Clarinets – Introduction



As I begin to write this introduction, I have my old B-flat Clarinet in my hands.  I just gave it a few good blows to reacquaint myself with its sound.  In the band world, the clarinet is the most commonly heard sound there is.  There are more clarinets in the band than there are any other instruments.  I was the favorite instrument of Mozart, and has had huge popularity ever since.  The clarinet comes in more sizes than any other woodwinds.  Were I so inclined, I could readily purchase clarinets in nearly every key of a diatonic scale (A-flat, G, E-flat, D, C, B-flat, A, G, F, E-flat – yes, clarinets exist in every single one of those keys!).

It is possible to think of the clarinet family as we would the taxonomy of living species.  The genus Clarinet has many species, and several of those species have further subspecies.  Just as in wildlife, the true taxonomy of some of these beasts is debated.  Many of these species and subspecies, again like our wildlife, are in danger of going extinct (and six members of the family already have expired). Genus – Clarinet

A rather curious way of looking at musical instruments, I’m sure, but it does give us the breadth of the family.  Each “subspecies” is a valid instrument in its own right and has a unique voice.  In the traditional band setting we used only those instruments pitched either in E-flat or B-flat.  Instruments that fell outside of these pitch classes were excluded (though many were and are still used in orchestras).

The Complete family


Heckelphone and Lupophone


Heckelphone range

I seriously debated including the Heckelphone in a chapter unto itself.  In practicality, it is an instrument the same pitch as the Bass Oboe, but in use it is something quite different.  It is made by a bassoon manufacturer, and is most often played by bassoonists with Bassoon reeds, but it is far from a bassoon.  A conundrum!

What to call the instrument is one thing, its use is something different.  It was designed as a large oboe that descends to the low A the bottom space of the bass clef.  Most orchestrators have called the Bass Oboe and the Heckelphone interchangeable, but I have not found this to be the case.  The Heckelphone is a powerful instrument capable of great projection due to the cross-section of its bore which is twice the diameter of the Oboe and not twice the area like Bass Oboe.  This makes a huge difference.  The Heckelphone is more of a soloist while the Bass Oboe is more of a team player.  For most works, I prefer the Bass Oboe.

All this said, even if you write a part for the Heckelphone, like so many of Strauss’ works, today they will inevitably be played upon the Bass Oboe.  Only around one hundred Heckelphones are extant today, and while they are still in current manufacture, the price is exorbitantly high and the waiting list is painfully long.  I wouldn’t write for the instrument in an ensemble setting unless I knew there was a player and instrument available.

A demonstration of the Heckelphone

A little bit of new age music on the Heckelphone

Trio op. 47 by Hindemith.  Considered the greatest chamber work using the Heckelphone.


Lupophone range

As Heckel has the sole market for the Heckelphone (and no other manufacturer is allowed to produce them, or for that matter wants to!), the modern manufacturers of Guntram Wolf and Benedict Eppelsheim have invented their own instrument of a similar design.  The Lupophone (Lupos is Latin for Wolf) is a wide bore bass oboe that descends not to the B of the Bass Oboe or the A of the Heckelphone, but all the way down to an F.  This extension is to facilitate the Heckelphone part in Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie which descends to a heretofore unreachable F.  Looking over the score of Strauss’ work, it does seem that a few of these lower notes are used in soloistic passages.  I can’t wait to hear a recording of Eine Alpensinfonie with a Lupophone.

I mentioned this instrument in my post about the hypothetical F Baritone Oboe.  While this instrument is in C, its extended range to low F makes it functionally an F Baritone.

Having personally played instruments made by Wolf and Eppelsheim, I can attest to how well these instruments play.  Instruments produced by these manufacturers are marvels of modern acoustic research and design.  I look forward to hearing more from the Lupophone!

Demonstration of the Lupophone (for use with modern/contemporary techniques)

A modern work for Lupophone

The solo from Strauss’ Salome.  Compare this with the Bass Oboe from a few posts previous.  Note the fuller sound of the Lupophone.

Oboes Part 4 – Oboe Technique



The technique of the oboe family is generally quite refined and flexible.  The only part of the instrument that offers up some resistance is the very bottom register.  Most of the notes in the bottom third are controlled by the little fingers (like most woodwinds), and quick transition (i.e. trills) are simply not possible.  The only truly impossible trill is from the low B-flat to the low B on the Oboe.  In fact, remember that the low B-flat is only available to the Oboe proper.  Extensions to B-flat have been developed for the other members, but are additions to already existing instruments and their use generally means that the low B-natural is no longer available.  As a general rule, just avoid the low B-flat for the lower oboes altogether.  While the lowest notes of the lower oboes are beautiful and sonorous, the low B and B-flat of the Oboe are raucous and loud.  Most Oboists I have spoken with feel that their use should be limited.

