The piccolo is one of the most powerful instruments in the orchestra.
For that matter, it’s actually the highest-pitched instrument in the orchestra, and with that piercing range, it’s able to cut through almost anything the rest of the orchestra can put forth.
Before we jump in, take a quick look at this excerpt from Amal Gochenour’s tonebase course on the fundamentals of piccolo playing.
If you’re a flutist and want to watch more, click here to access this entire introduction lesson for free!
I mentioned the piccolo having a high range. Take a look at this:
That top note on the standard C flute is a high C.
The top note on the piccolo is a REALLY high C. That’s the top note of a standard 88-key piano, or C8.
Many wind instruments, such as the bassoon and oboe, tend to drop off in projection as they enter their higher register.
However, the piccolo is one of those rare instruments that really project in their higher register, and given that the piccolo is also the highest instrument in the orchestra, this means that the piccolo can push out a sheer volume of sound like no other instrument.
But just because the piccolo has a lot of power behind it, this doesn’t mean that it’s only purpose is to push it.
The piccolo is also one of the most lyrical instruments in the orchestra, with a stark ability to imitate birdsong and add a sort of sparkle to the woodwinds and violins.
Amal Gochenour demonstrating dynamics on the piccolo in her exclusive course available on tonebase Flute.
Structure of the piccolo
The piccolo is just about half the size of the flute, which helps to explain the shift up an octave in the piccolo's range compared to the flute’s range.
The keywork is based on the Boehm system, a system developed by inventor/flutist Theobald Boehm in the mid 1850s. It was a system designed to optimize the location of the tone holes for acoustics, which was originally created for the standard C flute but was also applied to the piccolo, the alto flute, and other auxiliary flutes.
Brief history of the piccolo
While many would assume the origins of the piccolo go back to some point in the development of the orchestra.
However, the origins of the piccolo actually go back to military battles in the Middle Ages.
Evidence suggests the piccolo was used in battles for its sharp, piercing range as it was able to cut above the sound of the battling troops.
While these early piccolos had a strictly practical application, we didn’t see the return of the piccolo in the concert music setting until the beginning of the 18th century, appearing in scores by Handel and Vivaldi.
The role of the piccolo in the orchestra evolved greatly over the romantic era, as composers such as Wagner and Richard Strauss started using the piccolo to thicken the violin lines and add colorful textures to the orchestra.
While yes there have been many solo and chamber pieces composed for the piccolo in the last 100 years, the most prominent “pieces” for the piccolo are typically orchestral excerpts.
Frequent listening of orchestral music from the 18th century until now will reveal lots of fascinating instances of piccolo writing.
In this blog post on the alto flute, we mentioned Ravel’s infamous ballet Daphnis et Chloé, which features the piccolo making bird calls, an imitation of nature during a sunrise:
An even more famous example of Ravel’s stunning piccolo writing is the piccolo solo in Laideronnette from his ballet Ma mère l'Oye, which like Daphnis et Chloé was later adapted as an orchestral suite:
Rimsky-Korsakov also contributed some tricky yet iconic orchestral excerpts, such as this moment in his Scheherezade. Listen to how the piccolo thickens the doubling with the flutes and the violins:
Bartok also had a proclivity towards excellent piccolo writing, take the third movement from his Romanian Folk Dances:
Stepping away from orchestral excerpts, one fantastic piccolo concerto is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Piccolo Concerto, composed in 1996:
While these are just a few examples out of the hundreds of examples out there, hopefully this offers you a good introduction into the music out there for the piccolo.
The piccolo is a true powerhouse of an instrument that can add so much character to the orchestra, and it is a wonderful skill to have in the toolkit for any flutist.
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