It is the performers that claim the limelight; that is just what they are supposed to do. Routinely discussed in lessons are outstanding performances by virtuosos heard live in recital or orchestral concerts, on recordings or on YouTube. The contributions of stellar, piccolo-dedicated performers to today's music scene are not to be underestimated; certainly so much has improved for the piccolo in the last couple of decades, in no small part due to the superb performance leadership of some outstanding players.
How critical too, is the role that composers, both past and present, continue to play in the development of the piccolo! Orchestral excerpts from the Western Canon, such as Beethoven's Ninth or Tschaikowsky's Fourth Symphonies, have been central to the curriculum for all aspiring symphony members. In recent decades we have seen a flurry of activity as composers of our own era have eagerly responded to piccolo performers' critical need for concertos and recital fare. Like performers, composers also find their names appearing on concert posters and programmes and often, especially at premieres, they are invited to the stage to share in audience recognition and applause. Yet behind the stage there are other, almost silent, but oh-so-essential contributors to the development of the piccolo; this current column, will now bring three of these off-stage heroes to the Flute Focus platform.
Peter van Munster
For recital planning, flutists have for years consulted their Vester, Pellerite and Pierreuse catalogues1 in order to find interesting and more obscure repertoire or to solve the question about what music a specific, unusual combination of instruments might perform together. The piccolo, while included in these useful resources, has never been the central concern. However, as early as 1986, Peter van Munster, a highly experienced flutist from the Netherlands, compiled a Concise Survey of Music for the Piccolo for use in a flutists' gathering in Amsterdam. From the degree of interest in that initial list, the value of having a specialized piccolo bibliography was evident, and from that time onward, Peter van Munster has tirelessly dedicated himself to producing a comprehensive repertoire catalogue for the piccolo. In 2004 when he published the volume Repertoire catalogue: piccolo, alto flute and bass flute: including ca. 900 works for flute choir or flute orchestra, he expanded its scope to include the other, non-standard flutes - the alto and bass flutes - as well as collecting titles for the rapidly-growing large flute ensemble.
Figure 1: Book cover of Peter van Munster's piccolo repertoire catalogue2
Van Munster has an impressive musical background. As an orchestral flute and piccolo player he performed in such ensembles as the Brabants, Residentie and Dutch Radio orchestras. With his special interest in contemporary music he appeared often as both soloist and chamber musician and taught at the Utrecht Conservatory, North Netherlands Conservatoire in Groningen, and the Royal Conservatory at The Hague. A former Frans Vester student at the Amsterdam Conservatory himself, van Munster later co-founded the Frans Vester Foundation. Now retired from performance, he has dedicated his time to musicology through his company, Peter van Munster – Musicological Desktop Publishing, and we piccolo players are the beneficiaries of his ongoing, exhaustive and meticulous knowledge of repertoire possibilities for our instrument.
As is so often the case, bibliographies in print form are rapidly outdated; there is always new repertoire appearing even as a current catalogue is being printed. Therefore it does not seem to take long for a valuable bibliography to lose its sense of immediacy. Drawing upon the instant communicability of the internet, van Munster has not only created and made universally available an addenda to his original publication of 2004 but he continues to revise it, routinely seeking updates from composers, players and publishers. In an era that has seen desktop publishing enable composers to self-publish their works, any attempt to gather comprehensive listings of what is available to performers is a formidable, if not impossible task. Yet, van Muster has created an open point of exchange for piccolo players and composers, globally connecting performing musician to composition all without the usual having to negotiate through the flute-centric repertoire. Munster's very useful catalogue supplement can be found at http://www.petervanmunster.nl/page3.php
Possessing a fine instrument is of fundamental importance to anyone who wishes to play well; having a poor quality instrument is often cited as a reason why many a flutist dislikes being called upon to play the piccolo. It is well documented that piccolo design and development has continued to lag well behind the concert flute in the Western music tradition3. While Boehm was able to modify his 1847 design to apply to his beloved alto flute, his attempts in creating a successful piccolo with his own fingering and bore system were self-admittedly disappointing. He therefore left the adaptation of the Boehm system to the piccolo to Thomas Mollenhauer (1840 – 1914), his pupil during the years 1863 – 64.
Just as Boehm passed on the piccolo responsibilities to Mollenhauer, Bickford Brannen channelled piccolo specialist work towards James Keefe who after joining the company in 1978, began acquiring recognition for his superb craftsmanship in piccolo-making. About a dozen years ago, Brannen, decided to specialize in flute production only, and sold the piccolo branch to Keefe, who, partnered with Jan Kinmonth, formed the company, Keefe Piccolos. Subsequently Keefe Piccolos' reputation has scaled the heights amongst piccolo players for their artist-quality instruments that offer a fine, fluid mechanism, excellent intonation and produce a dark, beautiful tone. Now able to concentrate fully on the piccolo as the primary instrument, Keefe confesses, "Piccolos are all we do...We are focused and goal oriented. I think piccolos all day and all night...Even in the shower!"4
When transferring one's skill from playing the flute to the piccolo, the initial and basic concept is that both instruments are the same other than the octave transposition, but as Boehm, himself discovered, not everything works that simply. For example, on the flute the treacherous trill from high G to A can be executed with practice and good breath support simply by using the lower register fingering and thus playing it on the harmonics. While not ideal, this solution that avoids having to use very cumbersome fingerings, can usually fill the trill requirement quite adequately on the flute without bringing undue attention to the issue that the sounds are actually overtones. Unfortunately transferring this technique to the piccolo is not an option; for years I know I have been guilty of emitting many trills on this third octave G that should have spanned the whole-tone to the A natural, but have only been able to wobble inadequately between G and the A flat. I am sure I am not alone that every time I have had to make this compromise the experience of doing so has always made me feel somehow negligent and less than capable (even if fellow musicians may have not noticed that I was doing it).
