Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

  • 2+afl.0.2+bcl.0/2200/timp.3perc/str
  • piccolo
  • 17 min

Programme Note

A piccolo concerto may be a rarity but, for Maxwell Davies, it has long been an idea waiting to happen. As a jeu d’esprit for a concert in 1973, he made a brilliant piccolo-and-celesta transcription of the ‘Song of the Forest Bird’ from Wagner’s Siegfried. In relation to this, a full-fledged original work constitutes the logical completion of a particularly enjoyable piece of unfinished business.

The Concerto’s three movements are played without a break. The first begins with an andante introduction that displays both the lyrical and mercurial sides of the piccolo’s nature. The soloist presents a tune factually, objectively, then enhances it with florid decoration. Davies supports the piccolo by a tintinabulation of tuned percussion that acts as an acoustical ‘halo’. After a brief orchestra tutti the opening tune returns to round off the introduction. In the main Allegro moderato, the piccolo tune springs buoyantly, while a mellow marimba now joins the glockenspiel and crotales as baritone bell in the ‘gamelan’ The solo part glistens with consonances that refract the piccolo’s clear, open timbre, and combine with the chiming percussion to lend the work the aura of a ‘toy symphony’. The ‘development section is dominated by an insistent dotted figure in the brass and lower strings, above which the muted violins float wisps of melody while the piccolo swoops and soars to every dizzier heights At the climax, the music winds down until trumpet and horn share a nostalgic recollection of the original slow tune, decorated by piccolo arabesques. The soloist then blows the movement away on a breeze of scales.

The adagio second movement achieves deceptive simplicity through a radical reduction of the musical surface. Pizzicato strings set the scene for a bass clarinet’s suave, insinuating serenade. The piccolo responds and paves the way for a middle section in which ghostly harmonics whiten the instrument’s silvery tone. The serenade returns as a duet in which the bass clarinet is revealed as the piccolo’s comically sinister ‘dark double’

In a brief transition, unaccompanied timpani assume the bass clarinet’s persona of ‘Tom’ to the piccolo’s ‘Jerry’, and a triangular game of cat-and-mouse quickly leads into the allegro finale. A snare drum established a mock-military mode, but the march turns quickly into a vertiginous dance at whose climax the music splinters into fragments. The piccolo exhales its remaining energy in a mini-recitative cadenza, then ends with a ‘definitive’ version of the Concerto’s principal tune that transforms the goal of a quest into an unanswered question.

The work’s title contains a pun: it is both a piccolo concerto and a concerto piccolo. The compactness of this ‘little concerto’ harbours another question – is it a small large piece or a large small one? That is for the individual listener to decide. From whichever end of the telescope you hear it. Maxwell Davies states each idea as an essence, yet presents it in a state of full bloom.

David Nice

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.


Piccolo Concerto: I. Andante - Allegro moderato molto - Poco meno mosso - Andante
Piccolo Concerto: II. Adagio
Piccolo Concerto: III. Lo stesso tempo - Allegro - Lento



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