Lamenting the abundance of what he called “rat-a-tat, boom-boom” music for drums, William Kraft set out to create more sophisticated offerings that would bring greater respect to instruments he felt were too often taken for granted in orchestras.
“The days of percussionists being second-class citizens in the musical society are clearly over,” he wrote in 1968. “The last of orchestral families to be exploited, they have come of age in the 20th century.”
Mr. Kraft, who as both a composer and a percussionist became a force in contemporary music, elevating overlooked instruments like the timpani and developing a style that drew on jazz and Impressionism, died on Feb. 12 at a hospital in Glendale, Calif. He was 98.
His wife, the composer Joan Huang, said the cause was heart failure.
A spirited performer, Mr. Kraft was acclaimed for his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he spent 26 years, 18 of them as principal timpanist.
But he was perhaps best known as a composer. A frequent collaborator with Igor Stravinsky, Mr. Kraft helped lend legitimacy to contemporary music in the United States, founding ensembles to showcase modern composers at a time when many classical musicians were skeptical of straying too far from the traditional canon.
Playing his music — deliberate yet freewheeling, flashy but spiritual — became a rite of passage for percussionists, and his works were heard in band rooms and concert halls alike.
William Kraft was born in Chicago on Sept. 6, 1923, the son of Louis and Florence (Rogalsky) Kashareftsky, Jewish immigrants from Russia. (His father changed the family name from Kashareftsky to Kraft upon arriving in the United States.) When William was 3, the family moved to San Diego, where his parents opened a delicatessen and, at his mother’s urging, he began studying piano.
While he adored the music of French Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel (“my great idols,” friends say he called them), he did not initially anticipate making composition a career.
“I just thought they were gods and not to be touched,” he said in a 2020 interview with Ching Juhl, a producer and violist. “They were influences, but I never thought I could write the style.”
During World War II, when he worked as a drummer and pianist in American military bands stationed in Europe, he began exploring composition more seriously.
His roommate at the time, a trumpet player, asked him to produce an arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust.” Mr. Kraft agreed, but he wanted to do it his way, composing an elaborate introduction based on …….