1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Oboe

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OBOE, or Hautboy (Fr. hautbois, Ger. Hoboe, Ital. oboe), the treble member of the class of wood-wind instruments, having a conical bore and a double reed mouthpiece. The oboe consists of a conical wooden tube, composed of three joints, upper, middle and bell, and of a short metal tube to which are bound by many turns of waxed silk the two thin pieces of cane that form the mouthpiece. These pieces of cane are so bevelled and thinned at the end which is taken into the mouth that the gentlest stream of compressed air suffices to set them vibrating. Practice has demonstrated that the reed stalk of which the double reed mouthpiece is made, should not be of narrower internal diameter than the pipe containing the column of air upon which it is destined to act. The player breathes gently into the aperture, which has the form of a very narrow ellipse, managing his breath as for singing. The vibrations of the double reed produce in the stream of compressed air issuing from the player's lips the rhythmical series of pulses necessary to generate sound waves in the stationary column of air within the main tube of the instrument.

In the upper and middle joints are the rings and keys covering lateral holes bored through the tube, by means of which the column of air, and consequently the wave length, may be shortened at will; the bell joint contains one or two keys normally open, which when closed extend the lowest register by lengthening the air column. These holes and keys produce the fundamental scale of the oboe, which possesses notes sufficient for an octave with all chromatic intervals. The next octaves are obtained by means of cross fingering (Fr. doigté fourchu, Ger. Gabelgriff), and of the octave keys, which do not give out an independent note of their own, but determine a node in the column of air, whereby the latter divides and vibrates in two half sections producing the second harmonic overtone or octave. In order to obtain this result the player incieases the pressure of his breath and also the tension of his lips against the reed.

The compass of the oboe is from Britannica Oboe Range.jpg with all chromatic semitones. The G clef is used in notation and all notes are sounded as written.

Rudall, Carte & Co.
Fig. 1. — The Oboe.

The quality of tone or timbre depends primarily on the configuration of the sound waves (see Horn), which is influenced by the special characteristics of the mouthpiece: the musical tone of an instrument may be said to be due more directly to the prevalence and relative strength of the many harmonics which go to make up a composite tone or clang. The quality of the oboe tone resembles that of the E string of the violin, but is more nasal, more penetrating and shriller. The lower register is thin and somewhat sweeter, approximating to the upper register of the cor anglais. But the timbre does not vary appreciably in the different registers, and to this want of variety in tone colour is due the unpopularity of the oboe as a solo instrument, although it is invaluable as a melody-leading instrument in the orchestra, balanced by clarinets and flutes. The oboe lends itself admirably to pastoral music. The technical capabilities of the instrument are very varied. It is possible to play on it diatonic and chromatic scale and arpeggio passages, legato and staccato; leaps; cantabile passages; sustained notes, crescendo and diminuendo, grace notes and shakes (with reservations). The keys having many sharps and flats are the most difficult for the oboist.

The double reed is the most simple, as it is probably the oldest, of all reed contrivances. It is sufficient to flatten the end of a wheat straw to constitute an apparatus capable of setting in vibration by the breath the column of air contained in the rudimentary tube; the invention of this reed is certainly due to chance. An apparatus for sonorous disturbance thus found, it was easy to improve it: for the wheat stalk a reed stalk was substituted, and in the extremity of its pipe another reed stalk much shorter in length was inserted, pared and flattened at the end; and then came the lateral holes, probably another discovery of the great inventor chance. For the reed tube a wooden one was substituted, still preserving the reed tongue, and it is in this form, after having played an important part amongst the sonorous contrivances of antiquity, that we find the ancestor of the oboe playing a part no less important in the 16th century, in which it formed the interesting families of the cromornes, the corthols and the cervelas. All these families have disappeared from the instrumental combinations of Europe, but they are still to be found in Eastern wind instruments, such as the Caucasian salamouri, the Chinese kwantze, and the hitshiriki of Japan.

