oboe range

Ranges of the oboe and cor anglais.

The oboe is a double-reed, conical-bored instrument which, although regarded as a woodwind instrument and often constructed of hardwood, may today also be made of plastic or other synthetic material, or even of metal. Of all woodwind instruments, the oboe has experienced perhaps the most organic development. There is no single, revolutionary moment at which the oboe became a modern instrument, and it retains strong links with the past both in sound and design.


The modern oboe is a direct descendant of the shawm and the hautboy.



The shawm was a conically bored, straight wooden instrument with a flared bell, popular throughout Europe from as early as the 12th century. The shawm used finger holes to alter the pitch. It generated sound from a double reed held in a pirouette – a small, upturned wooden cup attached to the top of the instrument, which covered the lower half of the reed.


The sharm created a powerful, even raucous, noise; it was consequently associated with loud outdoor music, particularly ceremonial music and processionals. There were quiet shawms, but its strong association with the trumpets and drums, as well as sackbuts and cornetts, remains to this day. The early-music movement has created a shawm revival, and the instrument can be heard in performances of renaissance music.


Evolution of the shawm

Terminology has always been a contentious issue when discussing the evolution of the shawm into the oboe. For many commentators the term 'shawm' can be used interchangeably with hautbois or hautboy. Others argue that each is a distinct instrument. Whichever school one subscribes to, it is clear that changes to the shawm's design had, by the end of the mid-17th century, given rise to a new instrument, which will be referred to here as the hautboy.



The hautboy (the name comes from the French meaning 'high-' or 'loud-wood') used eight finger holes, two of which were operated via keys; the shawm normally had six finger holes and no keys. The hautboy was made from three separate joints – two for the main body and one for the flared bell; the shawm was normally constructed from a single piece of wood.


The most significant difference between the shawm and the hautboy, however, was the jettisoning of the pirouettes in favor of a completely exposed reed. This afforded the player greater control and softened the instrument's timbre, but simultaneously made it far more difficult to play.


Evolution of the hautboy

Between the 17th and 18th centuries many subtle changes occurred to the hautboy's design. The bore became narrower and the walls thinner; at the same time the finger holes became smaller. This focused, softened, and quietened the instrument's tone as well as increasing its agility, so that by the late-eighteenth century, the hautboy had become an instrument of genuine virtuosity with celebrated soloists working all over Europe. It had also found a regular position in the orchestra, where its particular timbre made it an excellent partner for violins.


Up to this point, the hautboy relied on two keys – even the 'speaker key' that facilitated the playing of overblown pitches was not generally used. As a consequence, some pitches sounded markedly different to others. Notes that were distant from the hautboy's fundamental pitch (i.e., the pitch of the tube with all finger holes covered) could only be achieved through a complicated system of fingering. This often entailed half covering holes so some pitches sounded veiled while others – closer to the instrument's fundamental pitch – were much brighter.


Pitch and timbre

The hautboys's lack of keys also meant that some pitches were completely inaccessible and many others could only be played using a complex system of fingering. This limited the instrument's use at a time when its siblings, the flute and clarinet, were developing rapidly and gaining popularity.


The peculiarities of the hautboy's timbre were highly prized up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The very design features that gave it this quality, however, also caused problems – poor intonation, a timbre that did not blend well with other woodwind instruments, a compass that did not cover the entire chromatic range, and inconsistent execution. The hautboy's double reed gave players the flexibility to counter some of these problems, but it was lagging behind other wind instruments by the early 1800s, and change was needed.


There remained great attachment to the hautboy's unique colors, and developments came only slowly. Bit by bit, though, keys were added to the hautboy that extended its range, made intonation more certain, allowed trills to be played more easily, and opened up the complete chromatic range of pitches. Around 1800 a 'speaker key' was added to facilitate attacking high, overblown notes. Even so, many works were still written for a two-key hautboy.


