Escaping the Nutcracker Suite: Composing for the 21st Century’s Piccolo Player

Escaping the Nutcracker Suite: Composing for the 21st Century’s Piccolo Player

Just as the turn of the last century brought “The Golden Age of the Piccolo” with its cornucopia of birdlike solos, we have ushered in the new millennium with a renaissance of the piccolo as a solo instrument. In the past, the piccolo has acted as the flash and thunderbolts in an exciting orchestral score or as the comic relief in lighter fare. Rarely before has its lyrical side been utilized, but the times are changing and composers are challenging the clichéd use of this highest member of the flute family. For the past two decades, proponents of the piccolo have been commissioning and performing new solo works in America and Europe, and composers are increasingly using the instrument as a mellifluous solo voice in chamber and orchestral writing.

A History of Solo Piccolo Performance

Between 1889 and 1930, over 1200 piccolo solos were composed and performed in outdoor bandstands across the country and in Europe. During this “Golden Age,” the piccolo was the second most popular solo instrument, surpassed only by the cornet (R. Roberto: The Golden Age of the Piccolo). By the mid-20th century, however, solo piccolo performances became scarce. With the rediscovery of Antonio Vivaldi in the 1950s, the composer’s sopranino recorder concerti were given their American premieres as piccolo solos. His Concerto in A Minor was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra with my former teacher John C. Krell as soloist. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Edwin H. Schloss called the piccolo concerto a “rare phenomenon at any symphonic concert…in which the cheerful and antic solo instrument is supported by the strings in a style to which it has rarely been accustomed.” Schloss claimed, “Krell gave it an expert performance and the audience warmly endorsed the experiment.”

Newly composed works for the piccolo as a viable solo instrument did not begin in earnest until 1973 when Vincent Persichetti penned his Parable for solo piccolo. In 1975, Buffalo Philharmonic piccoloist Lawrence Trott saw the scant amount of music available for the instrument as a challenge to overcome, so he spearheaded the commissioning of many new works under the auspices of his new organization, The Piccolo Society. The best of these commissions by Michael Horwood, David Loeb, and P.D.Q. Bach became part of the first full piccolo and piano recital in New York City.

Current Trends

Continuing on Trott’s initiative, in the last fifteen years piccoloists like Jan Gippo of the St. Louis Symphony and Zart Dombourian-Eby of the Seattle Symphony, along with the piccolo committee of the National Flute Association, have been promoting the piccolo as a solo instrument by commissioning, performing, and disseminating works to the national flute community. Some composers—like Martin Amlin, Avner Doman, and Marilyn Bliss—found breakthrough success writing quality solo works for piccolo. Other composers—such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mike Mower, Katherine Hoover, Brian Ferneyhough, Thea Musgrave, and Gary Schocker—have helped fuel the renaissance.

Along with Vincent Persichetti and his Parable (based on a Christmas hymn by Milton), works that are becoming standards in the literature include:

  • Michael Daugherty, The High and the Mighty (American pop culture meets the bossa nova)
  • Daniel Dorff, Sonatine de Giverny (Neo-Impressionistic tonal painting)
  • Leoš Janáček, March of the Bluebirds (Slovakian folk-styled march)
  • John La Montaine, Sonata (classic sonata form visiting all twelve keys)

World-class flute soloist Sir James Galway made contributions to the renaissance by recording Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra on the RCA label. This work has been performed by the orchestral piccoloists of Baltimore, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Nationally recognized flute soloists Ransom Wilson and Paula Robison have added piccolo to their recitals at venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. These performances have helped the classical music audience gain a greater awareness of the instrument.

The Instrument

A conical bore, wooden piccolo is the preferred choice for professionals. It typically has more even intonation and tone quality throughout the registers then the cylindrical-bored instrument. Piccolos are also available in silver and resin. The piccolo is a much more difficult instrument to control than the flute. For some players and instruments, the pitch tendencies of the piccolo follow the flute; others have opposite tendencies. Each instrument has individual notes that are uniquely pitched. Add to this the tuning and tonal problems that stem from dynamic changes and varied lip pressure, which is effected by nervousness, and you have one unpredictable little instrument.

