“And the oboe it is clearly understood,
Is an ill wind that no one blows good.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
Described by its players as magical, mysterious and famed for being capricious and difficult to control, the oboe is an instrument that is capable of captivating us all. It has its origin in the ancient aulos, the favoured instrument of the passion loving Dionysus. From subsequent development via a long history of a long history of shawms (which traditionally accompanied village dances and soldiers into battle), the oboe has eventually matured into an instrument of great sensitivity and emotional power. For beginners, the oboe seems best at emulating the duck that Prokofiev so beautifully immortalised in Peter and the Wolf. ‘It is an instrument that is more than even the English can stand indoors’ said one nineteenth-century critic, but at the same time it has entranced audiences for four centuries and inspired some of the greatest music that we have.
Initially a simple conical pipe with a single brass key for the low C, this double-reed instrument rapidly developed into an instrument to be reckoned with. Developed by instrument makers, including the great Jean Hotteterre, during the 1650s and 1660s in the creative atmosphere of Paris and Versailles, the hautbois (“high wood”) seems to have burst on to the scene as a superstar instrument able to play the most persuasive of solos. Whether it was the hautbois (or hautboy in England) that in 1668 caused Samuel Pepys to write: ‘that which did please me beyond anything else in the whole world was the wind music…. it ravished me, and .. did wrap my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife’, the oboe’s fame certainly spread across Europe at an incredible speed in the late seventeenth century.
By the time of Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi, the oboe was an established solo and orchestral instrument. Handel wrote three concerti for it, and Bach introduced it in the first two Brandenburg Concerti. Bach gives the oboe the tenor aria ‘I would beside my Lord’ as one of the tenderest of solos in the St Matthew Passion.
By the late eighteenth century new hardwoods were used and more keys were added for precise intonation and greater dexterity. The family of oboes which started with the baroque oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia now provided composers with a new and distinctive sonority in the cor anglais (or more truthfully cor anglé from its elbowed original shape). From Rossini’s William Tell and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique to Dvorak’ New World Symphony and Ravel’s G major piano concerto, this big brother of the oboe has played more than its fair share of unforgettable tunes.
But the oboe continued to reign supreme in the orchestra. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and countless other composers placed it as a vital voice in the woodwind section, perhaps only rivalled for singing eloquence by the French horn. If the rise of the clarinet seemed to demote the oboe as a solo instrument, it still had champions of its virtuosity in Baldassare Centroni (1784 – 1860) and Antonino Pasculli (1842 – 1924) whose compositions for the oboe reamin much admired technical tours-de-force.
The oboe in England was made great through the extraordinary talents of Leon Goossens who at 17 was appointed principal player of the Queens Hall Orchestra in 1915 and who deeply influenced the subsequent development of the instrument. In the USA Marcel Tabuteau had a similar effect, and players such as John de Lancie and John Mack have given us a rich repertoire of works by Samuel Barber, Eliott Carter, and Aaron Copland. In Europe there have been many schools of playing from the bright reedy sounds of the East Europeans to the darker qualities of German oboe playing. The Paris Conservatoire has produced generation after generation of player, including the exceptional Heinz Holliger who has transformed the technique and range of the oboe.
It is strange, then, that to this day the oboe retains its reputation for difficulty and intransigence. Is it its inflexibility or its consistency that makes it the instrument of choice to provide the A for the orchestra to tune? “Oboe, you’re flat” called out Sir Malcolm Sargent to principal oboist of the day, Alec Whitaker. Looking at his instrument, Alec replied, “Hear that, you’re flat”.
Now over four hundred years old, the future looks very bright for this extraordinary instrument. But more recruits are needed so put the word around……