51. Atop The Orchestra


This post’s examples include works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Holst, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Sousa.

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Well-worn and most likely apocryphal, this line is attributed to Sigmund Freud, musing on theories about the iconography of oblong, cylindrical objects: Sometimes they are exactly as they appear – and not phallic symbols.

In orchestration, a timpani roll works perfectly well to accent a build in a passage. In a similar way, a rapid ascending string run can be used exactly as we expect. These are perfect inventions to include in a crescendo passage. It’s OK to use them as such. Let’s face it: Creative ideas may border on trite simply because they are used often, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be effectively used, and reused.

With this post I’m going to start a series that explores individual instruments and the sounds they can make with and without others. It will in no way be exhaustive – and may not even be completely representative – of the instruments. Yet, it will present examples of solos and focus on places in the orchestral literature to hear what these babies can do.

And though I may not go down through a representative orchestral score from top to bottom, I thought it would be fun at least to start at the top with the piccolo. With that said, let me get this out of the way: The piccolo may or not be the top line in a complete score. It generally depends on the composer, the usage of the instrument in the piece and his or her publisher. But, if the piccolo is not the top staff in a score, it will almost surely be the one below it or them, depending on the piece. (Often the piccolo part is played by the second or third flutist, changing from flute to piccolo as the score directs.)

Way Up There: Scheherazade On Top

As you probably know, the piccolo doubles the flute at the octave. The orchestral line and the part as well is, therefore, written an octave lower than it sounds. One of the first major orchestral composers to feature the piccolo is the ever-iconoclastic Beethoven who included it in his fifth and sixth symphonies. For this post we’ll start with its use by the man who wrote the – or at least, a – book on orchestration, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

With its potential for piercing the upper limits of hearing, the piccolo often doubles the flutes, playing an octave higher. These types of lines will frequently be doubling the first violins. Let’s listen to Example 51.1 in the first movement of Scheherazade. Until the very end of the example, the piccolo is playing the same part as the flutes, sounding an octave higher of course. Yet, when the piccolo gets to the extreme of its range, the sound is biting and distinct. It’s a sound no other instrument can duplicate.

Example 51.1. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Movement 1, (137-151)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

In Example 51.1 beginning in measure 137 the flutes and first violins, doubled an octave lower by the oboes and second violins, have the now well-established triplet and trill line. All this time the piccolo is playing the top flute and first violin lines an octave higher than written. Listen to the notable sound change in measure 145 when the piccolo starts getting into its stratosphere, in the 4-line octave, hitting high Fs and Gs. Note that the composer chooses to rein in the piccolo as soon as it hits the high A in measure 146.

It is at this point that the score is marked fortissimo and the current climax is reached and sustained for the next four measures before thoroughly changing the sound at measure 151 to that of a chamber ensemble as a variation on the Scheherazade theme returns.

Piccolos as percussion: Scheherazade Dance

Always employing his knowledgeable ear to create unique sounds, this next passage (Example 51.2) shows ways that Rimsky-Korsakov uses two piccolos in their upper range as a rhythm “instrument” combined with the violins, also in their upper register. The emphasis in this triple meter passage is on one and three (almost a tarantella). The passage begins with the establishment of the rhythmic pattern: the two piccolos playing a slurred pattern on one and two and then a staccato chord on three. Half of the first violins are playing their high Es as harmonics slurring down two octaves on two and then playing the first note of three. Fleshing out the piccolo harmonies are the second half of the first violins playing the same initial chord as sixteenth notes. To enhance the percussive effect, the composer adds the triangle on the downbeats.

Example 51.2. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Movement 2, (179-202)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Once this magical dance rhythm is established, the flute and oboe trade off two-bar patterns, accompanying the second violins (accented on the down beats by the pizzicato violas) on what might be considered the melody for this passage. Note too that here, the bottom of the orchestra is not to be found. In fact, the lowest notes heard in this passage are the Gs and F-sharps. A steady diet of this could soon become intense, bordering on annoying. For these few measures, it’s the composer setting up a dance rhythm. A master of writing for winds, Rimsky-Korsakov creates a quite brilliant rhythmic accompaniment for the melody.

Two Clarinets with Piccolo on Top

In Example 51.3 the composer combines the piccolo and clarinets to produce the melody in three octaves. The accompaniment is staccato winds and pizzicato strings as well as triangle, tambourine, snare drum and cymbal. Rimsky-Korsakov throws one more instrument into this mix: the open trumpet using the triple tonguing technique to enhance the percussive effect of the rest of the accompaniment.

Example 51.3. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Movement 3, (107-115)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Note that the first clarinet is nearing the top of its range and it’s wise to use the second clarinet an octave below to support the intense sound of the first. What adds so much to this example is the piccolo in its highest octave, playing the top of the three octave melody. Many composers might choose to use the flutes, but Rimsky-Korsakov chooses to use the high clarinet. The combination is an infrequently heard sound and, given the composer’s use of repeated melodies in different keys with new sonic tableaux, surprisingly welcome in this work.

Two Oboes with Piccolo on Top, But Not Scheherazade

We’ve just listened to a lilting example of a melody in three octaves with the piccolo playing the top of the line (too high for the flute) with the two clarinets in octaves below it. Here, in an example from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, we hear the piccolo on top of two oboes. Unlike the previous example, though, this passage is slow and in an irregular rhythm.

What’s more interesting about this passage is the sound the composer gets from the three instruments, playing closed block triads with the piccolo on top of the two oboes.

