Dr. Sy Brandon has posted his work on the sixth and final movement of the Divertissement for multiple woodwinds soloist and piano.
In some early communication, Dr. Brandon suggested that this movement, the “Galop,” be written for piccolo. I was happy with this idea, and even dusted off my piccolo to start getting my chops in shape. But by the next day he had hit on a new idea that I liked even better: using the sixth movement to bring back each of the five previously-featured instruments in one tour-de-force finale.
While I was pleased to have this piece include a chance to show off my skills at switching instruments on the fly, I did think that this might limit the number of doublers who could perform the piece. I like the idea of a piece custom-tailored to my specific skill set, but, on the other hand, I would like to see the piece become a significant addition to the limited repertoire for woodwind doublers.
The problem, of course, is that a “doubler” might play any combination of instruments, and a piece for five specific instruments does drastically narrow the field of capable performers. My initial hope was that the piece might be adaptable to individual doublers’ abilities, either by selectively omitting movements or by providing alternate instrumentations.
Dr. Brandon, unsurprisingly, was two steps ahead of me. He has announced two different versions of the sixth movement: one version is for piccolo, and the other is for doubler playing flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone—the instruments used individually in the preceding movements—plus a brief surprise appearance by the piccolo at the very end.
Discussing his rationale for writing two versions of the Galop, Dr. Brandon says:
I wanted to do a piccolo version of the last movement for marketing purposes. Each movement of this piece could stand alone as a short piece for flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and now piccolo. I will also publish the work as a woodwind doubler’s dream (or nightmare, depending upon how one views it).
I am 100% on board with this idea, as it opens up some nice possibilities for doublers to use the piece to put their respective best feet forward. A flute-clarinet-saxophone doubler could, I think, very effectively use the first, second, and fourth movements, and optionally include the piccolo version of the sixth.
The decision to end the multiple woodwinds version of the sixth movement with the piccolo tidily solves a problem that I had mused about in an email to Dr. Brandon:
I’ll be fascinated to see how you deal with the questions I imagine might arise: … Which instrument gets the last word? Etc.
Bringing in the piccolo at the very last moment is a nice virtuosic touch—it keeps the audience guessing, and suits the time-honored tradition of ending on a high note. I think I will keep the piccolo hidden from the audience (using a music stand shelf) to maximize the impact. (I’ll keep the bassoon low A extension hidden as well in the third movement.) It also deals with the compositional problem of one of the other instruments “winning” (to take one possible hermeneutical view) by being the last one standing. To my way of thinking, bringing in a sixth, previously unheard instrument at this point puts the focus on the single performer rather than the several woodwind voices, which provides a sense of unity.
Using the piccolo in this way does create some logistical issues, though certainly not insurmountable ones. The piccolo itself will be completely cold, and the piccolo embouchure will not be at its freshest—and all of this at a crucial moment. Note, as well, that Dr. Brandon has indicated that the final version will end on the piccolo’s third-octave G (as shown in the currently posted version of the piccolo movement) rather than the second G (as currently shown in the multiple-woodwinds movement). The preceding instrument, luckily, is the flute, and largely in that instrument’s third octave, which should help with the embouchure transition. And, as always, I suggest a thorough physical and mental warm-up on each instrument before the performance.
The piccolo is something of a bugaboo for many woodwind doublers. The flute is challenging enough as a doubling instrument, since its embouchure is so delicate and so different from the reed instruments, and the piccolo presents a smaller target. Although I don’t consider myself a particularly strong piccoloist, I’ve made some good money for being willing to give it a shot when other doublers have shied away; although I tend to think that at least a basic command of the piccolo should be a goal for any flute doubler, it may be a deal-breaker for some. My intention is to practice hard and perform this movement with piccolo, but I would suggest that it may be appropriate in the final version to mark the switch to piccolo as optional.
I’m quite pleased with how the Divertissement has turned out, and I look forward to receiving a completed score so I can really get to work. I will continue to blog about the genesis of this piece, including a planned visit by Dr. Brandon to Delta State University in February, during which I hope to get his comments on my interpretation of the piece.