One addendum to the lower range discussion is that the Loreé company produces an Oboe with an extension to low A.  This note, as far as I can tell, has never been used by composers, though a few oboists will use this note in transcriptions.

Various texts I have read claim different upper limits for the oboe’s range, and very few are correct.  All members of the oboe family (with the possible exception of the Piccolo Oboe) ascend to the F above the treble clef.  This range can comfortably be extended to a G by most Oboists (but is best avoided on the lower instruments).  I once attended a concert for double reed players by double reed players, and the crowd was in utter astonishment when one of the best Oboists in the world played a piece that ascended to an A above this G.  Yet, we find this A in works of Stravinsky and Dvorák.  Most Oboists I have talked with simply omit the passage or take the offending part down an octave.  Don’t write above G.  Oboists carry sharp knives with them; I certainly don’t want to offend them with my writing.  This said, I personally once wrote an Oboe concerto that included a note (never mind you which one!) that was above this G, but I did it with the full cooperation of the player involved, and his production of this particular note (though not of the other notes in this register) was secure and sound.  Notes in the extreme high register lose their characteristic sound, and can be quite painful to listen to (and to produce).

Oboes Part 3 – Oboes in the Band

The Oboe in the Band

As I mentioned in the subsection on the Oboe itself, the Oboe does not share well with others.  That said, the English Horn is like a young girl who is in love with the whole world.  She wants to be around everyone, and everyone is enlightened by her presence.  It is odd how a simple difference in a fifth and a different shape to the bell changes the whole outlook of an instrument.  The other lower oboes tend to fall along the lines of the English Horn.

I also mentioned in the subsection on the Oboe that there are generally only two Oboes in the band.  This number does not include the English Hornist, who forms the third member of the ensemble.  I personally would love to see the band’s oboe section expanded to include a fourth player on the Bass Oboe.  What rich and wonderful combination can be had with such an ensemble!

Most professional Oboists own or have access to an English Horn.  This means it is theoretically possible to have all members of the oboe section playing English Horn at once.  Or what about a low quartet made of Oboe d’Amore, two English Horns, and a Bass Oboe?

Groups more than four can be attempted, but they are advised against.  Oboists tend to clash with their own personalities.  I have been in a room with a dozen or more oboists, and I wouldn’t wish that fate upon any!  (By the way, only Bassoonists are allowed to say this about their soprano kindred.  I’m sure they say equal things about us!)

Were I to have an expanded section, I would always expand the oboe family on the lower end.  A full bodied section could be as such:

Player 1. Oboe

Player 2. Oboe

Player 3. Oboe d’Amore, Oboe

Player 4. English Horn, Oboe

Player 5. English Horn, Oboe

Player 6. Bass Oboe, Oboe

With a section like this, we can open up nearly every combination of oboes possible.  All members can switch to Oboe if such a strident sound is needed.  At the low end, we can have a full quartet of low oboes.  I do not include the Piccolo Oboe here, only because it is so unknown to players, that its inclusion would be tenuous at best, but if one were available, then any of the Oboe players could potentially double on the instrument.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Piccolo Oboe (F), 10 Oboes, Oboe d’Amore, 2 English Horns, and Bass Oboe.

Oboes Part 2 – Hypothetical Lower Oboes

Hypothetical Oboes

This post will deviate from my normal format slightly.

Musical progress is always pushed by advancements in technology.    However, an instrument manufacturer will not produce an instrument that there is no niche for.  They simply cannot afford the expenditure in research and development on a product with no current use.

I say this up front before I go on with the rest of this post.  Both the oboe and bassoon families are not as complete when compared to the other woodwind families.  Oboes occupy only the soprano and alto roles, while the bassoons take on only the tenor and bass roles.  While to some this may seem to be complementary, what would happen if we fully separate the two families?

Talk of extend the oboe family below the Bass Oboe has been around for over a century.  In his 1904 update to Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation, Richard Strauss writes:

“Through the courtesy of M. Gevaert, I heard in the Brussels Conservatory a double-bass oboe, whose tone had not the slightest similarity with the low tones of the bassoon.  It was, down to the extreme depth, the typical shawm timbre of the oboe.  If, in the near future, our ears should demand even finer differentiations of sound and a still greater wealth of tonal colors, we might reintroduce this instrument into the orchestra; thus, each individual timbre would be represented by a whole family group instead of the one or two members we have at present.”