Example 51.4. Gustav Holst: The Planets, Movement 7 “Neptune, the Mystic,” (1-9)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Example 51.4 is from The Planet’s seventh movement entitled “Neptune, the Mystic” and the composer creates a novel tonal canvas in terms of melody, harmony and the selections of instruments. The score is for large orchestra with quadruple winds notably including a piccolo, an alto flute (sometimes called a bass flute in scores of the period), bass oboe, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, celesta, two harps, organ and female choir in addition to the standard brass and strings.

In the example that starts at the beginning of the movement the first flute (and eventually the second) and alto flute play the opening theme soli. In the third measure the combination of piccolo and oboes enters with no other sounds for a few beats. This provides a rarely heard sound of unique voices, even at pianissimo. Note how the score calls for the three trombones to enter on an open A minor triad, sustained as the woodwinds move through several block triads.

In measure four, note the sound that the harps make with their tremolos on the G-sharp minor triad. It’s an interesting and useful effect for creating a dramatic yet subtle background. The flutes enter again, repeating their opening lines, followed by the piccolo-oboes combination. Holst shifts things with a C major chord in the horns replacing what had been its relative minor chord in the trombones. The piccolo and oboes inversions change in measure eight, creating a new sound with the entrance of the second flute.

If you find the sound Holst achieves in this passage to be interesting, I recommend listening to the stunning sounds he creates throughout the piece.

What Was Missed

There are a lot of lessons about orchestration to be had for the taking in this brilliant Rimsky-Korsakov score. The focus has been on the piccolo, but I thought I’d point out some sounds the composer creates in the score for which a listener might ask “What was that?” In addition, these passages might be useful for a composer when orchestrating his or her own works.

Just after the opening violin solo in the second movement, the bassoon has the melody for a complete phrase. If you focus on the bassoon you may not realize that the sustained background for its solo consists of four individual contrabasses playing (con sordini). It’s a subtle sound and you’d easily be forgiven for thinking it was played by a group of clarinets, bassoons, horns or cellos. When you focus on the background you’ll hear the rich sound that four soli basses can make. The composer exploits this sound to its advantage, especially in this low range.

Example 51.5. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Movement 2, (5-26)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Listen to a perfect example of using the same instrument for two very different purposes. In Example 51.6, the second flute is playing the melody at the octave with the B-flat clarinet. During this passage the first flute is down in its lowest register playing the same line as the pizzicato first violins. Assisting in the maintenance of this rhythm are the triangle and the tambourine. Together these elements work as a unit to produce the melody, harmony and rhythm that are the composer’s intention. But it’s a novel use of choosing two of the same wind instrument to play diverse parts of the unit. In a subtle way it piques the ear and the audience’s interest.

Example 51.6. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Movement 3, (79-88)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Rossini, the Magpie and the Piccolo

As is well-known, the piccolo is often written as a unison with the flutes oboes, clarinets and/or first violins, there are times when a composer wants the piccolo to sound clearly above the rest. These are instances where the piccolo will sound two octaves above the nearest melody line. One often cited example is from the overture to Rossini’s La gazza ladra.

Example 51.7 Gioachino Rossini: La gazza ladra, Overture (208-222)
Carlo-Maria Giulini, Philharmonia Orchestra, EMI

I’ve included the previous few measures in the example. Note how the flutes, playing along with the upper first violins, blend into the sound of the strings. The change comes in measure 215 when the piccolo enters, playing the melody two octaves above the clarinet and three octaves above the bassoon. Even though each part is representative of its unique timbre, the piccolo up there in its highest octave is impossible to miss.

Piccolo amid Pizzicato

If you’ve ever heard the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony, you will remember it for its pizzicato strings if nothing else. Another brilliant orchestrator, Tchaikovsky even subtitles the movement “Pizzicato ostinato.”

Given the focus on sharp but light sounds from the strings, the use of winds is economical throughout the movement. The composer generally uses them with similar effect. Both woodwinds and brass have mostly staccato passages.

He does, nevertheless, have a fondness for the piccolo. In Example 51.8 the composer has been repeating a similar pattern played by the two flutes over staccato woodwinds. But as he draws this pattern to an end, he adds the piccolo, playing the same notes an octave higher. It’s not a long passage, but the effect added by the piccolo is stunning.

Example 51.8 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4, Movement 3, 159-172
Loren Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London

Just a few seconds later, after the shift to the movement’s original tempo, the composer brings back the clarinet for a continuation of the melody in abbreviated form. Once the clarinet finishes in its chalumeau register, the piccolo enters solo with a rapid passage of just two or three measures. The top of this passage is just a third below the piccolo’s highest note. Add to that the speed with which its required to be played and, though brief, it’s clearly one of those “here it comes” moments for the performer who must be at the top of his or her game to make it happen.

Example 51.9 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4, Movement 3, 189-207
Loren Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London

Piccolo atop Two Melodies

As we’ve just listened to an example of the piccolo playing a difficult passage, before finishing with the piccolo, I thought I’d bring back a passage for which many know the piccolo. I played this passage in a post from early last year about melodies and countermelodies, focusing on the three lines John Philip Sousa provides the listener at the end of Stars & Stripes Forever.

Example 51.10 John Philip Sousa, Stars & Stripes Forever (Measures 85-110)
Howard Hanson, Eastman Philharmonia, Mercury Living Presence

It is another example of the piccolos and flutes playing a busy passage in their highest registers to make sure it can be heard above the main theme from the orchestra or band and the counter melody in the trombones. It’s a well-known example of the piccolo and a perfect use of it in a rich orchestral tableau.


I’ve tried to find examples of the orchestra’s highest wind instrument for this post. There are no doubt many more. I think, though, that this collection provides the orchestrator or composer with some new ways of using this high flying instrument. I hope you enjoyed reading and listening.

Please let me know if you have any questions or want to comment on the material.

Matthew Yasner


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