Bass Oboe

Bass Oboe

Tenor Oboe range

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.

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.