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.

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


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.


Piccolo Oboe


Oboe d’Amore

English Horn

Bass Oboe