechanism, isn’t it like any percussion instrument – you’ll have to learn some technique, a small price to pay for owning fantastic timpani costing under £1500 per drum!
From what I know, which is limited indeed, E. & A. Parsons Ltd were based in Birmingham here in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century. Birmingham is the UK’s second largest city and the heart of the black country, a colloquialism for that whole section of England, which describes the filth of industry at the height of the industrial revolution. Birmingham was therefore well known as an epicentre for all sorts of industries including more creative crafts and artisan skills (and I’m not talking about coffee houses or bakers!) Still to this day it has a thriving jewellery quarter. Although big, Birmingham is not London, so for musical instrument makers the market place would have been much smaller and therefore the business would have been smaller than other companies around during that period. However, from my personal experience, when businesses grow too large the owners become more interested in profit and care less about quality, and it is quality that becomes known and recognised. This recognition put Parsons right up there as a leading percussion instrument manufacturer globally and they were strong competition for the Leedy Drum Co in the US as well as Premier over here. As instruments moved around the globe a lot of the same ideas or developments were being rapidly copied from one manufacturer to the next.
Since the writing of this blog post I have been contacted by the grandson of EA Parsons who has given me some more information about the company. EA Parsons stablished the company in the 1890’s in Liverpool where they reached their heyday in the 1920’s. The company moved to Birmingham between 1936-38, so everything pre WW2 was Liverpool everything after Birmingham.
Albert, also a timpanist and an RAF engineer, remained making percussion instruments at the Birmingham site to into the 1960s after which he moved to Rhayader in Wales where he concentrated on instruments for education until 15th Jan 1970 when the company was sold to EJ Arnolds of Leeds who themselves went bust in the early 1980s.
The number stamped on the drum is a unique classification referring to the hire purchase agreement. Thousands of instruments were purchased using hire purchase contacts during the company heyday. However the advent of talking pictures among other pressures saw the decline of music halls leaving musicians out of work and unwilling to fulfil their obligations. This resulted in the failure of the hire purchase sister company and exposed EA Parsons Ltd to huge losses from which it never recovered.
Ernest A. Parsons senior as well as his two sons Ernest A Junior and Albert were all established percussionists, indeed Ernest Junior was the principal timpanist for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a period of 45 years, from the orchestras inception in 1920 right up until the mid-1960’s. It was his brother Albert who actually built these timpani giving them the Super Ideal moniker to denote that they are the top of the range instruments produced by the firm. I don’t know what the 24 refers to, certainly not the size, but it is very evident that the overall build quality is excellent.
I have come across Parsons instruments a good few times during my career and all of those instruments exuded quality and sounded brilliant. I guess that it is just a fact of life that if you want percussion instruments to sound good, they generally need to be made using thicker material somewhere along the line, so consequently they always weigh more than the modern equivalent. From my perspective it is because of this diminution of tonal quality in the majority of modern instruments, that this is one area that I am looking into. However like everything, this work require time and money and as a poor but busy instrument maker both are in short supply (especially now in pandemic world). This means that everything takes me much longer to achieve because they have to be fit in and around the work that I need to do to pay the bills.
Anyway, enough of that. These timpani essentially hybridised the old pots and added an internal tuning mechanism which could then be attached to a pedal system. This means that the pedals can still be removed in order to create hand tuned timps which was pretty standard practice at that time and makes the drums considerable easier to transport. It just goes to show that nowadays there is nothing revolutionary about having a detachable bowl on a timpani, rather it is a massive step back to an old technology that ultimately became obsolete. Whereas back then, the pedal mechanism on these drums actually represented something that was new in the world of percussion and a huge leap forward.
There are some repairs on the 25 base casting; nuts and bolts have replaced the original rivets which often become loose as the alloy of the leg castings become worn. The wooden boards that the drums sit on are a good inclusion, because these style of legs are susceptible to damage – they are only aluminium castings so can easily be broken which is seen a lot in the Ludwig universals which shares the same design. This was also probably when the colour of that base frame changed. This was probably done when the drums were last fully refurbished, work done by the late Arthur Soothill. Arthur was widely regarded as the leading proponent of my profession in his day and is incomparable to some even now. Although I would dispute that claim, I can say that his work was generally of a high standard and still stands up when compared to the standards achieved today.
The clutch mechanisms are ratchet and pawl style and both are in very good condition, holding their notes very well. This is a testament to the techniques of the players who have owned these instruments. If the pawls are allowed to scrape over the ratchet, they grind away at the teeth. Although the levers are designed to cope with this to some extent, over time and constant misuse they do wear out and would represent a large repair bill. So the new owner will need to hone their pedalling skills and maybe they will last another few decades!
These drums were originally owned and extensively used by Alan Taylor who was the principal timpanist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden London for many years as well as the Brighton Philharmonic, English National Opera and the BBC players, right up to the late 80s. Consequently they have very nice Kalfo heads which are calfskin and produced in Ireland. It rains a lot in Ireland, even more than the UK, so the grass is very lush resulting in cows that are sadly much healthier than the norm. Combining this super diet with the lack of barbed wire fences, the skin of the cow becomes nice and supple which makes them perfect for vellum drum heads. The company who produce the heads also have a secret method of skiving the skins to an incredibly thin and consistent thickness, but since I have always been refused entry to any percussion manufacturer’s factories (even asked to leave trade stalls!) I can only deduce how they do it from what I can see on the skin. They use a triple drum sanding machine or similar, the sort of thing they use in most wood furniture factories to abrade surfaces to very fine tolerances. Another example of mysticism and protectionism surrounding the percussion industry, what they forget is that some of us actually know our trade and can read materials like a book. You don’t acquire these skills from sitting at a desk running a factory, so perhaps they don’t know that their manufacturing techniques cannot be kept secret.
In summary then, these excellently built, antique drums, with a pedigree that demonstrates their tonal quality are perfectly suited to the baroque orchestra. They would no doubt appreciate some refurbishment, but they are ready to go. Although part of me likes to see the original finish on old instruments, they would probably also benefit from some sympathetic re-finishing to make them look more the part and to hide the previous bowl re-shaping work.
Thank you for reading. If you are interested in buying the drums, send me an email and we shall take it from there. If you have any comments pertaining to the article or associated historical information, please put it in the comments below.