Its first orchestral use was in a ballet with music by Lully, L'amore malade, given in Paris in January 1657. As the oboe's popularity grew, especially in England, French players were imported to play the 'hoboy' or 'hautboy', these names sometimes preceded by the word 'French'. Henry Purcell (1659–1695) did much to establish the instrument in English orchestral music; meanwhile, Torelli in Bologna was the first to use the oboe in works called 'symphony', e.g. Giegling 31, written before 1700. The first true oboe concerto was by Domenico Marcheselli, published in 1708.


The oboe arrives

By the mid-19th century, the hautboy had become very close to what we would now recognize as an oboe. Most orchestral players used models with only 10 to 13 keys, but work by various makers – particularly in France – continued making the instrument more agile and better in tune.


The most revolutionary figures on oboe development were Frederic Triebert and A. M. R. Barret who, in 1862, announced a new design and fingering system for the oboe. This design gave a lowest pitch of b, more than a tone lower than some previous models. The upper limits remained the same – around g'".


Changes in design

In spite of the loss of tone quality and pitch stability that this new design entailed, it became established as the oboe standard and was known as the Conservatoire system. Alongside this operated a similar fingering system, in which a thumb-plate was used to access the notes b ' and c" instead of the first finger on the right hand. This was known as the thumb-plate system and has remained popular, especially in Britain.


At the same time as Triebert and Barret were developing the Conservatoire system, a number of other oboe makers were experimenting with radical new designs based on the theories of Theobald Boehm, the man who revolutionized the clarinet. None of these were particularly successful, though, exaggerating as they did the oboe's rougher qualities, and Boehm-system oboes were largely consigned to military bands.


Another vital change in oboe construction was the move away from boxwood. This had been preferred since the eighteenth century, but was soft and liable to warp. Experiments were made with rosewood, grenadilla and ebony; of which grenadilla, or African blackwood, has proved the most successful.


With numerous refinements, the Conservatoire-system oboe has remained pre-eminent around the world since the 1870s, with one vital exception: Vienna. To this day the Austrian city has held out against the French model. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra still uses a design that necessitates complex fingerings and a reliance on lip control, and which produces a warm, smooth tone.


The modern oboe

The modern oboe is just under 60 centimeters (24 inches) long and made of three parts: the upper joint, including the reed slot, the lower joint and the bell, which is just slightly flared. It is conically bored and requires very little air to play - with the result that players must learn to exhale stale air before breathing in again. It is a non-transposing instrument, and music is written for it in the treble clef at sounding pitch.


The double reed has changed far less than the body of the instrument. It is made from the stem of a large semi-tropical grass known as Arundo donax. Two separate leaves are bound together and inserted in a piece of cork that in turn nestles in the neck of the oboe. Air pressure causes the two leaves to vibrate, which in turn agitates the air in the instrument into motion. The reed is cushioned between lips curled inwards over teeth, so that it is gripped by the teeth rather than bitten by them. Controlling the reeds requires a high degree of skill.



While not as flexible as the clarinet, a wide range of performing techniques are available to the oboist, including glissandi, double-, triple-,. and flutter-tonguing, as well as multiphonics. To a large extent, though, the oboe retains its links with the past. It is often called upon for nostalgic effect, or to create the sense of an ancient court or of a more pastoral scene. Because of its evolutionary development, the oboe carries with it vestiges of the shawm and, despite the softening of timbre and increase in agility, it still has the capacity for raucous, rough celebrations.


Oboe d'amore

The oboe's double reed afforded a high degree of flexibility in terms of bending pitches. As a result, even early two-keyed instruments had access to most pitches. This meant that there was no pressing need to produce music in different keys. It was more the desire for instruments of a different color that led to the development of the oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia.


The early eighteenth century oboe d'amore was a mezzo-soprano oboe in A with a bulb bell. Its tone, slightly darker than the oboe's, made it popular with Bach, at whose instigation it may have been developed, and Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) in particular. The greatest concentration of oboe d'amore makers seems to have been in Leipzig, which would explain its enduring popularity in Germany.


