A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Piccolo

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PICCOLO (i.e. Italian for 'little'), an abbreviation for Flauto Piccolo, usually applied to the Octave Flute, otherwise called Ottavino, from its tonal relation to the larger instruments, of which it occupies the superior octave. Small flutes and fifes have been made in many keys; those now most commonly in use are the D and E♭ piccolos. The former name is correct; it being the super-octave of the ordinary flute, which has been shown to stand in the key of D. The D piccolo, however, is not furnished with the adventitious keys of C, B♮ (and sometimes B♭), which give the flute three or four semitones below its natural keynote. The so-called E♭ piccolo is really in D♭, as can be easily demonstrated by attempting to play on it music written for the E♭ clarinet, which actually stands in the key named; when it will be found to differ by a whole tone. The French scorers very properly term it 'Petite flute en Ré♭.' Its use is now entirely limited to military bands, which habitually play in flat keys. The peculiar tonality thus adopted expunges five flats from the signature; enabling the instrument to avoid many mechanical difficulties, and to range around the lower sharp and flat keys from D to E♭, in which its intonation is most correct.

Its compass is from D or D♭ within the treble stave to at least A in altissimo (2 octaves and 5 notes), or even higher in the hands of a good player. It is customary to write for it an octave lower than the sound really produced.

It is, with the exception of the higher harmonic notes of the violin, by far the most acute instrument used in orchestral music; its sounds being much more powerful and piercing than the corresponding notes developed by a string. On the other hand, its lowest octave is feeble and devoid of character.

The piccolo appears to have been a favourite with composers, and especially with Berlioz; whose account of its musical value is so exhaustive as to render others unnecessary. He points out its use by Gluck; by Beethoven in the Storm of the Pastoral Symphony, to reproduce the whistling of the wind; by Weber in the drinking song of Der Freischütz, and by others; though he omits Handel's wonderful accompaniment to the bass song, 'Oh ruddier than the cherry' in 'Acis and Galatea,' where the essentially pastoral quality of the little instrument is admirably developed. He advocates, very justly, the orchestral use of the so-called E♭ piccolo, sounding the minor ninth above the violins, which in the key of E♭ would be playing in its best key, that of D major. Berlioz's remarks upon the Tierce flute, giving E♭ for C, and usually called the flute in F, and on the tenth piccolo in E♭ unisonous with the clarinet in E♭ alt, but commonly named piccolo in F deserve careful study.

[ W. H. S. ]