Oboe d’Amore

Oboe d’Amore

Oboe d'Amore range

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.

What to do with New Instruments? – Part 6 – The Revival of the Oboe d’Amore

In the early 1900s, after 150 years of absence, suddenly, the Oboe d’Amore made a reappearance in the orchestra.  Why did this extinct instrument make a comeback and how quickly was it adopted?

The Oboe d’Amore is a mezzo-soprano member of the oboe family pitched in A a major third below the standard Oboe.  It was a popular instrument in the late Baroque period used by Telemann and Bach.  Then, it completely disappeared from all music.

In 1890, the firm Loreé, having been in existence for only nine years, came out with the first modern d’Amore.  It is most likely this instrument that caught the attention of 4 prominent composers of the era.

Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (1901)

Mahler seems to have led the way with the early d’Amore revival with his song cycle Rückert-Lieder.  This is surprisingly odd for Mahler.  While known for his large and expansive orchestras, he was never one to insert unusual woodwinds into his scores – save in this one case.  As of the current time, I am wholly ignorant as to why Mahler chose to use this instrument that was last used 150 prior.

In the movement titled “Um mitternacht,” Mahler uses a solo d’Amore as the lone member of the oboe family.  Other movements of the work use 2 Oboes and English Horn (though, only one movement uses all three together). In fact, this entire movement is oddly scored for just woodwinds, sparse brass, timpani, and unison piano and harp.  It seems to be the only time Mahler used a wind ensemble.  Mahler uses a range of written C4 to C6 and includes some large glissandos.  For the most part, Mahler uses the d’Amore as a solo voice within the ensemble.  However, this can be said of every instrument in this sparsely scored song.

Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica (1903)

It is important to note that at the time of composition, Strauss was heavily involved in updating Berlioz’s Treatise and thus could have led to his inclusion of the d’Amore in this complex and dense work.

This is one of the most difficult of all d’Amore parts.  Strauss makes no bones about demanding the d’Amore act like a full member of the ensemble.  Many times, it plays the role of the 3rd Oboe, while other times, it is a solo voice.  Unlike the travesty that is the saxophone parts in Domestica, the d’Amore part is hugely important, as it plays the role of the child in the Strauss household.  Strauss demands a range from a written B3 to F6 – the entire range of the d’Amore.  After writing such a demanding and important part for the d’Amore, Strauss never again scored for the instrument.

Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody (1906-7)

This is perhaps the oddest work of the lot.  Holst scores for two Oboes in the work, but he puts at the beginning of the score the curious marking “Whenever possible this solo should be played on oboe d’amore.”   There are no markings as to where to change instruments or which solos should be performed on d’Amore or which player should use d’Amore.  Holst, or more likely the publisher, leave it to the performer to figure these nuances out.  What is apparent is that the opening and closing oboe solos have a very low tessitura with many exposed low Bs (a nasty note on any Oboe).

Debussy’s “Gigues” from Images pour Orchestre (1909-12)

The final wok I’ll look at, is “Gigues” by Debussy.  This light work can almost be seen as a concertant work for d’Amore.  He uses the d’Amore in a soloistic manner for most of the work.  In tutti sections, the d’Amore is usually absent from the scoring (which also uses 2 Oboes and 1 English Horn).  Debussy uses a written range of of B-flat3 to C-sharp6.  Note, the low B-flat is outside of the range of most d’Amore (save for a few rare instruments).  The single low B-flat is well-covered and some creative rescoring can shift the note to the English Horn and give the d’Amore the English Horn’s note.

Then, the Great War hit and the d’Amore faded away again, though this time not entirely.  The instrument was being manufactured again, soloists were picking it up, and once again, the sound of the d’Amore would be a viable option for composers.