Its appeal had diminished significantly by the 1760s, but it experienced a revival in the later nineteenth century, when a new key mechanism enabled its use by Richard Strauss (notably in his Symphonia Domestica of 1904), Mahler, Debussy. and even Ligeti. It also appears in the Concerto (1971) by Edward Boguslawski for oboe, oboe d'amore, musette, and orchestra.


Oboe da caccia

The oboe da caccia was developed around the same time as the oboe d'amore. A tenor oboe, keyed in F and sounding a perfect fifth below the standard soprano instrument, the oboe da caccia was made in one piece and was strongly curved, often in a complete semicircle, with a flared bell. Such a horn-like appearance provided its name, which translates from Italian as 'hunting oboe'.


Cor anglais

The cor anglais (in Italian, corno inglese, and German, Englisches Horn), or English horn, is a tenor oboe in F – like the oboe da caccia – that sounds a perfect fifth below the soprano oboe. The only significant difference between the two instruments at first was that the cor anglais employed a bulb bell instead of a flared one. The similarity of the cor anglais to medieval depictions of angel's horns led to the instrument being referred to as 'engellisch' which in Middle German means "angelic". The same word means "English" and the two meanings were conflated and the "English" tag stuck. The name cor anglais first arose in Vienna in the 1760s.


Although the oboe da caccia faded away, the anglais remained popular. Its first significant outing was in Christoph Willibald Gluck's (1714–1787) opera Orfeo ed Euridice. and the instrument itself occurs, in Haydn's Divertimento in F (Hob II:16), composed at Lukavec, near Pilsen, in Bohemia, in 1760, and in his Symphony No 22 in E flat, "The Philosopher" (1764), composed in Eisenstadt, now in Austria. Doubtless it had been used before this in music now either lost or not yet recovered. It became particularly associated with Italian opera during the late-18th century and the major cor anglais makers were all in cities with thriving operatic lives. It also became known in chamber music, e.g. by Mozart (Adagio in C, K 580A, for cor anglais, violin, viola and cello, 1789) and by Haydn (Quartet in C, Perger 115, for cor anglais, violin, cello and bass, 1795). Cor anglais concerti are rare: Paganini's of c.1805 is lost, leaving Donizetti's Concertino of 1817 as the earliest in existence. In 1949 the German composer Siegfried Borris also wrote a Cor Anglais Concertino.


Developments to the cor anglais

Like the oboe, the cor anglais remained two-keyed for many years. Triebert, the man whose work so influenced the oboe, also made significant developments to the cor anglais, adding new keys, and partially straightening the body. He was helped by virtuoso player Gustave Vogt. Vogt was greatly admired by Berlioz, and together they did much to cement the instrument's reputation by incorporating it into their works.


It was another performer, Henri Brod, who took the cor anglais to the form we know today. Brod also collaborated with Triebert and a senior craftsman in his workshop, Francois Loree. It was Loree who in the 1880s completely straightened the cor anglais and redesigned the keywork to match the oboe. Before this, bassoonists played the cor anglais as often as oboists.


By the twentieth century, the cor anglais had become a mainstay of the orchestra. Although it can be played by oboists, the cor anglais requires skilful handling and is played by a specialist, who also plays the oboe when required to.


Bass oboes

The baritone- or bass-oboe sounds an octave below the standard soprano oboe and appeared probably before 1750, but in today's orchestra its part is taken by the Heckelphone, invented in 1903 by Wilhelm Heckel of Bierbach-am-Rheim, and first specified by Richard Strauss in his opera Salome (1905).


At the very bottom of the oboe range comes the contrabass oboe, invented by one Delusse in the 18th century. It is difficult to imagine what advantage this has over the bassoon in the same range; indeed, when it was first introduced at the Paris Opera in 1784 it was played by a bassoonist.