Oboe

Courtesy of Vincent Bach
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Pitch range

Oboe pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Bright, wistful and crystal clear, the sound of the oboe makes you stop and listen. It’s not particularly loud, but its high, thin sound can cut through the rest of the orchestra. It’s particularly good at playing sad music.

Pipes with double reeds have been around for ages. Around the 12th century, the oboe’s ancestor entered Europe: it was called a shawm.

In his famous piece Peter and the Wolf, the composer Sergey Prokofiev decided that the oboe would be the duck. It works really well, even though the oboe’s sound is usually much more beautiful than the quack of a duck!

The oboe playing the part of the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf (extract)

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd. Naxos 8.550499

There’s a key on the oboe called a ‘banana key’: it saves the right hand’s little finger from reaching further down to get a low note.

Inside the orchestra

 

Plan of the orchestra showing the oboes, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the oboes

In orchestral pieces, the oboe is at its best when it has solos to play. Mainly, it sounds:

  1. Sad
  2. Energetic

When it has long lines of melody, it can sound very expressive. It almost seems to cast a spell on the listener: when you hear it sound sad, you feel sad too. This happens with other instruments, but especially with the oboe. When it’s full of energy, it’s like a little pixie, dashing around, light-footed and playful.

Tuning fork, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Tuning fork

Tuning

Because the oboe can be heard so clearly through the orchestra, it has a starring role right at the start of every concert: it plays a long, loud note by itself. As soon as this note – an ‘A’ – is heard, all the other players have to start concentrating and make sure their instruments are ‘in tune’. This means that their ‘A’, on their instrument, has to match perfectly the oboe’s ‘A’. It mustn’t be a fraction sharper (higher) or flatter (lower).

The sound of the orchestra ‘tuning up’ is very easy to recognise: all instruments playing mostly one note, perhaps a few others, and no rules for when to start and stop. It’s like birds in a cage!

What if the oboe’s A is wrong? It never is: the oboist uses a ‘tuning fork’ first, to make sure the ‘A’ is spot on. A tuning fork has two blunt prongs: you tap it against something hard (even your head or knee, if you’re feeling tough!) to make it vibrate. Then you put it to your ear and listen: it produces a perfect ‘A’. A tuning fork never goes out of tune, so the oboist can always rely on it. Once the oboe matches the fork, the orchestra can match the oboe – and the music can begin…

Outside the orchestra

Solo pieces: Many from the Baroque era (1600– 1750) and 20th century.

Chamber music: Mostly wind quintets (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn) but other combinations as well.

Concertos: Quite a lot, mainly from either the Baroque era or the 20th century.

Oboists can often be seen sucking their reed like a lollipop. It’s because it has to stay moist to stay flexible.

Construction of the oboe

The oboe’s body is made of hard, black wood – African blackwood, rosewood or ebonite. Some modern ones are made from plastic: not lunchbox kind of plastic, but hard and black so it looks like wood.

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins / Yamaha

The keys are metal.

The reed is a ‘double-reed’: two very thin slices of cane that vibrate against each other when the oboe is played.

The oboe splits into three parts: the top joint, the bottom joint and the bell.

Players make their own reeds. They carry a miniature tool kit wherever they go, ready to sit for hours and scrape slivers of cane. They have to take it seriously because their reed can help them sound brilliant… or terrible.

The main makers are French and German. Their oboes are slightly different but equally good.

The oboe has often been used to suggest outdoor scenes. Beethoven used it that way in his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, and Grieg in his Peer Gynt. It’s quite funny really, since it was specifically designed as an indoor instrument when its predecessor, the shawm, sounded too harsh!

Blowing down an oboe, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Blowing down an oboe

To play it

  1. Pick it up.
  2. Put your lips, curled slightly inwards, round the reed.
  3. Take a deep breath.
  4. Blow… but not too hard.

Like other wind instruments, a column of air vibrates through the oboe and comes out as sound. You press keys for different notes. But it isn’t an easy instrument to control! The beautiful, clear sound that it can make takes a long time to master.

Oboist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Oboist in playing position

Although you need a lot of air inside you to play the oboe, the amount that comes out when you play is very small. So oboists don’t just breathe in every so often, they breathe out too, to get rid of the breath they haven’t used.

 

Oboists also do ‘circular breathing’, which is what glassblowers do: you blow out through your mouth while breathing in through your nose. Try it! It’s not easy… you have to learn how to do it.

Other oboes

Cor anglais, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Cor anglais

Cor Anglais pitch, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Cor anglais pitch

Cor anglais or ‘English horn’

This is a deep-voiced oboe. It’s often used in the orchestra to play sorrowful, lonely melodies.

