What’s better than one piccolo? While for some flutists the cynical answer might be NONE, for real performers on the instrument, the notion of piccolos playing in ensemble with other piccolos is not the shriekish nightmare that some thoughtless and negative condemners would be only too quick to assert it is. Rather it is something of a novel delight. This article will be for the open-minded who dare to imagine the charm of the colours and textures that multiple piccolos can offer, and can ignore so much of the vitriolic rhetoric - the clever putdowns and insults. Oh, if only as much creativity and energy were directed by these outspoken nay-sayers into exploring positively the exciting possibilities of the purely piccolo ensemble!
While the standard today seems to be “never use more than one piccolo”, this certainly was not the practice in the early opera orchestras in which Rameau was usually scoring passages for a pair of “petites flûtes traversières à l’octave” (little transverse flutes sounding an octave higher than the flute). While this trend continued with Grétry’s operas and on into the works by Gluck, Spohr, and even in some Berlioz, as composers began to write higher and higher into the piccolo’s third register, the tradition of thinking of the piccolo in homogeneous partnerships faded. Certainly our current concept is that of the piccolo as a powerful, solitary voice, and as a result of composers/arrangers heeding the instructional commentary in the vast majority of orchestration books, the opportunities for the piccolo players, let alone multiple piccolo players to be included in the repertoire, are quite limited. Perhaps in another article, I will investigate this in more detail, but the spotlight this time will be on chamber music just for multiple piccolos without any other instruments.
Musical piccolo playing begins through the enjoyment of interacting with other musicians. Many of my private flute students are encouraged to play the piccolo. In order to develop an ease of approach, I will often play simple duets with the student - duets on two piccolos - ideally long before he or she will be faced with some highly exposed work with a band or orchestra. Playing some baroque or style gallante flute duets avoids challenges in the third octave and can provide many rewarding musical experiences, something that I fear many of the flutists who continue to profess how much they detest the piccolo were not fortunate enough to be exposed to themselves. By reading through duets the student acquires some up-close modeling, colour and style matching, and even some collaborative musicking with a like instrument, that is sadly rather rare in the bigger ensembles: bands, orchestras and even many flute choirs. And why should concert flute players be the only ones to grow musically from the pleasures of chamber music playing in homogeneous groups? As an example, the pair of YouTube players performing some Boismortier are presenting here a very different context for piccolo playing - one of interpreting chamber music, of nurturing blend and subtle collaboration http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8AczF4pR_o&feature=related
Another most interesting YouTube contribution is a short, fun and energetic trio, apparently “thrown together in c.15 minutes” by the musician who goes by the moniker InstrumentManiac. Despite its mere one and a half minutes in length and unassuming title of Laundry Room Piccolo Trio Suite, this catchy work is full of joyful exuberance and clearly demonstrates the promise of this young man who not only has composed this imaginatively rhythmic bagatelle and performed all three piccolo parts, but also appears to have the technical savvy in superimposing the three layers in order to create this creative rendering. While the main impetus is repeated articulated rhythms, they are contrasted later on by ascending scale passages, which demonstrate multifaceted textural capacities that piccolo players rarely have the opportunity to exhibit in chamber music. I do wish we could know this composer’s real name, for with writing of this quality and imagination, his would be an interesting compositional path to watch develop http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBv1hzdens4&feature=related
Specifically composed piccolo trios are rare. The Bird Tango (2004) for three piccolos and piano by the Slovenian composer Sojar Voglar at almost six minutes in length is a more substantial work. The piano begins with both hands in the treble clef producing a repeated one bar riff to which the piccolos are added in succession, each contributing a different rhythmic motif. Voglar alternates between the independent rhythmic layering and longer chordal/melodic lines for the three piccolos. This is a technically and rhythmically challenging composition but certainly would be a worthy item for a recital programme for advanced players. It is modern, but accessible, and in focusing more upon the tango aspect, rather than the ornithological, it avoids sounding clichéd or cutesy in the manner of the many late nineteenth century bird polkas. With the first International European Piccolo Symposium being held in Jezersko, Slovenia this August 23-25, I do hope that this composition will appear on the programme. The sheet music is available from Slowaymusic.com http://www.slowaymusic.com/loader.php?section=katalog&lang=en
At the request last year of Jean-Louis Beaumadier for “Quelque Chose Canadienne” (Something Canadian) (2010), I created for three piccolos, a suite of three Québec folksongs: Vive la Canadienne, Un Canadien Errant, and Donkey Riding, which premiered last August 14, at the International Flute Festival in Manosque, Provence. The first piccolo part of this trio at times in both the first and third movements, requires particularly adept virtuoso playing and musical expressiveness for the second. While the times signatures are relatively straightforward in the first two, the third movement alternates between 7/8 and common time. The second movement is focused upon the tune Un Canadien Errant, a plaintive song about the loneliness of exile. Soon one piccolo player and then the other depart from the stage, leaving the deserted member to continue unaccompanied. From offstage, however, as a counterpoint to the abandonment, the now absent players are called upon to imitate loon calls upon their headjoints. The third movement recalls the players to the stage and restores a rhythmic and melodic optimism. This approximately eight minute work will be available soon from Nourse Wind Publications http://www3.sympatico.ca/noursewind/home.html
A very recent addition to YouTube is Petrushka’s Ghost (2010), the highly remarkable piccolo octet by Melvin Lauf, Jr. This is an important work by a mature composer who has contributed many fine original works for flute choirs. The American premiere was given by the Mercer University Flute Choir at Macon, Georgia, U.S.A. on Dec. 9, 2010, Kelly Via directing. This group will also be presenting the first performance of the work for the National Flute Association at the annual convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Friday, August 12, 2011 at 10:30 am. Captured on YouTube is a performance by a different ad hoc piccolo octet playing it at this year’s Mid-Atlantic Flute Fair in Reston, Virginia U.S.A.
This approximately seven and a half minute composition is through-composed opening with a mystically-styled moderato in 6/8 time connected by a short cadenza for the first piccolo to a common time allegro. Although one might anticipate significant rhythmic complexity of time signatures in homage to a ballet by Stravinsky, this is not the case, here, making this work a more easily accessible piece to the majority of community and university flute ensembles. This is the ideal work for any group that has many players all wishing to exercise their piccolo skills. The writing for each of the parts is independent and demanding however, so that none of the players of the ensemble might feel inessential or melodically ignored. There are many antiphonal responses of harmonic tremolos and rhythmic motifs with a good balance of both thinly scored episodes and solid octet fullness. As well as there being the easily identifiable Petrushka motive appearing at the allegro, this music also reminded me of moments from Holst’s Neptune, Nancy Telfer’s The Crystal Forest and Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, yet all the while carrying enough originality and variety of interesting textures to excite my attention throughout.
Piccolo players owe a real debt of thanks to Melvin Lauf for having the imagination to create this substantial addition to our repertoire. Let’s hope Petrushka’s Ghost is resurrected frequently for it surely deserves to becomes a staple in our repertoire http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY_2PVCAz24
The full score complete with eight parts is available from Flute.net.com http://www.flute.net/pubs/choir.htm