It is impossible to say when it was that man first employed the phenomena of double reeds and conical pipes, but the knowledge of them must at least have been later than that of the cylindrical pipe, which we may regard as directly furnished by nature. That antiquity made use of them, however, has been proved by Gevaert in his admirable Histoire de la musique dans l'antiquité; but this learned author states that the double-reed pipes held but an insignificant place in the instrumental music of ancient Greece and Rome, a statement which is open to challenge (see Aulos).

The first appearance of the instrument we call oboe in a musical work occurs in Sebastian Virdung's Musica getutscht und aussgezogen (1511). It there bears the name of Schalmey, and is already associated with an instrument of similar construction called Bombardt.

There exists, however, much earlier evidence, in the illuminated MSS. and in the romances of the middle ages, of the great popularity of the instrument in all parts of Europe. The origin of wind instruments with conical tubes must be sought in the East, in Asia. An early medieval Schalmey with three holes may be seen on the silver cup of the goddess Nana-Anat.[1]

There are two or three Schalmeys in the fine 13th-century Spanish MS. Cantigas de Santa Maria executed for Alphonso the Wise, preserved in the Library of the Escorial[2] (J. b 2).

The oboe was known during the early middle ages as Calamus, Chalumeau (France), Schalmei (Germany), Shawm (England). It is mentioned in the Roman de Brut (12th century) (line 10,822 seq.) “Lyres, tympres, et chalemiax.” An interesting MS. at the British Museum, Sloane 3983, contains amcng other musical instruments on fol. 13 a large shawm with 6 finger-holes described at the side as Calamus aureus.

A miniature in the Paris Manesse MS.[3] of the 14th century depicts Heinrich von Meissen, better known as Frauenlob, conducting, from a raised platform, a band of musicians, one of whom is holding a Schalmey with 6 or 7 holes.

The chaunter of the bagpipe was a shawm, having the double reed concealed within an air-chamber, while the drones had single beating reeds concealed in the same manner. Mersenne calls both chalumeaux.[4] The cornemuse or chalemie of shepherds and peasants was of this kind, but a special cornemuse, used in the 17th century in concert with the hautbois de Poitou, had double reeds throughout in chaunter and drone. The hautbois de Poitou was a primitive oboe with the reed placed in a bulb, forming an air-chamber, having a raised slit at the top through which the performer breathed in compressed air; as the reed could not be controlled by the lips, it was impossible to play with expression on the hautbois de Poitou or to obtain the harmonic octaves; the compass was therefore limited. The kind of bagpipe (q.v.) known as Musette,[5] inflated by bellows, also had double reeds throughout in spite of having a cylindrical chaunter.

The manufacture of musical instruments could not remain unaffected by the great artistic movement known as the Renaissance; accordingly, we find them not only improved and purified in form in the 16th century, but also ranged in complete families from the soprano to the bass. Praetorius, in his Syntagma Musicum (1615-1620), gives us the full nomenclature of the family with which we are concerned, composed of the following individuals: (1) The little Schalmey, rarely employed, measured about 17 in. in length, and had six lateral holes. Its deepest note was Britannica Oboe Schalmey Deepest Note.jpg. (2) The discant Schalmey (fig. 2), the primitive type of the modern oboe; its length was about 26 in., and its deepest note Britannica Oboe Discant Schalmey Deepest Note.jpg. (3) The alto Pommer (fig. 3), 30½ in. long, with its deepest note Britannica Oboe Alto Pommer Deepest Note.jpg. (4) The tenor Pommer (fig. 4), measuring about 4 ft. 4 in.; besides the six lateral holes of the preceding numbers there were four keys which produced the notes Britannica Oboe Tenor Pommer Key Notes.jpg. (5) The bass Pommer, having a length of nearly 6 ft.; it had six lateral holes and four keys which produced Britannica Oboe Bass Pommer Key Notes.jpg. (6) The great double quint Pommer, measuring about 9 ft. 8 in. in length; its four keys permitted the production of the notes Britannica Oboe Double Quint Pommer Key Notes.jpg. These instruments, and especially numbers (2), (3), (4) and (5), occupied an important place on the continent of Europe in the instrumental combinations of the 16th-18th centuries. Fig. 5, borrowed from a picture[6] painted in 1616 by Van Alsloot, represents six musicians playing the following instruments indicated in the order of their position in the picture from left to right: a bass oboe, bent over and become the bassoon, an alto Pommer, a cornet (German “zinke”), a discant Schalmey, a second alto Pommer and a trombone.[7]

