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.

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