The Field

The flutist doubler is the primary professional performer on the instrument today, yet many doublers are not experienced with the alternate fingerings needed to play a piccolo better in tune, nor have they gained the flexibility of embouchure for precise control. Flutists are discovering the need to handle the ever-increasing demands of this doubling instrument, since the use of piccolo in larger chamber music compositions has sizably increased in the last fifteen years. Luckily, due to technical improvements made in the production of the instrument over the same period, the basic performance level of the piccolo player has improved. Some flutists are specialists on the instrument, and for clarity I’ll refer to this professional as a piccoloist. Since flutists with a strong piccolo background are more marketable than those without, piccolo instruction has recently become specialized too. New master’s degree programs in piccolo performance have been established by piccoloists Laurie Sokoloff and Jan Gippo at Peabody Conservatory and Webster University, respectively. Even though these programs are small, they are impressive; in the first four years of the program, two out of three of Peabody’s graduates have found orchestral placement.

Composing for the Piccolo as Compared to the Flute

Composing for the piccolo is not unlike composing for the flute, except the instrument plays an octave higher than notated. The pitch, tone, and volume controls of the piccolo are either amplified or magnified as compared to the flute. The upper register can lead an entire orchestra; the bottom register, conversely, can be covered over.

Unlike the flute, the piccolo does not have a low C-sharp or C. Past orchestral scores by Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Benjamin Britten mistakenly included low C, and many composers have followed suit. This is possibly following the inexact recommendations of Hector Berlioz in his book on orchestration which, as Jan Gippo noted in his January 1997 article “Piccolo Misconceptions” for Flute Talk magazine, claimed that the piccolo “has the same range as the flute.”

Technique is the same on piccolo as on the flute, although the smaller finger motion can make technical passages easier. The piccolo uses less air than the flute but a greater speed of wind. High register notes from G upward in any dynamic are difficult for the average flutist to sustain because of the increased wind speed needed to achieve the note.

Unlike the flute, the piccolo does not have a command of notes above C3, five ledger lines above the staff. Certain professionals can now “punch out” C#3, but don’t write for a sustained one unless your looking for artist’s reproach, something that Joan Tower recently discovered when working on her consortium commission for 65 small-budget orchestras, Made in America. The piece challenged the amateur and the freelancing professional piccoloist alike with some stratospheric playing. Usually much of the one-on-one collaboration between a professional performer and a composer is worked out behind the scenes before a single premiere. In this case, multiple piccolo players inquired whether the part was beyond their capabilities or simply unplayable. Sensitive to the limitations of the instrument and the player, Tower has since written the problematic phrase down an octave.

A common mistake made by composers in chamber writing is part assignment. Many times the piccolo is in the first flutist’s book when there are two parts. In the typical chamber setting, it is still the second chair who doubles on the piccolo.

The Amateur’s Limitations

Technical and range limitations and pitch problems are common. Typically amateurs are afraid to stick out as too loud or out of tune in the upper register, so they hold back, which increases their problems with tone production and with pitch. Amateur piccolo players can rarely control more than one dynamic level, and it’s an even split between those who play forte and those who play softer. Since the wider the dynamic range the more difficult it is to tune with others, most piccoloists have as their widest dynamic range piano to mezzo-forte or mezzo-piano to forte. Misconceptions about the limitations of the piccolo are supported by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which lists as its entry for piccolo: “a small shrill flute whose range is an octave higher than that of an ordinary flute.” A shrill tone quality might be produced by some inexperienced performers, but the piccoloist strives for a flute-like sound.

Samples of New Compositions Using the Multifaceted Piccolo

[All recordings were performed by the author on a wooden, conical-bored, Anton Braun piccolo made in Germany]

Different ranges of the piccolo highlight different tonal aspects. From the D below the staff to the octave above (D1-D2) is what I refer to as the woodsy sound. The piccolo can produce an eerie, hollow quality resembling a wooden flute or an innocent and simple sound like the fife. It can also be played to sound rich and sumptuous.

Listen to a sample from Allen Krantz’s Song of Spring for piccolo and guitar

Allen Krantz’s Song of Spring with Little Variations and Fantasies
© 2002 Theodore Presser Company
Used with permission of the publisher.
Performed by Lois Bliss Herbine, piccolo and Allen Krantz, guitar
CD713 recording copyright Crystal Records 2004.
Used here with permission. Unauthorized reproduction is not permitted.

Orchestrations using the tender-qualitied low register are best presented with minimal accompaniment since it is easy to mask the piccolo in this range. Sometimes this relatively uncommon presentation creates the effect that the sound is emanating from somewhere else, and listeners can be deceived as to what instrument is producing it. The piccolo solos from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, David Finko’s Piano Concerto, and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite are excellent examples of accommodating accompaniments.

Listen to the piccolo solo in David Finko’s Piano Concerto

David Finko’s “Moses,” Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1971)
Used with permission of the composer and Theodore Presser Company
Performed by Orchestra 2001 (Marcantonio Barone, piano soloist; Lois Herbine, piccolo; Allison Herz, clarinet) at Lang Hall, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, on November 21, 2004.

