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In the beginning there were 'shawms'. Imagine the soundtrack to a film about Henry VIII - shawms are the wind instruments that sound like ducks. The shawm acquired the French name haut bois which means 'loud wood'. This became hautboy in English, and eventually 'oboe'. The early hautboys had a very loud, harsh tone and were nearly as loud as a trumpet. Over the centuries, the instrument was gradually refined with the addition of metal keys (to increase its range of notes and improve tuning), and the lengthening and narrowing of the instrument's body, which improved the tone, making it softer and more expressive. Enter - the modern oboe.
Oboes consist of the reed (which sits at the top - the bit you blow into) and the body. Reeds are nightmares. Properly called 'double reeds' (as compared to the single, flat reed of a clarinet), they are made from a length of cane, cut and scraped into the correct shape, then folded in two (hence the 'double') and tied onto a tiny metal tube. The bottom of the tube is encased in cork, to give an airtight fit with the body of the oboe1.
So, that doesn't sound too nightmarish really. The nasty thing about reeds is that they have a life of a couple of weeks at the very most, and each sounds and feels slightly different to play. Reeds also have to be warmed up for a couple of days before they reach their best. The greatest sorrow of any oboist is when that perfect reed gives up the ghost, and their orchestral colleagues get many a chuckle watching them forlornly trying to coax that last bit of life out of a good reed. The worst nightmare is all your reeds getting trodden on or similarly dying just before a concert.
The oboe's body is usually, but not always, made out of the same African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) as clarinets. Oboes have a much narrower 'bore' (the hole running down the middle) than clarinets. It is conical in shape, being very narrow at the reed end and widening out uniformly along the length of the oboe. This combined with the double reed gives them their distinctive tone. Oboes have a number of silver-plated or nickel-plated keys. There are two ways of organising these: English and continental. Switching between the two methods is a bit like moving between a PC and a Mac - it works as long as you concentrate.
Other Family Members
The oboe has a surprisingly large and little-known family. Best known, and well-loved, is the cor anglais, or English horn. The cor is larger than the standard oboe, and is easily spotted thanks to its distinctive onion-shaped bell and the fact that the reed is attached to the body of the instrument with a metal 'crook' - a thin, curved tube similar to that of a bassoon. The cor sounds a perfect 5th lower than the oboe, but its music is written in the same notation as the oboes, so players often 'double up' and play both within an orchestra. The cor's distinctive mournful (some say nasal) tone can be heard to great effect in pieces such as Dvorak's New World Symphony2 and in Sibelius's tone poem The Swan of Tuonela.
Far, far less common is the oboe d'amore, which sits between the oboe and the cor in size and pitch. This is rarely heard - to hear one you could seek out Vaughan Williams' Somerset Rhapsody - although in orchestral performance the long oboe d'amore solos are usually played on a standard oboe because nobody owns an oboe d'amore. Additionally, Bach's Mass in B Minor has some beautiful oboe d'amore music, in particular a duet between alto singer and the oboe d'amore.
Finally, there also exist bass oboes, and most fun of all, instruments called sarrusaphones, which are to the oboe as the saxophone is to the clarinet - ie, made of metal. Somehow they never quite caught on though.
How to Start Learning
The recorder is a great introduction to all woodwind instruments, teaching the basic skills of breath control, finger dexterity and the understanding of musical notation (ie, how music is written down). It is also a great starting place for the very young; it is cheap and requires pretty much no looking after.
The oboe itself isn't really an instrument for a young child, for two main reasons. First, it is very heavy for a small person to hold at the correct angle (at about 45° to the body), and so can cause bad posture. Secondly, even beginners' oboes cost upwards of £800 (at the time of writing). Cheaper plastic versions are available, but in all seriousness will last a year or two at most3. The best quality beginners' oboes are made by Howarth's in London. Serious players drool over their catalogue of beautiful instruments.
Like all other types of musicians, oboists have their own stereotype, particular characteristics and quirks. Legend has it that the oboe's reputation as a difficult instrument attracts clever young girls - who tend to lapse into madness rather shortly. This unfortunate development has been blamed on the immense pressure generated in the head by forcing air through a very small aperture (the oboe reed). One very real manifestation of the head pressure (no joke) is that oboists, especially beginners, tend to faint a lot. Constant 'reed stress' (as outlined above) may also be a key factor.
Unlike flutes and clarinets, oboes were components of the very first 'classical' orchestras, and so a good place to hear them is in baroque (eg, Bach, Handel) or early classical (early Haydn) pieces. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are a great introduction. If you can, compare recordings using original instruments with those using present day versions - the oboe's changing tone is one of the signatures of the developing orchestra. Later orchestral pieces with great oboe solos include Brahms' violin concerto (beginning of the second movement); Beethoven's 6th and 7th symphonies, throughout; and Saint-Saens's 3rd symphony (the 'Organ' symphony).
There is also some truly lovely chamber music with important oboe pieces. A fairly common combination is the 'oboe quartet' - oboe, violin, viola, and cello. Mozart wrote a great one. There is also a disproportionate amount of music for oboe written by British composers in the early to mid-20th Century, for the great oboist Léon Goossens. If you can get any recordings by him, do - his unique delicate tone is a distinct (some would say 'proper') contrast to the 'strident' playing you seem to hear in orchestras nowadays (BBC Radio Three did a series on him a few years ago - there may be recordings available from that).
The oboe has never really matched the violin or piano as a solo instrument, for two reasons. First, its range is vastly more limited. Secondly, it is very hard to look attractive while playing. However, a few noteworthy concerti include those of Richard Strauss and Vaughan Williams.
Best Oboe Pieces Ever? Some Recommendations:
- Cimaroso: Oboe Concerto
- Hamilton Harty: Chansonette (Oboe and Piano)
- Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon (not to be confused with the more famous Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola)