The Classical Oboe Description Page
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The oboe is a double reed musical instrument of the woodwind family. In English, prior to 1770, the instrument was called "hautbois", "hoboy", or "French hoboy". The spelling "oboe" was adopted into English ca. 1770 from the Italian oboè, a transliteration in that language's orthography of the 17th-century pronunciation of the French word hautbois, a compound word made of haut ("high, loud") and bois ("wood, woodwind"). A musician who plays the oboe is called an oboist. Subtle manipulation of embouchure and air pressure allows the player to express timbre and dynamics.
In comparison to other modern woodwind instruments, the oboe has a clear and penetrating voice. The Sprightly Companion, an instruction book published by Henry Playford in 1695, describes the oboe as "Majestical and Stately, and not much Inferior to the Trumpet." More humorously, the voice is described in the play Angels in America as sounding like that of a duck if the duck were a songbird. The timbre of the oboe is derived from the oboe's conical bore (as opposed to the generally cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets). As a result, oboes are readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.
The reed has a significant effect on the sound of the instrument. German and French reeds, for instance, differ in many ways, causing the sound of the oboe to vary accordingly.
The oboe is pitched in concert C and has a soprano range. Orchestras frequently tune to a concert A (usually A440) played by the oboe. According to the League of American Orchestras, this is done because the pitch of the oboe is secure and its penetrating sound makes it ideal for tuning purposes. The pitch of the oboe is affected by the way in which the reed is made. Variations in cane and other construction materials, the age of the reed, and differences in scrape and length will all affect the pitch of the instrument. Weather conditions such as temperature and humidity will also affect the pitch. Skilled oboists adjust their embouchure to compensate for these factors.
The baroque oboe first appeared in the French court in the mid-17th century, where it was called hautbois, although this name was also used for its predecessor, the shawm. The basic form of the hautbois was derived from the shawm. Major differences between the two instruments include the division of the hautbois into three sections, or joints (which allowed for more precise manufacture), the elimination of the pirouette, the wooden ledge below the reed which allowed players to rest their lips, and the wind-cap, a cap placed over the reed that enabled shawm players to produce greater volume. The latter development, more than any other, was responsible for bringing the hautbois indoors where, due to its more refined sound and style of playing, it took up a permanent place in the orchestra.
The exact date and place of origin of the hautbois are obscure, as are the individuals who were responsible. Circumstantial evidence, such as the statement by Michel de la Barre in his Memoire, points to members of the Philidor (Filidor) and Hotteterre families. The instrument may in fact have had multiple inventors. The hautbois quickly spread throughout Europe, including England, where it was called "hautboy", "hoboy", "hautboit", "howboye", and similar variants of the French name. It was the main melody instrument in early military bands, until it was succeeded by the clarinet.
The baroque oboe was generally made of boxwood and had three keys: a "great" key and two side keys (The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the right or left hand on the bottom holes). In order to produce higher pitches, the player had to "overblow", or increase the air stream to reach the next harmonic. Notable oboe-makers of the period are the German Denner and Eichentopf, and the English Stanesby Sr. and Jr. The range for the baroque oboe comfortably extends from c1 to d3. With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid 20th century, a few makers began producing copies to specifications from surviving historical instruments.
The classical period brought an oboe whose bore was gradually narrowed, and the instrument became outfitted with several keys, among them were those for the notes D♯, F, and G♯. A key similar to the modern octave key was also added called the "slur key", though it was at first used more like the "flick" keys on the modern German bassoon. Only later did French instrument makers redesign the octave key to be used in the manner of the modern key (i.e. held open for the upper register, closed for the lower). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be more easily played, and composers began to more often utilize the oboe's upper register in their works. Because of this, the oboe's tessitura in the Classical era was somewhat broader than that found in baroque works. The range for the Classical oboe extends from c1 to f3, though some German and Austrian oboes were capable of playing one half-step lower. Classical-era composers who wrote concertos for oboe include Mozart (both the solo concerto in C major K. 314/285d and the lost original of Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major K. 297b, as well as a fragment of F major concerto K. 417f), Haydn, (both the Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Hob. I:105 and the spurious concerto in C major Hob. VIIg:C1), Beethoven (the F major concerto, Hess 12, of which only sketches survive, though the second movement was reconstructed in the late twentieth century), and numerous other composers including Johann Christian Bach, Johann Christian Fischer, Jan Antonín Koželuh, and Ludwig August Lebrun. Many solos exist for the oboe in chamber, symphonic, and operatic compositions from the Classical era.
