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.

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10 thoughts on “Oboes Part 2 – Hypothetical Lower Oboes

  1. Matthew Banks

    It’s a truly long-shot, but one could start a gofundme for research into bore dimensions and construction of one of these beasts (I imagine that instruments of that length would need at least one bend in their tubes like the Lupophon or a tenor saxophone, as well as elongated bocals)…..these instruments simply must come into existence ASAP. Low A seems like the best descending pitch.

  2. I’ve always been jealous of the brass family and the relative ease with which they can create new instruments. (“Well, I wanted a tuba in D so I asked my repairperson and they were able to cobble one together out of spare parts”, to paraphrase Roger Bobo.) But double-reed makers are frustratingly conservative even by woodwind standards. We need more woodwind mad-scientists. We need people who will build -for example- a two-octave set of clarinets in every possible key; not to replicate the work of some builder 200 years ago or in order too sell more band instruments but for pure scientific exploration. We need to dismiss this notion that woodwinds (and musical instruments in general) are magical devices handed down by the ancients. The fact that musicians for the most part seem uninterested in the science behind how their instruments work (and are not even exposed to such knowledge as part of their studies) has left the field understaffed and underfunded.

      1. Matthew Banks

        I agree. In my home city of Dallas, I can find a few places to get extra keys or even bassethorn-esque extensions for my standard clarinet….no such workmen exist (or are out and about doing much buisness) yet for the double reed instruments, present company excluded

  3. John Kirkner

    It sure would be nice to have access to a broader range of instruments, but like you say the economic factors seem to be stacked against it. If, say, Buffet or Backun want to make clarinets that descend below the normal range, there’s a better chance of them finding a market among the legions of clarinetists (even if little to no repertoire exists) than for Fox or Loree to find an audience among the thinner, but no less passionate, ranks of oboists. Even to make an extension or keywork modification is tougher on a double reed instrument because of the paucity of parts. Adding a left hand Ab to a clarinet requires only that you purchase the parts from one of a half-dozen makers, then modify and install them. To put a left hand F on an oboe, you can try to convince Fox to sell you some raw castings, which then have to be assembled, or you can try to go through one of the other makers that may not have a stock of parts ready to go. Otherwise you have to start from scratch. It’s just more daunting to do that sort of work on double reeds unless you have the chance to do it many times, and few people ever reach that level of experience. The ones that do are in such high demand that they have little time for experimentation.
    By the way, great blog. I stumbled over here doing a little research for my own site, and really enjoy your writing style.

      1. John Kirkner

        They do sell some, but they’ll no longer sell the castings for a left hand F mechanism. At least not readily. Something about concern over people using their parts to do upgrades on competitors’ instruments, which I guess is understandable, but it adds an extra complication.

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