English Horn

English Horn

English Horn range

No other sound is more mournful and plaintive than that of the alto member of the oboe family, the English Horn.  The English Horn is pitched a fifth lower than the Oboe in F.  In the UK, this instrument is commonly called a Cor Anglais (the French name), but this name is not in common usage in the US.  In truth, the name English Horn is a rather poor moniker, but attempts to rename the instrument Alto Oboe over the years have failed.

There is a marked difference from the Oboe in the English Horn.  This difference lies in the lower register.  Whereas an oboe is pungent and strident in its lowest range, the English Horn is warm and can easily blend with other voices.  There are several causes for this.  One is the metal bocal, which changes air resistance throughout the whole range.  Another is the bulbous bell combined with the proportionately thinner walls of the bore close to the bell.  Adjustments to the bell of any woodwind instrument will have a direct effect on the lowest notes of the instrument.

The instrument is common in all orchestras, but only seen in more advanced level works for bands.  I know many high schools, and even some junior high schools who possess an English Horn, so it’s use is quite common.  With this in mind, I would suggest including a part in your own advanced works.

In my own experience, I find that the English Horn mixes with more instruments in novel and pleasant combinations than any other instrument in the band.  Even something as disparate as English Horn and trombone is a beautiful combination.  The English Horn is the tangy sound that mixes will with the sweetness of the clarinets and horns.  High Bassoon and low English Horn is a melancholy and somber sound.  With flute, it becomes a sweeter sound.  An interesting note is that the English Horn and the standard B-flat Trumpet have the exact same, note for note range, and when the trumpet is muted with any number of mutes, the mixture with the English Horn is wonderful.

Unfortunately, many bandestrators neglect the English Horn, and severely under use this voice.  Alas, this has been the fate of the entire double reed family.

The Swan of Tuonela, perhaps the most important orchestral English Horn solo.  The piece is nearly a concerto for the instrument.

Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, 2nd Movement

The English Horn cadenza from Rhapsodie Espagnole by Ravel.  Note the thinness at the top of the instrument’s register when the excerpt starts.

Respighi’s Pines of Rome

Parable for Solo English Horn by Vincent Persichetti

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Oboes Part 4 – Oboe Technique

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 – Introduction

Oboe

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.

Species

Piccolo Oboe

Oboe

Oboe d’Amore

English Horn

Bass Oboe