The sweetest and most beautiful tones of the piccolo extend roughly from D on the third line to the B above the staff (D2-B2).

Listen to a sample from Daniel Dorff’s Sonata de Giverny for piccolo and piano

Daniel Dorff’s Sonatine de Giverny
© 2000 Theodore Presser Company
Used with permission of the publisher.
Performed by Lois Bliss Herbine, piccolo and Charles Abramovic, piano.
CD713 recording copyright Crystal Records 2004. Used here with permission. Unauthorized reproduction is not permitted.

This middle register projects well in forte. Here are various dynamic levels and moods from angry to calming in The Tempest.

Listen to a sample from James Primosch’s The Tempest

James Primosch’s “Songs and Dances” from The Tempest
© 1998 Theodore Presser Company
Used with permission of the publisher.
Performed by Orchestra 2001 (Lois Herbine, piccolo; Alison Avery, viola; Lori Barnet, cello; Sophie Bruno, harp; and William Kerrigan, percussion) at Trinity Center for Urban Life, Philadelphia, PA, on April 22, 2006.

When composing for the fireworks and the soaring runs, and the forte dynamic that can cut through the orchestra, focus on the top octave of the instrument (C2-C3).

In the beginning of this example the flute reaches its sixth ledger line D along with the piccolo, written an octave lower. Notice the similar tone quality of the two instruments in unison. The piccolo then separates for its top octave.

Listen to a sample from David Crumb’s Variations for Cello and Chamber Ensemble

David Crumb’s Variations for Cello and Chamber Ensemble
© 1993 Theodore Presser Company
Used with permission of the publisher.
Performed by Orchestra 2001
Used by permission New World Records CD# CRI 847, year 2000.
© 2006 Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.

A good way to bolster a melody line is to utilize the piccolo. Here we have the piccolo, flute, two clarinets and trumpet sounding the primary theme, but the piccolo and trumpet dominate:

Listen to a sample from David Finko’s Violin Concerto

David Finko’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “Nightmares of St. Petersburg” (1988)
Used with permission of the composer and Theodore Presser Company
Performed by Orchestra 2001
Used by permission New World Records CD# CRI 899, year 2002
© 2006 Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.

A piccolo in its upper octave can not be over orchestrated. Due to its high frequency, both it and the trumpet can can ride on top of the full orchestra at any dynamic level.

Listen to a sample from Behzad Ranjbaran’s Seven Passages for orchestra

Behzad Ranjbaran’s Seven Passages for orchestra
© 2000 Theodore Presser Company
Used with permission of the publisher.
Performed by the Reading Symphony Orchestra at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center, Reading, PA, on November 18, 2006.

Shostakovich and Mahler also wrote beautifully for the extremes of the instrument in their symphonies— soaring runs, the soft chordal writing with the piccolo on top, the poignant and rich low register solos. Studying scores of Shostakovich’s 5th, 6th, 9th, and 10th symphonies, and Mahler’s 1st, 2nd, and 4th would be a good continuation for understanding the piccolo’s capabilities and how it blends and contrasts with other instrumentation.

Use of Extended Techniques

All the extended techniques that flutists employ are available to the piccolo player. Flutter tonguing, singing-playing, multiphonics, microtones, key clicks, microtonal trills, air sounds, timbral notes, are all possible. It is customary for composers to give directions in the music on how to obtain the sounds for some of these latter methods.

Listen to a sample from Michael Daugherty’s The High and the Mighty (singing and playing, flutter-tonguing)

Michael Daugherty’s The High and the Mighty
© 2000 peermusic
Used with permission of the publisher.
Performed by Lois Bliss Herbine, piccolo and Charles Abramovic, piano
CD713 recording © Crystal Records 2004. Used here with permission. Unauthorized reproduction is not permitted.

Pitch bending works even better than on the flute because the piccolo has wide pitch fluctuations, sometimes a half -step on a single note! This has to be manipulated by rolling rather than keying because unlike the flute, piccolos do not have open holes.

Pitch bending with headjoint alone

Listen to a sample from Tan Dun’s Circle with Four Trios

Pitch bending with headjoint and stick

Listen to a sample from Tan Dun’s Circle with Four Trios

Tan Dun’s Circle with Four Trios, Conductor and Audience
Used with permission of G. Schirmer, Inc.
Performed by Orchestra 2001 (Lois Herbine, piccolo; Dorothy Freeman, oboe; Allison Herz, clarinet; Miles B. Davis, bass; William Kerrigan, percussion) at the Annenberg Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, on Sept. 17, 2005.

