History of the piccolo

Posted by
Erin Nichols
 March 27, 2018

Of all of the instruments in the flute family, none seem to be so polarizing as the piccolo. Personally, it is my favorite auxiliary instrument to play! Here is a quick history and some fun facts you may not know about the piccolo:

The piccolo, and the concert flute, both evolved from the military transverse flute of the Middle Ages. When in the mid 17th century the art of flute-making underwent a process of rapid innovation, the technical improvements made to the flute were passed on one by one to its smaller sister, the piccolo traverso. In the early 18th century the piccolo began to appear with one to four keys, and more were added as the century progressed. In the years that followed the piccolo’s development mirrored that of the flute. In 1832 the Munich flutist Theobald Boehm invented a revolutionary mechanism for the flute and by the middle of the 19th century it had already found its way onto the piccolo. Nevertheless, piccolos with older key mechanisms remained in use into the 20th century.

In the first third of the 18th century parts for ”flauto piccolo” and ”flautino” began to appear in scores, although it cannot be said with any certainty today whether they were intended for the piccolo with one key or for a high recorder or flageolet. This applies to Georg Friedrich Handel’s opera “Rinaldo” (1711) and “Water Music” (1715), and Antonio Vivaldi’s three Concerti per flautino among others. Nowadays these parts are played by the piccolo. Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the first composers to use the piccolo in his works to imitate sounds of nature, e.g., the whistling of a stormy wind in the fourth movement of his 6th Symphony (“Pastoral Symphony”, 1808). In his “Rigoletto” (1851) Giuseppe Verdi first used a piccolo to symbolize lightning. In addition, the piccolo was used for special effects, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in “The Magic Flute” (1791), for example, for a humorous portrayal of eunuchs. In many works the piercing and shrill fortissimo of the piccolo is used to heighten terror in frightening scenes. Composers of the Romantic period, particularly Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, integrated the piccolo completely into the orchestra’s woodwind section. Since then it has been used extensively to add color and shading to the sound of the orchestra and occasionally even as a solo instrument.

The Indy Flute Shop has a wide range of piccolos available for sale or rent in a variety of materials and price points. Come check one out!

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