Whether it was in "the shower" or not, Keefe's thoughts connected this concern to the several requests he had heard from players wishing for the addition of a C sharp trill on the piccolo. In 2008 a patent was issued to Keefe for a conical piccolo design that incorporates the C sharp trill with an additional facilitator key making for the first time, a whole-tone trill above high G, not only possible, but making the sound bright and colourful, accurate in pitch, and most importantly, easy to play. While Keefe cites phrases that demand a whole-tone trill on high G in such regularly played works such as the Nutcracker, Swan Lake and various Mahler symphonies, he also notes how the high F sharp to G sharp trill in Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite is made so much easier with the use of just the C sharp trill key, rather than the usual and awkward two finger trill.
From the day I first brought my own Keefe piccolo with this option to rehearsal I have been surprised and delighted at how often I have been called upon and am now able to play the whole-tone G trills properly. Every time they have appeared on the page in front of me, from Gomes' Overture to Il Guarani, to Howard Cable's band classic, Newfoundland Rhapsody, I have felt a little insider rush, secure in the knowledge that "Yes I can do this! I am no longer a faker, hoping it won't be noticed."
Figure 2: Detail of the Keefe Piccolo with the C# trill and high G to A facilitator key
For more information about Keefe Piccolos with the C sharp trill and high G trill keys see:
Recently I received an email from flute-maker Anton Braun in which he reminded me about an article I wrote over twenty years ago about the C foot piccolo5. Braun related to me that my article had provoked him into thinking about how he could build a workable conical piccolo with the C foot extension. In follow-up correspondence, he confided, "a good craftsman remains silent and works until he has solved the problem completely." He was delighted to tell me that now he was breaking his silence to me, after many years of tussling with this challenge. Finally satisfied with his results, late in 2010 he began to offer both cylindrical and conical piccolos to low C in his catalogue.
Sadly he related, that initial player reception was somewhat indifferent to his efforts, for those specialized piccolo players that might need a C foot instrument for Britten's Billy Budd already had one for such purposes and were of the opinion that piccolos extending down to low C were generally inadequate for regular use. Fortunately with time, attitudes can be altered. Michael Hasel, piccolo soloist in the Berlin Philharmonic, plays a low C Braun instrument regularly in the orchestra, not just when he requires the low notes. He can be heard online playing with the Philharmonic in clips of Shostakovich and Mahler at the website http://www.braunflutes.com/braun_c_piccolo.htm
Klaus Dapper mentions in his article in Flute, the Journal of the British Flute Society6, Rolf Bissinger's use of the low C Braun piccolo in the Frankfurt Opera's production of Billy Budd. He also notes that Bissinger has chosen to continue to play this instrument for other repertoire in the opera season. Even more exciting, Dapper claims:
What had not been foreseen...[is that] Braun's low-C piccolo makes a bigger sound than the low-D piccolo—a sound closer to that of the concert flute, and its differing overtone structure gives it an extremely attractive third octave.7
Just as we have cheated by trilling only the semitone above the high G on the piccolo, so too, we have been required to "only think, but not perform" the low Cs found in orchestral parts by Verdi, Mahler, Respighi, Britten and the low D flat in Schoenberg's Quintet for Winds. Through the availability of a multi-use low-C instrument, piccolo players, not only will be successfully able to execute the music set out for them, but will no longer feel the inner shame of not being able to do so. This proper extension to low C and C sharp adds immensely to the possible repertoire for the piccolo, because now large quantities of descant recorder, as well as oboe and concert flute music that has previously been out of range, are now accessible to us.
Figure 3: the Anton Braun conical piccolo to low C
As a piccolo player I have found it tiresome to be limited by notes that are available on flute, but not on the piccolo and by being regarded only as a mere adjunct or afterthought to the majority flute population. These backstage heroes who dedicate themselves to the development of our very specialized little instrument, continue to make our piccolo tools and resources richer and richer. We must celebrate their wonderfully important, dare we say essential, contributions to the development of piccolo artistry. Here is an enormous thank you to our relentless, off-stage piccolo champions, James Keefe, Anton Braun, and Peter van Munster!
1. Vester, Franz. (1967). Flute repertoire catalogue: 10,000 titles. London: Musica Rara. Pellerite, James. (1978). A handbook of literature for the flute : compilation of graded method materials, solos, and ensemble music for the flutes. 3rd edition. Bloomington, IN: Zalo Publications. Pierreuse, Bernard. (1984). Flûte littérature: catalogue générale des œuvres éditées et inédites par formations instrumentals: general catalog of published and unpublished works by instrumental category. Paris: Société des éditions Jobert
2. Munster, Peter van. (c.2004). Repertoire catalogue: piccolo, alto flute and bass flute: including ca. 900 works for flute choir or flute orchestra. Roma: Riverberi sonori.
3. Eden, Danielle. (1998). The Piccolo: its History, Solo Repertoire and Usage since 1800 to Modern Day in Western Europe. University of London: Doctoral Dissertation. Dombourian-Eby, Zartouhi. (1987) The Piccolo in the Nineteenth Century. Northwestern University: Doctoral Dissertation.
4. Simosko, Valerie. Piccolo Duet. Valeriesimosko.com/uploads/KeefePipeline1106Page5.pdf
5. Nancy Nourse. (1990) The C Foot Piccolo: Examining the Footnotes. In Flutist Quarterly, 10 (2) [Spring,1990], pp. 47-49.
6. Dapper, Klaus. (2011). The New Anton Braun Piccolo to Low C. In Flute; the Journal of the British Flute Society 30 (2) [June 2011], pp. 31-33. Also online at http://www.braunflutes.com/artikel_piccolo_en.pdf
7. Ibid, p. 33.