The Piccolo – A Short Instrument with a Long History
Lior Eitan – solo Piccolo
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Flutes of various materials and sizes have existed since former times. The first flutes were made of animal bones, and later of clay or various types of wood. In Peru, flutes of bronze and silver were discovered. Murals showed flutists holding their instruments on the left instead of the right, as customary nowadays.
During the Renaissance there were consorts of recorders of various sizes, from the sopranino to the bass. At the time there was also an instrument called the Fife – a small, cylindrical flute, which was built in one unit. It had six holes and its ends were protected by metal rings. The fife was used mainly for military purposes, such as conveying various messages, and it was called a "Swiss Flute", since it was used primarily in Switzerland, whose army was one of the strongest in Europe during that period. One of the prevailing sayings at the time was: "A good flutist is a brave man who can stand in face of any danger."
The piccolo first appeared in the orchestra around 1700. The earliest work with a piccolo part was Handel's "Rinaldo" (1711). There is also a piccolo part in Bach's Cantata 103 (1725). It is not certain which specific instrument was intended by the composers – a piccolo or a sopranino recorder, which is also often called "flautino". The same uncertainty also applies to Vivaldi's three famous concerti, which are performed nowadays equally on the piccolo and the recorder.
Thanks to the efforts of Rameau, a position opened for piccolo player at the Paris Opera. During the Baroque era, the piccolo was built of two parts, with one E-flat key.
By the mid-18th century the piccolo was already well-established in the orchestra, but received parts mainly in works of a military nature and in rhythmical dances, such as the Tambourin.
Mozart did not use a piccolo in any of his symphonies, but used it in his German Dances, K. 104 and in the Overture to "The Abduction from the Seraglio".
Beethoven was the first composer to use the piccolo in his symphonic works. He wrote separate parts for it in the finales of his Fifth, Six and Ninth symphonies. The piccolo was also given significant parts in "Wellington's Victory", "Egmont", "King Stephen" and two of the Ten German Dances.
The piccolo was naturally prominent in military bands, from the orchestra of the National Guard, led by Francois Gossec, which was established in France immediately after the siege on the Bastille.
The piccolo followed the changes in the flute rather slowly. While the flute of the end of the 18th century was a relatively sophisticated instrument with several keys, the piccolo of the beginning of the 19th century was a simple instrument with only one key.
The invention of the "multi-key" piccolo is attributed to the flute teacher from Prague, Michael Janusch, who developed the instrument in 1824. This instrument was equivalent to the flute with six keys customary at the time. In the course of the 19th century piccolos were built according to more than 40 sets of fingerings, in seven different keys and from six various materials. There was also an abundance of study books for the piccolo. As opposed to the flute, there was no substantial difference in the quality of sound between the old and new piccolos, and therefore piccolo players did not hasten to get rid of their old instruments in favor of the new ones.
An additional instrument developed in the 19th century is the piccolo in D-flat. Since the pre-Boehm piccolos and flutes were tuned to a key with two sharps, playing in keys that had flats was difficult and complex. However, music for military bands was often written in these keys, in order to make it easier for the trumpeters and clarinetists. Hence the invention of the piccolo in D-flat, on which the famous solo from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and the solo from "Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa were played.
Piccolo players continued to play the one-key instrument throughout the 19th century, but undoubtedly the most popular instrument of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was the piccolo with six keys.
Berlioz and Tchaikovsky were also piccolo players and wrote beautiful parts for it in their orchestral works. Berlioz, noticing the lovely qualities that the low notes of the piccolo can produce, wrote:
"When I hear this instrument employed in doubling in triple octave the air of a baritone, or casting its squeaking voice into the midst of a religious harmony, or strengthening or sharpening (for the sake of noise only) the high part of an orchestra from beginning to end of an act of an opera, I cannot help feeling that this mode of instrumentation is one of platitudes and stupidity. The piccolo may, however, have a very happy effect in soft passages, and it is a mere prejudice to think that it should only be played loud."
The piccolo developed by Boehm was less successful than the flute. Boehm created several types of piccolos and did not achieve significant results. He therefore passed on the assignment to another German manufacturer called Mollenhauer, who reached satisfactory qualities, due to the fact that in contrast with the cylindrical-bore flute, in the piccolo he combined a cylindrical head and a conical body.
Alongside the role of the piccolo in military bands, symphony orchestras and opera orchestras, the piccolo in the 19th century had an additional role – due to its loud notes it became a very popular instrument in balls and dance halls. Many players even wrote virtuoso waltzes and polkas for this purpose. One of the most prominent was the French composer and piccolo player Eugène Damaré.
In the 20th century the piccolo became an integral part of the orchestra. Composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and others wrote prominent solo parts for the piccolo. Nowadays the piccolo enjoys full partnership in chamber music ensembles and lately several concerti have been written especially for it.
Coltman, John W. – "Some observations on the Piccolo"
The Flutist Quarterly, winter 1991
Domborian – Eby, Zart – "A History of the Piccolo"
The Flutist Quarterly, winter 1991
Gippo, Jan – "The Piccolo, then and now"
Flute Talk, December 1998
Wacker, Therese – "The history of the Piccolo, from Fifes to intricate keys"
Flute Talk, May – June 2001