The Oboe: A 17th Century Miracle [Instrument Facts]

The oboe, a double-reed instrument of the woodwind family, is one of the world’s most elegant, significant, and distinctive musical instruments. 

Over the past centuries, the oboe has evolved to become one of the most challenging and distinctive instruments in the contemporary orchestra. It is also one of the most difficult instruments to learn to play but highly rewarding.

The oboe has been in use in orchestras for about 400 years and is considered one of the most established instruments in the orchestral repertoire. It has a warm yet piercing tone that is ideal for performing melodic sections or speedy runs.

The story started in the 17th century when violins were the most common solo instruments for indoor usage throughout the early Baroque period – nothing else sounded as expressive or provided the musician with as many technical options.

As a result, when oboes came, a revolution ensued. Jean Hotteterre and his musical associates at the French court presumably created the oboe in the mid-seventeenth century. 

Covering just two octaves keys, but constructed with remarkable precision, oboes could be handled with tremendous virtuosity – which explains how they achieved a breakthrough within just a few years. Here is how.

King Louis XVI and His Oboists

As an integral part of the orchestra, the oboe story starts with King Louis XVI, also known as the Sun King, who requested oboes to play at the court instead of open-air. As a result,  musicians had to relocate from the outside stages to indoor salons, with Jean Baptiste Lully being in charge of the instrumentation.

King Louis XVI. Source wikipedia
King Louis XVI (1745-1793)

The King’s twelve outstanding oboists [Les douze grands hautbois du Roi], some of whom also played the bassoon, were expected to garner particular attention. Therefore is no surprise that the term “oboe” comes from the French word hautbois, which means loud wood, suggesting that the instrument’s sound was reedy and warm.

As in a contemporary orchestra, the oboes were often grouped chorally, much like the strings instruments. One famous example is Handel’s Fireworks Music, which had an initial score that asked for no less than twenty-four oboes, in addition to twelve bassoons and a large number of brass instruments.

The Golden Age of Oboe

Initially, the oboes were often applied to enhance the sound of the string ensemble, but they soon gained higher importance in their own right. Throughout the late Baroque era and nearly the whole time of Vienna classicism, the oboe was the most important wind instrument in the orchestral ensemble.

By the early twentieth century, the instrument’s construction had been refined, and an increasing amount of composers were turning to it for inspiration. 

Classical oboe. Source: knobdude.com

Oboe solo concertos were written in great numbers by composers such as Handel, Albinoni, and Vivaldi throughout the Renaissance and eventually became scarce. 

For instance, between the works of Mozart in 1778 and those of Richard Strauss in 1946, there is scarcely a composition of international repute to be found.

The Modern Oboe

Yinfente Professional Oboe

Yinfente Professional Oboe C key left F Resonance semi-automatic Rosewood Oboe.
Source: Yinfente

While Boehm was working on his flutes, Guillaume and Frederic Triébert developed a similar key system while working on the oboe’s sound tube in France. Some of Boehm’s ideas were helpful to them, although their modernization was less extensive than that of the flute. 

It is referred to as the modern conservatory system oboe, most likely because Frederic Triebert amended it in the 1860s. His oboe was later designated as the official oboe of The Paris Conservatory by Georges Gillet.

Nevertheless, the oboe system developed by Triebert is not the same as what most professionals use today. Small additions and improvements have been made, such as the forked F resonance key, Left-hand F, split D ring, low Bb resonance key, various trill keys, and the third-octave key, among other things.

Despite this, very modest changes have been required since the mid-nineteenth century.

On the other hand, Oboe’s complex key system required a more stable wood than the box, which might bend and fracture. 

Hardwoods like rosewood, grenadillo, and ebony were introduced, with the former being the most popular nowadays. Above is an example of the amazing Yinfente Professional Oboe in the C key.

The third-octave key is designed to aid in popping the extreme altissimo notes by making them sharper so that they pop out more easily and too often too sharp. This addition was later considered a “waste of silver”. It was seldom used and considered to place additional tension on the wood where the bore is already quite stressed and susceptible to cracking in extreme humidity.

The Bulb Bell

Oboe family. Source: knobdude.com

The alto oboe features a thick portion at the bottom end, similar to an egg or a pear. This bulbous bell [Liebefuss in German] was prominent in the mid-eighteenth century and was used to soften the tone of various woodwind instruments. 

What exactly gives such instruments their distinct tone has long been disputed. It is most likely a mixture of the bulge and the crock, and perhaps even the fact that the somewhat conical sound tube is made narrower before the bell part.

The oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn, and baritone/bass oboe have all different bulb bells, as seen in the above image.