Sadly, nothing is known about this instrument that Strauss heard besides this one account.  We do not know who manufactured it or whether or not it really was a true Contrabass Oboe.  Some speculate it might have been a sarrusophone of some type.  I think Strauss would have known the difference though, and we can trust his account.  Forsyth also makes mention of the instrument in his Orchestration, but only in passing.

I hereby propose that two new members of the oboe family be constructed to extend the oboe sound down a further octave than is currently had.  If this were to occur, like the flute family, a series of name changes would need to occur.  I mentioned this in the last post on oboe species.  The current Bass Oboe would now become the Tenor Oboe, a new instrument in F an octave below the English Horn would now be called the Baritone Oboe, and finally an instrument an octave below the Tenor Oboe would be the new Bass Oboe.

Baritone Oboe in F

F Baritone Oboe range

This new instrument would be pitched one octave below the English Horn.  Such an instrument has existed in the deep shadows of woodwind history, though it is entirely possibly that less than a dozen instruments of such a pitch have ever been constructed in any form. Some might occasionally refer to this instrument as a “Bass English Horn.”

If constructed like all lower oboes, it’s bottom low B would sound a low E just below the bass clef.  However, with a brand new instrument, there is no need to have this limitation of just descending to the same note everyone else does.  I would be preferable to extend it to a written low B-flat like the Oboe itself (sounding an E-flat) or a more practical low A (sounding a D).

An instrument descending to roughly this depth already exists in the newly invented Lupophone by Guntram Wolf.  This instrument goes all the way down to an F.  I will discuss this instrument in a later post.  In some aspects of its design, the Lupophone deviates from standard oboe construction.  For now, however, a Lupophone could substitute nicely for a Baritone Oboe in F.

The Baritone Oboe could be a heavier solo voice or fill in harmonies.  The sound would be highly mournful.

This is a video I made using the Salome video I linked to in the previous post.  I took that recording and pitched it down a perfect fifth to give the impression of what a Baritone Oboe might sound like.  This is not a perfect process, but it gives a good idea of the possibility.

Bass Oboe (Contrabass)

Bass oboe range

A full octave lower than the Tenor Oboe, the Bass Oboe would be an instrument the exact same pitch as the Bassoon.  This is supposedly the instrument that Strauss heard.

The best comparison would be to the Bassoon.  A Bassoon is typically thought of as a mellow and smooth instrument, whereas a Bass Oboe would have a bite and an edge to its sound.

Like the Baritone Oboe, there is no reason why the Bass Oboe should stop at a low B.  B-flat and A are both completely viable options.

Here I used the same technique from the Baritone Oboe video.  I used the same audio excerpt and dropped the pitch one full octave.  (Note, I used the name Contrabass Oboe in the video simply because that would generate the most hits.)

It has always baffled me why oboe manufacturers have never completed the family.  The design is not so difficult to render it impossible to build.  The materials are not so costly to prohibit manufacture.  My guess, is that oboe players are simply content with their limited range of instruments as it takes far longer to master the oboe than almost any other wind instrument.  Why bother with the time to learn a new member of the family, when the primary instrument is difficult enough.

Oboes – Introduction


Introduction – The prima dona of the woodwinds, the Oboe is the most glamorous soloist in the band.  No other soprano instrument can project the range of emotions that the Oboe can.  Sadly, the Oboe, and all double reeds in general, are criminally overlooked by most bandestrators.  They have been thought of as mere color instruments for far too long.  This is in sad deference to the noble origins of wind bands where the double reeds were the bulk of the ensemble.

The Oboe is the true leader and soprano voice of the woodwind family.  Treat it as such.

Oboe Family

The oboe family is far smaller than most of the other woodwinds.  Traditionally, only four members have been used, with the higher Piccolo Oboe doomed to textbook obscurity.  I would attempt to reclassify the oboe family along the lines of the flute family, but the names of the oboes are so ingrained in their usage, and oboe players so stagnant in their views, that I’m afraid my endeavor would be useless.  That said, there is a sample of what the true names of these instruments should be.

Traditional Name

Practical Name

Piccolo Oboe or Oboe Musette Sopranino Oboe
Oboe Soprano Oboe
Oboe d’Amore Mezzo-Soprano Oboe
English Horn Alto Oboe
Bass Oboe Tenor Oboe

As you can see, the traditional nomenclature follows no rhyme or reason.  It exists as it is.  For the foreseeable future no further members of the oboe family are likely to appear.  As a composer, I would love to have available instruments an octave below the English Horn and the Bass Oboe (Baritone and Bass Oboes according to the chart of “practical” names), but I don’t think I will ever get my wish.


Piccolo Oboe


Oboe d’Amore

English Horn

Bass Oboe