Because it’s bigger than an oboe, it isn’t lifted as high when it’s played: the reed is angled out towards the player instead of just poking out at the top. The bell at the bottom is shaped like a pear.

Its sound is even harder to control than the oboe’s, so players need strong nerves to play the solos in an orchestra.

The cor anglais showing how lonely it can sound.

Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite. III. The Swan of Tuonela (extract)

Daŏ Kolbeinsson, cor anglais; Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari. Naxos 8.554265

Playing the cor anglais, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Playing the cor anglais

‘Cor anglais’ is French and means ‘English horn’ – but the instrument is neither English nor a horn! The name is thought to have come from ‘cor anglé’ – meaning ‘angled horn’ – which sounds the same but makes more sense.

There are also these:

Oboe d’amore: in between the oboe and the cor anglais in pitch. It looks like a cor anglais, with an angled mouthpiece and pear-shaped bell. Its name means ‘oboe of love’ – and Bach loved it! He wrote some beautiful melodies for it in the Baroque era. Since then it’s been used much less, though it does appear in Ravel’s famous Boléro.

The sound of the oboe d’amore in Ravel’s Boléro.

Ravel: Boléro (extract)

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean. Naxos 8.550173

Bass oboe: even lower than a cor anglais, and not used much.

The sound of the bass oboe in Holst’s The Planets (‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’)

Holst: The Planets

Royal Scottish National Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos 8.555776

Heckelphone: a badly designed bass oboe! Not often seen or heard.

Find out more about the development of the Oboe in .

A Little History of the Oboe

Pipes with double reeds have been around for ages. Around the 12th century, the oboe’s ancestor entered Europe: it was called a shawm.

The shawm made a much harsher sound: it squawked rather than sang. But before the modern oboe was invented, instruments like the shawm had to play outdoors a lot, so they had to be noisy. There were no concert halls, and outdoor musical entertainment was expected – never mind if it was cold!

When music was wanted indoors, people realised that the shawm was so loud and raucous it hurt their ears. So a softer, gentler version was invented by a man called Jean Hotteterre in the mid-17th century: the oboe.

The oboe was quick to catch on. By the late 17th century, it was the leading wind instrument of the orchestra. Players loved it; composers loved it.

Composers like Albinoni (1671–c. 1750) gave shining melodies to this new instrument, and put it under the spotlight in many concertos.

Part of a concerto by Tomaso Albinoni

Anthony Camden, oboe; London Virtuosi; John Georgiadis. Naxos 8.550739

Oboe keys, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins / Yamaha

Oboe keys

 

In the 19th century, a Frenchman called Frédéric Triébert made a groundbreaking key system for the oboe, and it’s had basically the same design ever since.

There weren’t many concertos for the oboe in the Romantic era of the 19th century. This was when music became full of emotion, with many ups and downs, and louds and softs. So there may have been fewer concertos written because the oboe doesn’t have a very wide range of pitch: it can play high notes, but can’t go very low.

In the 20th century, when things calmed down and music wasn’t so full of extremes, the oboe became a more popular concerto soloist again.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 The oboe has a very important job in the orchestra. What is it?

a. Plays loudest of all
b. Others tune to it
c. Controls the speed

 What type of bore does an oboe have?

a. A conical bore
b. A comical bore
c. A critical bore

 What type of reed do oboists use?

a. Solitary reed
b. Solo reed
c. Double reed

 Which animal does the oboe represent in Peter and the Wolf?

a. Duck
b. Bear
c. Frog

 What does the cor anglais have that the oboe doesn’t?

a. A miniature mouthpiece
b. A sharp spike
c. A bulbous bell

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Oboe, Cor anglais, Oboe d’amore and Bass Oboe Extracts

Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67: III. The Duck (extract)

The oboe is the duck!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550499

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, ‘Pastoral’: III. Happy gathering of villagers: Allegro (extract)

The oboe’s cheerful little melody kicks off this happy gathering.

Performers: Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.553474

Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1751)
Oboe Concerto, Op. 9 No. 2: I. Allegro e non presto (extract)

Clear, expressive lines are the oboe’s speciality.

Performers: Anthony Camden, oboe; London Virtuosi; John Georgiadis

Taken from Naxos 8.550739

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Cantata: Ich habe genug (‘I am content’), BWV 82: Aria: Ich habe genug (extract)

Voice and oboe make perfect partners in Bach’s cantata.

Performers: Nicholas Gedge, bass-baritone; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.554042

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, ‘From the New World’: II. Largo (extract)

A big cor anglais solo – wandering, lonely, and beautiful.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.550271

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22: III. The Swan of Tuonela (extract)

The cor anglais here plays the part of a lonely swan.