The Treble Oboe

Glory Oboe C Key Cupronickel Plated Silver
Glory Oboe C Key Cupronickel Plated Silver

The excellent quality of the treble oboe [and oboes in general] is attributable to their four-part construction: the reed, upper joint, lower joint, and the bell [or pavilion]. This allows us to thoroughly evaluate its acoustic properties, with precise drilling and placement of the tone-holes. 

Sound

The treble oboe sound is often described as having a clear and piercing tone when compared to other contemporary woodwind instruments. The instrument’s conical bore contributes to its rich tone [as opposed to the generally cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets]. 

Consequently, owing to the penetrating sound of the instrument, it is easier to distinguish it from other instruments in big groups.

Shape

The oboe, whose height measures is about 62 cm, consists of a double anchor that through a small pipe connects to the body itself, conical in shape, endowed with the mechanism of the flaps, ending down with the opening called the bell. 

Boxwood was the oboe’s standard material, and various sizes of the instrument were produced for ensemble playing. Sopranos and altos quickly became the most common soloists.

Notation

Though its typical tessitura is from C4 to E6, the instrument’s generally recognized range extends from B3 to approximately G6, which is two and a half octaves.

Treble oboe tonal range. Source: knobdude.com
Treble oboe tonal range

The English Horn

Fesjoy Professional English Horn. Source: knobdude.com
Fesjoy Professional English Horn Alto F Key

The hunting oboe evolved into the English horn towards the end of the eighteenth century. This title is deceptive since the instrument is by no means English. 

It may be a mistranslation of the French cor angle [angled horn] to cor anglais since the instrument initially had an angular shape, but the straight form quickly took over.

Sound

The English horn sounds darker and more forceful than the oboe due to its lower pitch and pear-shaped bell. The timbre stays generally consistent across all ranges, resulting in a seamless transition between them.

Lower register [E3 – Ab3, A3]: sound intense, warm, and a little dull. The effect is mild at the piano, but the harsh, shawm-like traits become more apparent when played forte. The lowest notes are sometimes likened to horn sounds that have been stopped. This register does not allow for pianissimo playing.

The middle register [A3, Bb3 – C5]: is the English horn’s most often utilized range, as well as a downward extension of the oboe. The sound has a broad range of emotional expressions, from sadness and despair to unfettered playfulness. The music seems to originate from afar, which makes it perfect for evoking emotional and nostalgic feelings. This is why composers choose it for lyrical, emotive, and sad airs, but it may also be utilized for pastoral, joyful, archaic, and exotic themes.

The Upper register [Db5 – A5]: when played forte, the high notes sound caustic and forceful, as well as piercing. The Vienna classicists seldom utilized this instrument, but Berlioz and Wagner popularized it. The rich timbre of a contemporary English horn is distinctly different from that of a lighter oboe. It is more melancholy, and as a result, it is often used for solo sections, as in Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela.

Shape

The English horn has a large shape with a bulbous bell and a bent metal crook at the upper end on which the double reed is mounted, tuned a fifth below the regular oboe.

Notation

The English horn parts are written a fifth higher than it sounds, in the key of F.

English horn tonal range. Source: knobdude.com
English horn tonal range

Oboe d’amore

 oboe d'amore

Christoph Graupner utilized the oboe d’amore for the first time in his cantata Wie Wunderbar ist Gottes Güt in the eighteenth century [1717]. Johann Sebastian Bach composed numerous works for the instrument, including a concerto, several of his cantatas, and the Et in Spiritum sanctum section of his Mass in B minor.

Sound

The sound of the oboe d’amore is warm, lyrical, and mellow, similar to that of the French horn rather than the oboe. 

Shape

The instrument is somewhat longer [bigger] than the oboe, and it has a unique pear-shaped bell that distinguishes it from the rest of the oboe family.

Notation

Oboe d’amore is a contemporary oboe with a soprano/alto range sounds from G-sharp below middle C to C-sharp above the treble clef but is notated a minor third above that.

Oboe d’amore tonal range. Source: knobdude.com
Oboe d’amore tonal range

The Bass Oboe

Source: Lorée Paris

The bass oboe is a lower-sounding instrument that may still be heard in certain concerts. The instrument is often referred to as heckelphone [German: Hackelphone] from its inventor, Wilhelm Heckel.

 Its purpose was to produce an expansive oboe-like sound in the middle register of significant orchestral works from the turn of the twentieth century, and it succeeded well.

Straus was among the first to use the bass oboe in his operas. One of the most notable examples of the bass oboe’s usage is Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” where the instrument is utilized to great advantage and produces a tone that no other instrument can achieve on its own.

