A Response To Rosamund Plummer’s ‘Letter To Composers And Orchestrators’
Plummer’s care in her own studies and her demonstrated insider knowledge in this article is comprehensive. I was sorry however to read her quotations from Cecil Forsyth’s Orchestration, (1914) for his piccolo entries are damagingly critical, and may I say, dated. Comments such as “It can just be played by the instrument and, one may add, tolerated by the audience,” “the disabilities of the Piccolo in the way of tone-colour,” “a sort of thin, feeble disembodied voice,” and “if pitched too high approach dangerously near to the scream of a steam-whistle” are hardly conducive to eliciting creative or positive piccolo writing by a next generation of composers. One must wonder why any orchestral piccolo parts exist at all, when Forsyth concluded “The piccolo has such marked restrictions that we must not be surprised to find that the early masters only used it on special occasions.”
Sadly, Forsyth was not alone in his discouraging words of caution regarding writing for the piccolo. Prout (1905), Rimsky Korsakov (1922), Jacob (1940), Kœchlin (1954), Piston (1955), Lovelock (1968), Burton (1982), Adler (1989) all mention the danger of overriding shrillness and warn composers about overusing the third octave. Several of these authors also claim that because the middle and low ranges of the piccolo are weaker in tone, musical passages would be better realized 8va on the flute. With such lack of recommendation, and the piccolo’s perceived position as an inessential, auxiliary instrument, what composers would choose to risk spoiling their work by using it? Meanwhile, piccolo players are routinely disappointed by habitual exclusion from the repertoire.
Herein lies our dilemma. Of course, as players we must be concerned about our performance, so that parts that are outrageously difficult, especially those that thrust us into the highest range while demanding it be pianissimo, are stressful. After the years of study that flutists and piccolo players have dedicated to becoming respectable performers, jeopardizing their reputation because an assigned part does not sit well on the instrument is understandingly troubling. The operative fear is that any faulty execution of the music will be viewed as a performance deficiency on the part of the player rather than reflect badly upon the composer or arranger who has created it. While our immediate reaction is to lash out at the composers who ask us to do dangerous and unflattering work, surely fear and avoidance of creating piccolo parts in new music is not what we want either. There is no argument that we do need to encourage enlightened use of our instrument by composers and arrangers to protect our own reputations as musicians, but discouraging potential piccolo writing in new musical works is not an acceptable alternative.
Let us consider various historical issues. According to Francœur’s early orchestration treatise, Diapason Générale de tous les Instruments à Vent (c.1772), a composer should never extend the written range for the one-keyed piccolo beyond the third D. Had composers such as Rameau, Gluck, and Grétry heeded this advice, the possibilities of the penetrating third octave would never have been explored during the nineteenth century and the instrument might therefore have been abandoned altogether. Instead, their violations of the rules brought greater employment of the piccolo, forging the pathways for Beethoven, Rossini, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky to continue its use. As Sir Eric Ashby (1970) suggested, it is the student’s first responsibility to learn “the orthodoxy of the subject” (in this instance, orchestration), followed by “the art of dissent from orthodoxy”, for that is how we are able to advance.
With new Tourte bows for the strings and valves for the brass, the nineteenth century stage saw rapid evidence of innovation through the symbiotic relationship between instrument development and the composition of new works. For woodwinds, makers developed many different key systems so that a mere eight fingers and two thumbs could produce all twelve notes of the chromatic scale without using the awkward crossfingerings of the simpler eighteenth century instruments. As seen in the many competing flute designs of the 1851 London Exhibition, there certainly was no notion of a ‘standard’ fingering system. The nature of these times was arguably turbulent, yet energized musical growth was promoted.
On the musical fringe there continues to be instrumental innovation. However, Robert Dick’s Glissando Flute, Matthias Ziegler’s Matusi-Flute with its dizi-like vibrating membrane, and the quartertone flute are well removed from today’s notoriously conservative symphony orchestra which no longer seems to enjoy the former symbiotic relationship between composition and instrument experimentation. Instead of seeking new possibilities, the focus is on the refining of valued, established qualities of technical fluency and tone. Meanwhile in the emerging flute orchestra, the need for deep, homogeneous voices flutes caused the ongoing, productive dialogue between players and makers, Kotato, Kingma and Hogenhuis, which is only beginning to involve the composers.
Concurrently compositional innovation has occurred, in the desk-top publishing forms of Finale and Sibelius. Composers can now create large scores, hear the results almost instantly, and avoid the tediousness and time-intensive process of copying out individual parts. While Ms Plummer partly attributes “the breakdown of orchestration skills” to the ease of realization of any pitch through these digital means, I think she is also expressing her frustration that the basic acoustic instruments have physical limitations that the computer programmes do not have. If composers wish to employ these higher pitches (which may seem somewhat effortless on a computer) we need to find ways to make them happen on the piccolo. Even as there has been a powerful sweep of recent interest in varieties of big, low-pitched flutes, there has not been a comparable focus on the flute’s upper register.
The sphere of the piccolo player has been in real need of assistance for quite some time. First, some significant spin is needed among musicians to stimulate interest and curiosity in the piccolo to counter the current aversion. We need a serious, ongoing dialogue that would seek instrumental solutions to the issues verbally presented by Forsyth and his followers. A smaller, higher pitched instrument could be a useful option. On a high G piccolo, the lengthy high C of which Ms Plummer complained would only be an F. Located in a lower tessitura, this F would not be as shrill or as physically demanding a note to produce. Dvorak understood this concept of tessitura when he assigned only two bars to the piccolo in his entire New World Symphony. This piccolo passage carries a simple charm, but the same on the flute 8va sounds just too ponderous, emotional and intense. While a high G piccolo would bring back the need for transposition, it would be a small price to pay for greater ease in playing, less shrillness, and perhaps even an improved reputation in orchestral opinion for the piccolo.
In order to coax flute and piccolo makers to begin the necessary experimental work, we must seek to reverse the negative claims that have perpetually surrounded the piccolo. Promoting Forsyth’s reading may eliminate some precarious high notes, but it does little in enhancing the piccolo’s reputation and future growth. Instead we should be seeking ways to expand the piccolo’s possibilities through developing a capacity to tantalize composers’ imaginations.
Forsyth, Cecil . Orchestration . p. 203.
Adler, Samuel. (1989). The Study of Orchestration. New York: W.W. Norton.