Eight times the piccolo was secretly the most badass member of the orchestra
16 August 2016, 15:06 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45
It's time we appreciated the tiny instrument that often packs the biggest punch of all.
‘What’s the range of a piccolo? About twenty yards on a good day.' - yep, we’ve heard them all. This baby of the orchestra is largely used as the butt of bad music jokes (second after the viola, that is) and is often forgotten altogether. We think it deserves a little more credit, so here are just some of the moments in classical music when the piccolo totally owns the orchestra.
Rossini: Semiramide Overture
Sometimes the clarinets need a bit of help. Rossini uses the piccolo in this extract from the overture to Semiramide to refine and brighten the clarinet theme. You don’t find nearly as much frequent or soloistic use of the piccolo in the music of his contemporaries, but Rossini really embraced the sonic breadth that the piccolo could bring to the orchestra.
Sibelius: Karelia Suite - Alla Marcia
Sibelius knows. Sweetly emerging from the powerful horn melody, this piccolo line really gives this march that epic boost. Just listen to how it changes the mood and texture of the piece.
Vaughan Williams: The Wasps Overture – March Past of the Kitchen Utensils
A hark back to the piccolo’s background in military band music with this perky march from Vaughan Williams’ short suite The Wasps, written for a Cambridge University production of an Aristophanes play of the same name.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6, first movement
A move away from the typical chirpy piccolo part here with this delicate and restrained solo in the reflective first movement. Accompanied by only stripped back strings and bassoon, this is so powerful.
Johann Strauss: Perpetuum Mobile
Something far less serious now. The piccolo is the real star of this musical joke, which is a staple of the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert. Who's laughing now, piccolo-haters?!
Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust - Menuet des Follets
A flautist himself, Berlioz was a great advocate for the piccolo, calling it a “misconception to believe that it can only play very loud”. In this dance from The Damnation of Faust Berlioz uses the piccolo to delicately lead the melody.
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker - Chinese Dance
Another dance now, this time from The Nutcracker. The piccolo is sounding swesome, paired with the flute in a fun dance over the plodding bassoon.
Beethoven: Symphony no.9 - Movement IV
We end on a triumphant high with the timeless and rousing fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no.9. Beethoven references a military band here with a small nucleus of winds and percussion, with piccolo taking the lead role in a variation of what is perhaps the most famous melody in classical music history.