Sound

It has a dark, piercing tone, and it helps to fill out the tenor range of the oboes. Because of its comparable sound to the baritone oboe, it may be used to replace it.

Shape

Besides its larger size, the most notable characteristic being its pepper-grinded shape. Lorée invented the current straight model in 1889.

Notation

The bass oboe has a lower range than the contemporary oboe, ranging from B2 to G5 flat. The modern oboe may have a larger range in certain situations, but the highest notes have a weak tone and do not hear as distinctly as the lower notes.

Bass oboe tonal range. Source: knobdude.com
Bass oboe tonal range

The Hunting Oboe and its “secret”

J.H. Eichentopf from Leipzig [Germany] likely invented the instrument. It is unknown how much of a difference between a Baroque oboe da caccia [also known as oboe da silva] and an English horn.

Some Baroque conservatives insist on playing the former, while others believe that the difference is just cosmetic. 

The Hunting Oboe. Source oae.co.uk
Source: oae.co.uk

A British writer recounts the story of an oboist who traveled as a specialist on the oboe da caccia in the early twentieth century. The finely tuned bell, however, was just a decoy that he attached to his English horn.

Everyone loved the purported hunting oboe until a conductor inquired as to the distinction. The player’s response was straightforward:

The difference is five pounds per concert!

To the untrained eye, the oboe seems to be a bigger version of the clarinet, owing to its black body and silver-colored keys. The two instruments, on the other hand, are diametrically opposed in many ways.

Oboe vs Clarinet

First, the pieces into which the player blows. The clarinet has a mouthpiece that is linked to a single reed at the top of the instrument. Contrary to this, the oboe does not have a mouthpiece but does have two reeds, indicating that it is a double-reed instrument.

Oboe vs Clarinet mouthpiece. Source: knobdude.com

The bell’s form is likewise very different from the norm. The bell of an oboe does not extend as far as the bell of a clarinet, and it is also thicker in comparison to the clarinet. 

Oboe vs Clarinet bell. Source: knobdude.com
Source: yamaha.com

The tones produced by the oboe and clarinet are another significant distinction. The clarinet creates mellow, round, dark, and lower range tones, while the oboe produces brighter, penetrative, and clear tones. The conical bore is responsible for the oboe’s piercing tone.

Oboes have very tiny interiors, with the internal diameter of the top part of the upper section reaching just around 4 millimeters [mm]. The diameter increases in diameter as one gets closer to the bell, creating a cone.

Oboe interior. Source: yamaha.com
Source: yamaha.com

Because the hole for blowing into an oboe is so small, just a small amount of the player’s breath can get through it.

When playing other wind instruments, it is common for the player to struggle if they do not have enough breath volume, but it is common for the player to struggle if they have too much breath volume when playing the oboe. 

This is by no means a simple task for the player to accomplish. In part, because oboe players take their breaths in small increments, playing a lengthy tune on a single breath is similar to holding one’s breath for an extended period of time. To compensate, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs throughout the performance period. 

Oboe player. Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Because oboists must inhale after releasing long-held breaths all at once, it takes them longer to take a breath than it does for players of other wind instruments to take a breath on the oboe.

Oboe Reeds

Oboe reed kit. Source: Amazon.
Oboe reeds and accessories.

An oboe reed is produced by shaving down a cane reed. The two reeds are fastened to the metal pipe with strings and positioned face to face. The oboe is built so that a piece of cork is wrapped around part of it and placed into the top portion of the instrument.

Oboe reeds typically endure approximately 10-15 hours of playing time and no more than one month after fabrication. However, if unplayed and stored in a stable temperature and humidity, certain reeds may survive longer.

Reeds are very sensitive to climate fluctuation because the weather changes may either reduce or lengthen their lifespan.

Oboe’s Role in Orchestra

Oboe placement in orchestra. Source: knobdude.com
Oboe placement in orchestra

Like the other wooden instruments, in the ordinary symphony orchestra, two oboes are used, which, besides the role of sustaining harmony, have first of all a frequent melodic mission. 

The increasingly descriptive character of modern music is entirely based on the picturesque pregnancy and suggestiveness of the oboe, which, as we have already shown, has a remarkable power of detachment and relief on the sound level. 

Also used in chamber music, the oboe also asserts itself as a soloist in several concerts specially written for this instrument.

Conclusion

Oboists are renowned for their concentration and attention to detail. If you are inquisitive about the world, a natural problem solver, and enjoy delving into the details of things, the oboe might be the ideal instrument for you. 

Every human is believed to be capable of playing a musical instrument, so don’t shy yourself from starting to play the oboe today!

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