Shostakovich Symphony No 5 and an Orchestral Use for the Db Piccolo
Origins of the Db Piccolo
Today the Db piccolo is considered little more than a forgotten relic from the band era of at least a century ago. In its heyday though, it and the clarinet were the most commonly found woodwind instruments in bands, when often in the brass and percussion dominant groups there were no flutes at all. The basic band piccolo of a century ago was usually still a pre-Boehm instrument with no more than six-keys in its construction. The farther this simple-system piccolo’s repertoire was removed from the key of D major (the natural scale of the instrument) the more awkward the fingering challenge was for the player. Because of the open strings of G, D, A and E on the dominating violins in the orchestra, composers generally chose to write in keys that worked well for the early piccolo in that milieu. However, when the majority-rule of the brass instruments dictated that the repertoire in the band would be routinely pitched in the flat keys of F, Bb, Eb, and Ab, this posed awkward fingerings for every piccolo passage. Built only a semi-tone higher than the orchestral-pitched instrument, the Db piccolo became the standard band solution, offering the player through transposition, the same, more naturally easy-to-play keys of E, A, D and G that they were accustomed to playing in the orchestra.
The simple-system piccolos were used far more often during the later 19th and even well into the 20th century than we tend to imagine. Probably this was because of the conservative progression of instruction from generation to generation as well as the fact that the fewer-keyed piccolos were much, much less expensive than the Boehm piccolo. Even when later the majority of players began to own matched Boehm flutes and piccolos, a system claiming that all keys are easily playable on it, it still remained that the existing band parts had the Db transposition. To avoid the constant transposing back to concert pitch at sight, players found that Db piccolos were still necessary. Thus Boehm system piccolos in Db were constructed and sold to flutists for band work as well as instruments in C.
For a few decades around the middle of this century, band publishers provided piccolo parts in both Db and C. Over time however, newer publications stopped doing this, as most ensembles, especially school bands where the turnover was rapid, were no longer using Db instruments. For publishers it became more cost-efficient to produce only one part for the entire flute section, including the piccolo part, right on the same page as the concert flutes. No longer needing to deal with Db parts, Boehm-system flute and piccolo players gladly gave up the complications of transposition as the repertoire moving through the second half of the twentieth century began to supply only concert-pitched piccolo parts for bands.
For clarinetists however, engaging in the process of various transpositions is still part of their experience. As we flutists eavesdrop on their conversations that weigh the merits of playing different passages on Bb or A clarinet, (or even occasionally in C) we listen to discussions about not just technical ease, but also about timbre and even about composer intentions. While all these transposition issues may seem an archaic nuisance to flutists that we feel we may have surpassed with our modern instruments, they do present options and possibilities for clarinetists that we flutists/piccoloists have now eliminated for ourselves.
Orchestral uses of the Db Piccolo
In 1972, around the time when the Db piccolo was being forgotten, Walfrid Kujala, piccoloist of the Chicago Symphony, reminded us that a Db piccolo can still be useful in simplifying technically difficult passages. (Isn’t this what clarinetists are doing all the time as they switch from their Bb to A instruments?) Kujala first mentioned the significantly greater ease of playing when the famous obbligato solo in the trio of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes, Forever, is pitched in the key of G as it is in the orchestra version. (Ah, yes, even with the Boehm system, the high Gs are much easier to execute than the pesky high Abs!) With a Db piccolo, the player can still perform the solo with band in the easier key of G even though the band is playing it in the original key of Ab.
Yet Kujala extends the Db piccolo’s possibilities beyond this when he suggests its use in the orchestra, by noting how much easier it is to play the notoriously difficult third movement solo in Tschaikowsky’s Symphony No. 4 when it is transposed down a semi-tone from its original key of Db to a less technically-cumbersome C major. As another example, Kelly Via, piccoloist in the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, advocates using a Db piccolo for the high, tricky and exposed upward scale passage in Prokofiev’s Cinderella. These are by no means the first uses of a Db piccolo in orchestral repertoire; as early as 1822, Louis Spohr employed two piccolos in Db in the overture to his opera Jessonda.
Shostakovich Symphony No 5.
Earlier this year, I performed Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and noted how well the composer knew and stayed within the limits of the piccolo’s complete range. In the first movement one finds both a high C in a unison tutti as well as the lowest D in a solo passage that first connects with and then takes over from the first flute. In the scherzo movement Shostakovich wrote a lively tutti passage that includes the piccolo soaring up to the high C on the final note.
Figure 1: Scherzo passage Shostakovich Symphony No. 5
The full orchestral recapitulation of this passage, however is written one semi-tone higher, and thus the final note becomes a C#. Presumably, knowing that a piccolo cannot produce this pitch, Shostakovich dropped the last two notes back down the octave.
Figure 2: Scherzo passage recapitulation Shostakovich Symphony No. 5
This unfortunately loses some of the impact of the momentum that has been established and provides a weaker conclusion to this passage than when uttered the first time. Even the little Eb clarinet on this passage is forced down the octave on the final three notes, also weakening the drive of this passage. Although the first flute carries on up to the high C#, the rising line is broken when the piccolo slips down to match the first flute’s notes at pitch. However, this loss of momentum does not need to be the case. By simply playing the passage in the original key again (Figure 1) but this time on a Db piccolo, the rising line can continue upwards.
In performance, in order to warm up the piccolo I play the previous passage (that Shostakovich included to highlight the accents in the first violin passage) on the Db piccolo as well (making sure I also transpose them down the semi-tone).
Figure 3: previous passage transposed for Db piccolo in Shostakovich Symphony No. 5
It would also be possible to begin on the Db instrument as far back as the passage after 64 with the high E’s that diminuendo from ff to pp. Playing this as a high Eb on the Db piccolo can feel much more secure from the perils of having it drop to a lower note than it would on an E natural, especially if one does not have the split E mechanism.
Figure 4: (untransposed passage) Shostakovich Symphony No. 5
Discussion can follow, and so it should. Are we tampering with the composer’s intentions when we use a different instrument? Yes, but there is always the question of whether he would have chosen this option, had it been available. Is there a difference in timbre? Even though it merely is a semi-tone higher, the Db piccolo is slightly brighter, something that is not considered a plus by those, who like Theobald Boehm, extol the virtues of the warmer, darker sounds of the lower-pitched flutes.
Is the Db piccolo merely an historical artifact or a relevant and useful addition to the modern piccolo player’s repertory of instruments? Are we emancipated from the tribulations of transposition that clarinetists experience, or limited by lack of options? It seems to be just a matter of perspective.
Kujala, Walfrid. (1972). “Stress and Strain Forever? Not with a Db Piccolo.” The Instrumentalist, 26 (11). (June 1972), 38-40.
Spohr, Louis. (1988) “Introduction” Jessonda. (1822) New York and London: Garland Publishing, ix –x.
Via, Kelly, (2010). In conversation, April.