Viennese or Wiener oboe
In Vienna, a type of modern oboe has been preserved to the present day that retains the essential bore and tonal characteristics of the historical oboe. The Akademiemodel Wiener Oboe, first developed in the late 19th century by Hermann Zuleger from earlier instruments by C.T. Golde of Dresden (1803–73), is now made by several makers such as André Constantinides, Karl Rado, Guntram Wolf, Christian Rauch and Yamaha. It has a wider internal bore, a shorter and broader reed and the fingering-system is very different than the Conservatoire oboe. In their definitive historical work "The Oboe", Geoffrey Burgess and Bruce Haynes write (page 212) "The differences are most clearly marked in the middle register, which is reedier and more pungent, and the upper register, which is richer in harmonics on the Viennese oboe". Guntram Wolf describes them: "From the concept of the bore, the Viennese oboe is the last representative of the historical oboes, adapted for the louder, larger orchestra, and fitted with an extensive mechanism. Its great advantage is the ease of speaking, even in the lowest register. It can be played very expressively and blends well with other instruments." The Viennese oboe is, along with the Vienna horn, perhaps the most distinctive member of the Wiener Philharmoniker instrumentarium.
The oboe was developed further in the 19th century by the Triebert family of Paris. Using the Boehm flute as a source of ideas for key work, Guillaume Triebert and his sons, Charles and Frederic, devised a series of increasingly complex yet functional key systems. A variant form using large tone holes, the Boehm system oboe, was never in common use, though it was used in some military bands in Europe into the 20th century. F. Lorée of Paris made further developments to the modern instrument. Minor improvements to the bore and key work have continued through the 20th century, but there has been no fundamental change to the general characteristics of the instrument for several decades.
The modern oboe is most commonly made from grenadilla, also known as African Blackwood, though some manufacturers also make oboes out of other members of the genus Dalbergia, which includes cocobolo, rosewood, and violetwood. Ebony (genus Diospyros) has also been used. Student model oboes are often made from plastic resin, to avoid instrument cracking to which wood instruments are prone, but also to make the instrument more economical. The oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore. The oboe is played with a double reed consisting of two thin blades of cane tied together on a small-diameter metal tube (staple) which is inserted into the reed socket at the top of the instrument. The commonly accepted range for the oboe extends from b♭3 to about g6, over two and a half octaves, though its common tessitura lies from c4 to e♭6. Some student oboes only extend to b3; the key for b♭ is not present, however this variant is becoming less common.
A modern oboe with the "full conservatoire" ("conservatory" in the USA) or Gillet key system has 45 pieces of keywork, with the possible additions of a third octave key and alternate (left little finger) F- or C-key. The keys are usually made of nickel silver, and are silver or occasionally gold-plated. Besides the full conservatoire system, oboes are also made using the English thumbplate system. Most have "semi-automatic" octave keys, in which the second octave action closes the first, and some have a fully automatic octave key system, as used on saxophones. Some full conservatory oboes have finger holes covered with rings rather than plates ("open-holed"), and most of the professional models have at least the right hand third key open-holed. Professional oboes used in the UK frequently feature conservatoire system combined with a thumb plate. With this type of mechanism the oboist has the best of both worlds as far as the convenience of fingerings is concerned.
Other members of the oboe family
The oboe has several siblings. The most widely known today is the cor anglais, or English horn, the tenor (or alto) member of the family. A transposing instrument; it is pitched in F, a perfect fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d'amore, the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. J.S. Bach made extensive use of both the oboe d'amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, Baroque antecedents of the cor anglais. Even less common is the bass oboe (also called baritone oboe), which sounds one octave lower than the oboe. Delius and Holst both scored for the instrument. Similar to the bass oboe is the more powerful heckelphone, which has a wider bore and larger tone than the bass oboe. Only 165 heckelphones have ever been made. Not surprisingly, competent heckelphone players are difficult to find due to the extreme rarity of this particular instrument. The least common of all are the musette (also called oboe musette or piccolo oboe), the sopranino member of the family (it is usually pitched in E-flat or F above the oboe), and the contrabass oboe (typically pitched in C, two octaves deeper than the standard oboe).
Folk versions of the oboe, sometimes equpped with extensive keywork, are found throughout Europe. These include the musette (France) and bombarde (Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (Spain). Many of these are played in tandem with local forms of bagpipe, particularly with the Italian zampogna or Breton biniou. Similar oboe-like instruments, most believed to derive from Middle Eastern models, are also found throughout Asia as well as in North Africa.