The first example above uses pitch blending on the headjoint by rolling. The second sample demonstrates wider pitch changes by inserting an implement into the end of the headjoint. The piccolo is so small that a finger cannot be inserted in the open end to change the pitch like on the flute, nor can it be capped with the palm of the hand. Inserting a small rod with a tapered end, such as a small artist’s brush works the best to create this effect.

My Advice to Composers

Instruments with similar timbres and close harmonies to the piccolo—like the upper register of the piano, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, and the bells—work very well in tandem with the instrument. The E-flat clarinet is probably the closest cousin timbrally, but the intonation differences between instruments are constantly problematic; still, much orchestral writing is for this combination. Displaced harmonies such as piccolo with bass, tuba, and bassoon are good combinations. My favorite unusual alliances are piccolo with viola, English horn, or guitar.

I suggest avoiding extended use of the highest three notes of the instrument (the B-flat, B, and C3) for sustained play unless you are writing for a particular piccoloist. The same goes with piano dynamics above an F3. I would advise against writing sustained piano for any level player over an A3. Arnold Schoenberg wrote an extended pianissimo B3 for piccolo in his Gurrelieder which sends piccoloists looking for alternatives, such as whistles or tuning machines that can play the pitch.

Another suggestion is to keep the forte high register material separate from the low piano music; in other words, don’t evolve from one to the other in the same phrase. Also, do not write crescendos or diminuendos on one note that range from pianissimo to fortissimo. The few piccoloists who follow these exaggerated dynamic levels need to make adjustments to their embouchures and their fingerings for the extreme ranges. Giving a physical break in the music for the performer to recover and adjust would be most welcomed.

There is an increased demand for players who are flexible enough to handle both solo flute and piccolo. Concerti written for both flute and piccolo by Bright Sheng, Gunther Schuller, and Shulamit Ran were written for piccoloists or new music specialists. If writing for more than one flute family instrument, I suggest doing this with a particular performer in mind. While programmatically the variety seems successful, many solo flutists will pass on performances that include a piccolo movement and some piccoloists prefer to have an entire concerto written for their instrument.

Reasons to Compose for the Piccolo

Over the last two years statistics from the Newly Published Music Committee of the National Flute Association show that the music published for piccolo, including the piccolo used in flute choir, roughly constitutes one-third of all compositions published for the flute family. While there are still more flutists than piccoloists and more works commissioned for the flute, the piccolo is an attractive instrument to compose for considering its vastly limited repertoire in relationship to the flute. Piccolo solos are still considered cutting edge, and grant money and the press tend to focus on the new rather than the traditional.

Piccoloist Regina Helcher, who has commissioned works for solo piccolo, thinks there is still a void of chamber music solos. “Piccolo and string trio or quartet is a combination that works very well,” she notes. “I think this would be the next great avenue to travel through with commissioning for the piccolo.”

Most importantly, composers must now look past the stereotypes and treat the piccolo with the same versatility as the flute, with dramatic, passionate, flashy, earthy and beautiful facets. Maybe with an ever increasing output we can eventually dub the start of the new millennium as the “Platinum Age of the piccolo.”

Lois Bliss Herbine

Lois Bliss Herbine
Photo by Paul Sirochman

All six accompanied solos from Lois Bliss Herbine‘s CD of premiere recordings for solo piccolo Take Wing (Crystal Records, 2004) have been broadcast on various radio stations across the United States and received favorable reviews from Gramophone and Music Web International. In 2002 she commissioned her guitarist/partner Allen Krantz to write the piccolo and guitar duet Song of Spring, which is published by Theodore Presser Co. and featured on an Ideastation’s radio play list for “guitar and unusual instruments” (followed by Gyorgy Kurtag’s A Kis Csava for piccolo, trombone, and guitar). Herbine has performed orchestral premieres of music by Gunther Schuller, Andrea Clearfield, Peter Schickele, Melinda Wagner, David Finko, and Bernard Hermann. She has recorded the music of Gerald Levinson for the Albany label and with Orchestra 2001 for their “Music of Our Time” series for CRI. Herbine has also recorded commercial soundtracks for television and radio specials, theme music, and commercials. She has written for the national trade magazines Flute Talk and The Flutist Quarterly and contributed to Bonnie Blanchard’s Music for Life series, published by Indiana University Press in 2007. Herbine has begun giving lectures and masterclasses this season, including a residency for the first annual International Piccolo Symposium.

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