Most people are able to tell the difference between a saxophone and a clarinet (save for those rare individuals who call a Soprano Saxophone a metal clarinet or a Bass Clarinet a wooden saxophone), but the number of people who confuse bassoons and oboes is strikingly high. Perhaps this is because the oboe family doesn’t descend into the bass register or the bassoon family ascend into the soprano. Yet, the two instruments are fundamentally different. Continue reading “I am not an Oboe”
I’ve been thinking about the oboe family a lot lately. I made a realization about it recently. Actually, several realizations.
Number one: the Oboe itself has the smallest usable range of any woodwind instrument at only an two-and-a-half octaves. All other woodwinds have a minimum of three octaves (Bassoon and clarinets have at least three-and-a-half). But not the oboe.
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.
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
This is a strange member of the oboe family. It is the only true mezzo-soprano voice in any woodwind family. In this, I think it best to discuss what a mezzo-soprano actually is. In the vocal world, a mezzo-soprano is a soprano voice that has a timbre similar to a contralto. This fits the Oboe d’Amore perfectly. It is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the Oboe. Unlike the Oboe, the Oboe d’Amore does not possess a low B-flat, so its bottom note is a sounding G-sharp which is only a major second below that of the Oboe. We use the Oboe d’Amore in truth only for a timbral difference, and not one of pitch extension.
That said, it is a useful instrument and has a personality all its own. In sound, it is midway between the Oboe and the English Horn as one would expect. Professional oboists have described the sound of the d’Amore to me as being “electric.” There is a zing in the sound that isn’t apparent in either of its neighbors.
It is used in some well-known orchestral pieces, like Bolero, but as far as I know, it has never made an appearance in the band. This is a shame. Most universities will have access to at least one d’Amore (often, two are required in several works by Bach).
Technique-wise, the d’Amore can do pretty much anything that the Oboe can. Many well-known parts ascend all the way to the top F of the instrument, although one questions the use of the d’Amore in such an extreme register.
The Bach Concerto for Oboe d’Amore
The opening of the 6th Movement of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (opens with d’Amore).
Ravel’s Bolero. Viennese Oboe d’Amore at 4:05. Note, Viennese oboes are very different than those used elsewhere, and produce a more strident sound.
The beautiful Oboe. What more can I say about it than has already been said elsewhere? It is the most beautiful soprano voice in the band. The gentle flute lacks depth and poignancy, while the cool clarinet can be emotionless. Love, romance, passion, and depth of thought are the realm of the Oboe. Why then, do bandestrators malign and abuse this instrument!
While the best players can display the technical facility of the other woodwinds, one has to question whether or not passages of sheer virtuosity are suitable for the instrument. Long lyrical lines are happiest for the instrument and the player. In staccato, the high Oboe is cheerful and delicate.
The sound of the Oboe does not share the spotlight. The simple combination of the Oboe and the clarinet does not work as well as many bandestrators would tend to believe. The plaintive vibrato of the Oboe clashes with the straight-tone of the clarinets. Mixtures with the flutes work somewhat better. Combinations with the Bassoon, its double reeded kindred, are among the best.
As the Oboe is more strident than the other woodwinds, it can blend with brass far better than expected. Surprisingly, the Oboe and the trumpet are very close in timbre and are quite easy to mix. This combination was well known to Baroque composers (see the Brandenburg Concerto 2).
The typical band has only two Oboe parts. Oboes are one of the few instruments that do not do well in larger ensembles of like instruments. One player per part is plenty (and I’ve found even too much in some instances!). The sound of two or more Oboes in unison can range from bland to completely hideous. As I said, Oboes don’t share – even with other oboes. Two Oboes on two Oboe parts should be fine for most bands, though I have no problem seeing a part with three or four Oboes, provided that each of these additional parts are truly independent and not mere doublings of the original parts.
The Oboe has more timbral variations between different players than any other wind instrument that I have ever heard. A performance one night with one group of players will sound totally different another night with a different Oboist. The bandestrator cannot control this factor. Live with it, and enjoy all the possibilities that can come out of this “ill wind that nobody blows good!”
Romances by Schumann performed by Albrecht Mayer
Le tombeau de Couperin by Ravel. The opening sections are the epitome of Oboe technique.
The opening of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. The Oboe solo starts about 1:20. This solo is the highest possible solo we can have for the instrument focused around the high F and G. Look for the bulging veins on the player’s forehead to see how much effort is required to produce this!
The 2nd Movement of Brahm’s Violin Concerto.
Strauss’ Oboe Concerto performed by Alex Klein. Listen here to the breath control and length of phrase. The performer here is circular breathing to produce a completely seamless effect. This is considered extremely difficult. This movement is also performed much slower than most other performances. Think of this as extreme Oboe playing.
This rare little instrument, either in F or E-flat respectively a fourth or a minor third above the Oboe, is the highest double reed instrument in existence. It has seen very little use despite being marketed by three major oboe manufacturers.
Recordings of this instrument are quite rare as well. From what I can gather in the scant recordings to be had, is that the sound is more raucous than the Oboe, and less refined. This tends to be the case with all higher reed instruments.
As the instrument comes in two different pitches, it is best to include transposed parts for both the E-flat and F instrument. The one time I wrote for this instrument, I chose the F instrument as it seems to be preferred by oboists due to its key being one octave higher than the English Horn. In general, I would advise against the use of this instrument unless its procurement is assured.
One note, the Piccolo Oboe is also known as the Oboe Musette. I dislike this term, as a musette is a type of bagpipe unrelated to the oboe altogether. Stick with Piccolo Oboe for the name.
A modern composition for solo Piccolo Oboe. I cannot tell if this is an instrument in E-flat or F. Listen for the more strident sound and the few high passages where an Oboe simply cannot play the high notes.