The Woodwind Section Part 10 – The Piccolo Register

In this post, I will define the piccolo register as the register that plays routinely one octave about the standard soprano instruments.  This register would start at roughly C5, one octave above the middle C.

There are three instruments that fall easily into this category (I will leave out the recorders for the time being as their whole family is skewed pitch-wise an octave higher than normal).  These instruments are:

  • Piccolo
  • A-flat Clarinet
  • Piccolo Saxophone

There is no member of either double reed family that extends into this range.  The mechanics and physics of a double reed simply will not allow this.

C Piccolo Range

A-flat Clarinet range

Piccolo Saxophone range

Acoustics of the Piccolo Register

It could almost be said that instrument choice makes little difference when it comes to instruments that are this high.  The overtones that form the basis of timbre are to some extent outside the range of human hearing, especially in the topmost octave.  Percy Grainger exploited this phenomena in his rarely performed Hill Song no. 1, which has 19 double reed instruments – and two piccolos.  I have heard this piece both live and on recordings and the piccolos do not detract from the nasal quality of the double reeds.  instead, they serve as the upward harmonics of the sound.

In this range, the note is important, the timbre is secondary.

The Three Instruments

Of the three piccolo instruments, only the Piccolo (Flute) is widely (ever?) available.  It is standard in both the orchestra and the band.  Nearly every flute player will possess and be able to play the instrument.

The other two instruments are far rarer. The A-flat Clarinet used to be a rare visitor to bands, especially European bands, but today it is a rare sight even there.  The Piccolo Saxophone is one of the newest of all woodwinds (marketed under the brand name “Soprillo” by Eppelsheim).  As the instrument has only been made for around a decade few are extant, but the numbers are increasing.  Due to the nature of the single reed, both of these instruments are exceedingly difficult to play well.

Compare/Contrast

The A-flat Clarinet is the middle ground between the two instruments, it has an even timbre and dynamic range from top to bottom.  The Piccolo, like all flutes will sound loudest in its upper register and softest in its bottom.  The Piccolo Saxophone is the opposite of this sounding loudest in its bottom register, though still able to play quite loudly as it ascends.

The A-flat Clarinet will be able to play the softest of all three instruments, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will play the loudest.

Both the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo will have roughly three octave ranges, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will have at most 2.5 octaves.  However, the Piccolo will be able to play an octave higher than either of the single reed instruments.

Orchestration and Use

This register of any ensemble should be used the least.  Human ears grow tired very quickly of high pitched sounds.  Perhaps 10-20% of a piece should/could contain passages for these instruments.  This advice is also keenly noted for the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo Saxophone whose players will tire extremely quickly due to the extremely firm embouchure.

These three instruments can easily be doubles for larger members of their family.

Final words

Unless you know for certain that the A-flat Clarinet and/or Piccolo Saxophone are available (or you’re crazy), only score for the Piccolo.

Alfheim – Movement 1

Slowly, but surely, I am making progress on composing my massive 2nd Symphony.  Movement 1 is about half written and orchestrated.

The concept of the symphony is to portray a representation of the mythical world of Alfheim, the Norse home of the elves.  Movement 1 is all about the creation of the world.  Currently, there are 6 sections to the movement.

Section 1 – The Void.

Before the world is created, there is nothing.  This section is completely based on a C minor chord with few non-chordal tones.  It slowly undulates through the lowest registers of the band.  The very first note of the symphony is uttered as the lowest tone of the Bass (Contrabass) Flute.  The rest of the low instrument take it in turn to arpeggiate and flutter on the tones of the c minor chord.  Out of the void is heard the chorale of the “gods” intoned by 4 Wagner Tuben.  This is the first motif heard in the entire symphony.

This section is complete.

Section 2 – The Sunrise

From the gloomy void in C minor, there is a sudden outburst of shimmering B major.  The sun has risen over the new world, and day and life have begun. The majority of this section will form the basis of movement 4.  This section is only sketched in part.  New motif here: the sun/day/life.  Eventually, this theme will be re-envisioned into the theme of hope/triumph (Movement 3).

This section is only sketched.

Section 3 – The Mountains

The Mountains are the first of the landscapes created.  They are the towering monuments of the world.  They are grand and imposing.  This will be the only section of the first movement to use the full strength of the entire band all at once.

This section is still in development.

Section 4 – The Caves

Underneath the mountains lie the unknown voids of the great caverns.  At the same time, they are imposing, awe inspiring, and frightening.  The sounds will all be focused on a single pitch with only micro variations to that pitch.  The sounds will be coming from the entire brass section muted (harmon mutes where possible0 and the very lowest tones of the woodwinds (contrabass clarinets, Contrabassoon and Subcontrabassoon, and Contrabass Sarrusophone).  Light metallic percussion will serve to give an accompaniment to the monotony of the cave.

This section is still in development.

Section 5 – The Forest

Out of the monotony of the Cave we come to the lush and mysterious forests.  Here the sound of the clarinets is foremost.  The Alto Clarinets lead the way, followed by the A Clarinets.  The low flutes counter this.  Underneath everything is the undulation of the harps and saxophones supported by the solemn chordal structure of the trombone ensemble.  Out of this background texture, solos appear from the E-flat Cornet, the G Treble Flute, and the Baritone Oboe.  The melody played on the Baritone Oboe will become the motif of the forest and will be heard throughout the symphony.  Against this is a pulsating rhythm of the bassoon choir, which supports yet a new motif (magic/mystery) which is intoned by the Tenor Bassoon and Sopranino Saxophone in double octaves.  The forest is full of wisdom, both good and evil.  Eventually, the theme of magic/mystery is shouted out by all the low voices indicating a level of malicious intent.  This fades away though into 4 sweetly trilling recorders that slowly give way to the final section.

This section is fully composed and orchestrated.

Section 6 – The Stars

Finally, the stars of twilight come out and bathe the world in their otherworldly light.  Here we are firmly in E major, a distant key from our home of C minor.  The sound shimmers.  Both underneath the band and on top there are held tone clusters while the metallic percussion (2 Vibraphones, Crotales, and Chimes) show the individual lights of the stars.  Finally, we have out first long solo.  It is the Tenor Bassoon which first gave us the melody of magic/mystery.  It is the first elf to awaken under the stars.  The innocence and naivety of the tone quality of the Tenor Bassoon along with its unusual nature make it the perfect sound for the waking up of life.  Along our first creature’s journey, he meets other companions who join in his discovery of the world under the stars.  Eventually, all is at peace, and the movement ends with the sounding of gentle E major chords.  However, the tone clusters that give the shimmering effect are still present giving the peace an uneasy feel.

This section is fully composed and orchestrated.

Thus, the movement ends.  The world has been awoken.  Life is new.

As it stands now, I have 3 sections complete, 1 sketched, and 2 only concepts for.  What has been completed is already 15 minutes long.

Movement 2 has no material written

Movement 3 has only a few basic sketches

Movement 4 is complete

There may or may not be a Movement 5.