Most professional oboists make their own reeds since every oboist needs a slightly different reed to suit his or her individual needs. By making their own reeds, oboists can precisely control factors such as tone colour and tuning. Occasionally, novice oboists may begin with a Fibrecane reed, which is made of a synthetic material. Commercially available cane reeds are available in several degrees of hardness; a medium reed is usually used. These reeds, like clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon reeds, are made from arundo donax. As oboists gain more experience, they may start making their own reeds after the model of their teacher, or buying hand-made reeds (usually from a professional oboist) and using special tools including gougers, pre-gougers, guillotines, knives, and other tools to make the reed to their own liking.  According to the late John Mack, former principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra, an oboe student must fill a laundry basket with finished reeds in order to master the art . "Making good reeds requires years of practice, and the amateur is often well advised not to embark on making his own reeds, ... Orchestral musicians sometimes do this [make reeds], and co-principals in particular often earn a bit on the side in this way. ... Many professional musicians import their reed cane ... directly from the growers in southern France and split it vertically into three parts themselves. Oboes require thicknesses of about 10 millimetres, bassoons of 20 to 25 millimetres." This allows each player to adjust the reeds precisely for individual embouchure, oral cavity, oboe angle, and air support. The reed is considered the part of oboe playing that makes it so difficult because slight variations in temperature, altitude, weather, and climate will change a perfectly working reed into an unplayable collection of cane.
Notable classical works featuring the oboe
Use in non-classical music
While the oboe is rarely used in musical genres other than Western classical, there have been a few notable exceptions.
Traditional and folk music
Although folk oboes are still used in many European folk music traditions, the modern oboe has been little used in folk music. One exception was Derek Bell, harpist for the Irish group The Chieftains, who used the instrument in some performances and recordings. The United States contra dance band Wild Asparagus, based in western Massachusetts, also uses the oboe, played by David Cantieni. The folk musician Paul Sartin plays the oboe in several English folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead. The bagpipe player and bagpipe maker Jonathan Shorland plays a 'rustic oboe' similar to the Breton 'piston' with the bands Primeaval and Juice, and formerly played with Fernhill, who play traditional Welsh music.
Since 1996, Jean-Luc Fillon is the main musician playing oboe (and English horn) at the international level in jazz music. Nevertheless this instrument remains very rare throughout the world and in jazz history. Some early bands, most notably that of Paul Whiteman, included it for coloristic purposes. The multi-instrumentalist Garvin Bushell (1902–1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924 and used the instrument throughout his career, eventually recording with John Coltrane in 1961. Gil Evans scored for the instrument in his famous Miles Davis collaboration Sketches of Spain. Though primarily a tenor saxophone and flute player, Yusef Lateef was among the first (in 1963) to use the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances and recordings. Composer and double bassist Charles Mingus gave the oboe a brief but prominent role (played by Dick Hafer) in his composition "I.X. Love" on the 1963 album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. Marshall Allen occasionally played an oboe with Sun Ra.
With the birth of Jazz fusion in the late 1960s, and its continuous development through the following decade, the oboe started to fulfill a more important role in composition, replacing on some occasions the saxophone as the focal point. The oboe was used with great success by the Welsh multi-instrumentalist Karl Jenkins in his work with the groups Nucleus and Soft Machine, and by the American woodwind player Paul McCandless, co-founder of the Paul Winter Consort and later Oregon. Romeo Penque also played the oboe on Roland Kirk's 1975 album Return of the 5000 Lb. Man, in the song "Theme for the Eulipions."
The 1980s saw an increasing number of oboists try their hand at non-classical work, and many players of note have recorded and performed alternative music on oboe. Some present-day jazz groups influenced by classical music, such as the Maria Schneider Orchestra, feature the oboe.
Double reedist Charles Pillow makes use of oboe and has made an instructional recording for jazz oboe.
Rock and pop
The oboe has been used sporadically in rock recordings, generally by studio musicians on recordings of specific songs.
In the 2000s, Robbie J. de Klerk, the vocalist of the Dutch melodic doom/death metal band Another Messiah also played the oboe in most songs. In America, the band Hoboe defines itself as a rock band showcasing amplified oboe since 2000, fronted by oboist Zen Ben.
The oboe is frequently featured in film music, often to underscore a particularly poignant or sad scene, for example in the motion picture Born on the Fourth of July, where an oboe delicately takes the theme with a romantic and harmonic touch before the strings hand it over once again to the trumpet. One of the most prominent uses of the oboe in a film score is Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe" theme from the 1986 film The Mission.
Oboe was used to a great effect by A. R. Rahman in the 2008 Bollywood movie Jodhaa Akbar.
The oboe in popular culture
In popular culture, the oboe is commonly associated (sometimes negatively) with the sound of a duck, a stereotype which was established most notably in Sergei Prokofiev's 1936 composition Peter and the Wolf, a children's orchestral work in which the oboe "plays" the duck character. Young children's literature also reinforces this connection.
Research has shown that among young instrumentalists, the flute, clarinet, and oboe are considered feminine instruments, even though boys favored the sound of the oboe, English horn and bassoon over that of other wind instruments. Some musicians have commented that negative stereotypes associated with the oboe could lead to instrumentation deficits for symphonies in the future.
Among the orchestral community, oboists are known for their perfectionism, especially when it comes to the selection of reeds, hence the famous oboe joke, "How many oboists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but he may have to sort through 30 or 40 bulbs to find the right one."
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