In the Middle Ages military musicians played a simple transverse flute with six finger-holes alongside the drum. These two instruments were characteristic of foot soldiers.
During the 16th century many instruments were further adapted in imitation of the human voice and came to form instrument families consisting of models in various registers. The flute family also included instruments of every register, from the treble recorder (flauto piccolo) to the bass flute (flautone).
Until the 18th century the recorder was always indicated by the term flauto. Flautino or flauto piccolo referred to a treble recorder. At this time, in order to indicate the transverse flute, the word cross, transverse or traverso (i.e., the translation of this word in the respective language) was used.
Development of the piccolo traverso
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.
Piccolos were made in the tunings C, Db and Eb (fundamentals C5, Db5 and Eb5 – the latter tuning was favored particularly in military circles). The tubing was made first of wood, later of metal and was slightly conical.
The piccolo in the orchestra
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.