This rare oboe, an octave below the standard Oboe, is like a giant English Horn, and is one of my favorite sounds in the woodwind family. I recall vividly playing the bassoon section of a performance of The Planets and getting to hear the sound of a full oboe section of two Oboes, English Horn, and Bass Oboe. The section was transformed from a high and plaintive sound, to a full bodied and vigorous sound just with the addition of an instrument half an octave lower than normally used. Sadly, the Bass Oboe is very rare, and has only ever been used in band literature once by Percy Grainger in his Children’s March (where the part is always played by the English Horn).
Here we have a catch-22 situation. Players want to play the instrument and composers want to write for it, but the instruments just aren’t out there and available for use because no one has written for them.
Anything the English Horn can do, the Bass Oboe can do, just lower. Due to its larger size and weight, it is more tiresome to play, so longer periods of rest should be built into the part. Also, like the English Horn, most instruments do not possess a low B-flat (though some do). It is probably wise not to include this note, or provide an ossia when the note is used.
If a Bass Oboe is used, it can bridge that octave-and-a-half gap in between the oboe family and the bassoon family. Were I to have my preference, I would always choose having a Bass Oboe over the Oboe d’Amore as the next member of the oboe section.
Occasionally, the instrument is known as a Baritone Oboe by manufacturers, but this designation is never seen in scores.
Bach on Bass Oboe
An except from Strauss’ Salome (a part intended for the Heckelphone)
A transcription of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante on Oboe and Bass Oboe. Special note Alex Klein is considered one of the finest Oboists in the world.
Saturn from Holst’s Planets. The Bass Oboe appears at 1:30.
Grainger’s The Warriors. Bass Oboe solo starts at 5:25. This is the longest and most exposed Bass Oboe solo in all of the orchestral literature at nearly a full minute in length.