Performers: Daŏ Kolbeinsson, cor anglais; Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari

Taken from Naxos 8.554265

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Boléro (extract)

The oboe d’amore has a rare starring role in this hypnotic dance by Ravel.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550173

Gustav Holst (1874–1934)
The Planets, Op. 32: V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (extract)

A short phrase for the very low bass oboe.

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.555776

Oboe and Orchestra

Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1751)
Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op. 9 No. 2

Tomasi Albinoni was not only a composer but also a very capable violinist. He was married to an opera singer, and this familiarity with the voice directly affected the way he wrote for solo instruments: in the second movement of this concerto, the oboe soars above the orchestra, singing the melody out beautifully.

Performers: Anthony Camden, oboe; London Virtuosi; John Georgiadis

Taken from Naxos 8.550739

Alan Rawsthorne (1905–1971)
Concerto for oboe and strings

The oboe may have the shortest pitch range of all the woodwind instruments, but you wouldn’t believe it when you hear this concerto! The oboe plays to its limits – not only in the range of pitch but also in terms of musical expression and dynamics. Listen to the cadenza in the last movement (3.23 onwards) for an example of the versatility of the instrument.

 

Performers: Stéphane Rancourt, oboe; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.554763

William Alwyn (1905–1985)
Concerto for oboe, harp and strings

This concerto was written in wartime England between 1943 and 1944, and the music pays homage to peace and the beautiful English countryside. The oboe is often used as a ‘pastoral’ instrument, and this is evident in the first movement (track 1) – beautiful soaring melodies singing above the string orchestra. The second (and final) movement is lively and energetic, and the oboe’s cheeky character emerges.

Performers: Jonathan Small, oboe; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; David-Lloyd Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.570144

Oboe and Piano

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Oboe Sonata, FP 185

Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata is the last piece of music that he wrote. It is dedicated to the memory of his friend Prokofiev, and it has an emotional weight and sadness that reflect the composer’s religious influences. Right from the beginning, the music requires enormous skill to play so high and quietly: the sonata is extremely demanding for the oboe player. Listen to the huge contrast of mood and sound in the first movement (e.g. 2.12–2.27).

Performers: Olivier Doise, oboe; Alexandre Tharaud, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553611

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Oboe Sonata in D major, Op. 166

Saint-Saëns wrote his Oboe Sonata in the last year of his life – along with the Bassoon Sonata and Clarinet Sonata. It was first played by his friend Louis Bas, an oboe virtuoso who loved the piece and became its dedicatee. A traditional three-movement sonata is a kind of sandwich, having a slow movement in between two faster movements. But this one doesn’t: instead, the movements get faster and faster as they go along! The third movement (track 3) is technically challenging with lots of scales and fast passages.

Performers: Charles Hamann, oboe; Stéphane Lemelin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570964

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Three Romances, Op. 94

Schumann wrote the Three Romances in three days! He then gave them to his wife Clara as a Christmas present. The three pieces are short, sweet and expressive. They are not too technically demanding for the oboist, though they do require very good breath control and endurance.

Performers: József Kiss, oboe; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550599

Oboe Chamber Music

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370

Mozart wrote this piece at a time when the oboe was still developing as an instrument. He wanted to make the most of the new notes available and so the music goes right up to top F above the stave. It happens in a very technical passage, where the oboe plays in a different time signature from the accompanying string trio, ending up on the top note (track 3, 2.12 onwards – top note at 2:50!).

Performers: Max Artved, oboe; Elise Båtnes, violin; Dimitri Golovanov, viola; Lars Holm Johansen, cello

Taken from Naxos 8.557361

Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)
Wind Quintet, Op. 43

In this wind quintet (for the usual wind quintet instruments of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon), you can hear the oboe’s deeper-voiced relative – the cor anglais (or English horn). It makes an appearance in the third movement (track 3, at 0.48), darkening the mood for a while. The player then switches back to the oboe for the final movement – a ‘Theme and Variations’. Listen to the oboe variation at 2.09–2.50.

Performers: Tom Ottar Andreassen, flute; Lars Peter Berg, oboe; Arild Stav, clarinet; Jan Olav Marthinsen, horn; Hans Peter Aasen, bassoon

Taken from Naxos 8.553050

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, FP 43

The first and third movements of this trio are full of Poulenc’s witty character – using the dry tones of the oboe and bassoon to express the composer’s ironic humour. However, the slow movement in the middle is like a very long song – perfect for the expressive and sorrowful qualities of both the oboe and bassoon. Listen to the build-up (track 2, 1.46).

Performers: Olivier Doise, oboe; Laurent Lefèvre, bassoon; Alexandre Tharaud, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553611