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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada





Report H E 9

Fortress of Louisbourg



The sizes and types of drums used over the centuries in different countries has varied considerably. The rope-tension snare drum used at Louisbourg went through its share of changes over the years. In 1588 Arbeau described the "drum used by the French, and familiar enough to everyone," as being a "hollow wooden cylinder about two feet and a half in length, closed at each end with parchment skins fixed with two bands, about two feet and a half in diameter, and bound with cords so that they are as tight as possible ..."[1] Since both ropes and heads were attached to the same hoops, tension on these drums was very low. This, combined with the heavy sticks which were used and the thickness of the drumheads, would have created many difficulties for the drummers, especially in the execution of the long roll. "It is feasible," states James Blades in his Percussion Instruments And Their History, "that if a roll of any length was required, single strokes were used, a large drum producing a note of sufficient length to cover possible deficiencies in the roll." [2]

Increased tension of the drum was made possible by the introduction of a "flesh hoop" around which the skin was folded, and a separate "counter hoop" through which the ropes were strung. The rebound of the sticks made possible by the increased tension "may well have led to the wider use of the long roll produced by a double beat from each hand ..."[3] Control of this roll - "the foundation of Drum beating "[4] - is the "hallmark of a side drummer ... By this he is judged ..."[5] Though the drums at Louisbourg had counter hoops for the ropes, the tension of their heads and the clarity of the rolls often must have left much to be desired due to the extreme humidity of the climate. On a wet, foggy day, as the skins become limp in the dampness, it is still almost impossible to get the sticks to rebound properly on the heads.

The 18th century French snare drum was made of brass or wood, the latter being either oak or walnut "fort mince, plié & courbé en forme de cylindre." It was as high as it was wide; this dimension not usually exceeding two and a half feet because of the difficulty in finding skins - most commonly sheep or goat - of sufficient size to cover anything bigger. Le Dictionnaire Universel Francois Et Latin, published in 1743, mentions that when it was said that "la peau du loup sur un tambour assourdit, ou fait crever la peau de mouton, c'est une fable, car on n'en a jamais fait de peau de loup. On n'en fait point non plus de peaux d'âne, quoique le peuple le croie & qu'il dise que Vane est battu pendant sa vie & apres sa mort." Whatever their origin these skins were stretched on flesh hoops and tensed by means of counter hoops through which were strung ropes running from one hoop to the other around the drum. The ropes were tightened by means of "petits cordes, courroies ou noeuds mobiles ..." The bottom head-of the drum, the snare head, was crossed by a cord of catgut which was also stretched and wag called the snare of the drum. There were only two snares on a drum, formed either by doubling one long cord or afixing two smaller pieces of catgut. The snares were "fixé d'un bout sur le cerceau, & de l'autre il passe par un trou, au sortir duquel on l'arrête avec une cheville, qui va en diminnant comme un fosset ou cone." Tension of the snares was increased or decreased by tightening or loosening this bolt. [6]

The tension of the snares is as important as the tentson of the drumhead. The strokes on the upper or batter head produce air waves inside the drum shell. These waves are communicated to the snare head and the snares themselves, changing the character of the air waves and doubling the number of vibrations. The snares must "lie evenly on the vellum and be tensioned to produce a crisp and immediate response from the stroke on the batter head." Snares that are too tight choke the tone, while those that are too loose will not respond to the strokes on the upper head. [7]

The drums ordered for the drummers of the Compagnie Franche de la Marine at Louisbourg were painted blue and sprinkled with Fleurs de Lys. The number of snares ordered for the drums indicates that there were only two snares on a drum, and the skins were goat rather than the preferred sheep. In 1733 "peau de parchemin" was requested for the drums, but in 1741 and 1752 goat skin of good quality was stipulated. [8] Just prior to the second siege, Prévost asked that good calf skin replace the goat skin for the drums, and that the drums themselves be "grandes et fortes." [9]

Many illustrations of 18th century French drummers depict the drums carried quite high, almost to the chest, and at an angle which causes the drum to rest under the drummer's left arm. Other pictures suggest the more natural placement of the drum at the waistline, slightly to the side and balanced on the left leg. Since it is much more comfortable to have the drum in this position, it is likely that it was the one most often adopted, particularly on long marches. A drum hung too low on the drummer cannot be struck with the proper force, so this must be guarded against. Proper placement of such a heavy instrument is essential to prevent its quickly becoming a burden to the drummer. This is reflected in a manuel for the teaching of drumming published in Paris in 1833, which cautioned the instructor to see to it that the pupil did not support his drum against a tree or against a wall. [10]

The condition of the drums was the responsibility of each drummer. The Côde Militaire states that drummers of the French militia would be paid and kept in linen and shoes on condition that theg;anaintain their drums and drumsticks. 11 And, drummers of the infantry were to receive a daily allowance from their captains for maintaining their drums, slings and sticks, and making any necessary repairs. [12]