Britannica Oboe Discant Schalmey.jpg Britannica Oboe Alto Pommer.jpg Britannica Oboe Tenor Pommer.jpg
Fig. 2.
The Discant Schalmey.
Fig. 3.
The Alto Pommer.
Fig. 4.
The Tenor Pommer.

The 17th century brought no great changes in the construction of the four smaller instruments of the family. Michel de la Barre writing in 1740 states that in the archives of the Chambre des Comptes are 4 charges for hautbois and musettes de Poitou created by King John[8] (14th century). Extensively used in France, they were there called “haulx bois” or “haultbois,” to distinguish themfrom the two larger instruments which were designated by the words “gros bois.” Haultbois became hautbois in French, and oboe in English, German and Italian; and this word is now used to distinguish the smallest instrument of the family.

During the 17th century some of the most important names connected with instrumental music in France are to be found amongst the Grands Hautbois of the Grande Écurie du Roi, such as Hotteterre (Jean, Louis and Nicholas), Philidor (Jacques and André), Gilles Allain, Destouches, &c.[9]

In Germany the Schalmey was represented in the town band, in the Court and the Church orchestras, and later in that of the Opera. In 1580 it is recorded that the Orchestra of the elector of Brandenburg[10] included Schalmeys and Bombarts. In Dresden the orchestra possessed (1593) no less than 16 Schalmeys, large and small. Heinrich Schütz, who founded the first Opera in Germany, at Dresden, used two fiffari or early oboes in 1629 in one of his works.[11]

The little Schalmey and the tenor Pommer seem to have disappeared in the 17th century; it is the discant Schalmey and the alto Pommer which by improvement have become two important members of the modern orchestra. The oboe, as such, was employed for the first time in 1671 in the orchestra of the Paris opera in Pomone by Cambert. The first two keys Britannica Oboe First Two Keys.jpg date from the end of the 17th century. It is not known who added the first keys to the oboe; there is, however, a drawing of a French Hoboy in an English MS. by the third Randle Holme, which formed part of his Academy of Armoury[12] known to have been written before 1688, in which the two keys are shown. The instrument must have been well known in England at the time, and Randle Holme's rough little drawing fixes the date of the transformation approximately as not later than 1680, probably earlier, since the oboe was used in Pomone in 1671. According to the flautist Quantz[13] the transformation of Schalmey into oboe took place when the keys for C sharp and D sharp were added, at about the same time as they were added to the flute.

In 1727 Gerhard Hoffmann of Rastenberg[14] added the keys Britannica Oboe Hoffman Keys.jpg. A Parisian maker, Delusse, furnished at the end of the 18th century much-appreciated improvements in the boring of the instrument. The Méthode of Sellner, published at Vienna in 1825, shows nine keys Britannica Oboe Sellner Nine Keys.jpg, and one, the octave key, which, when opened, establishes a loop or ventral segment of vibration in the column of air, facilitating the production of sounds in the octave higher. Triebert of Paris owes his great reputation to the numerous improvements he introduced in the construction of the oboe.


Britannica Oboe Six Musicians.jpg

Fig. 5.


The alto Pommer was but slowly transformed: it was called in French “hautbois de chasse,” in Italian “oboe di caccia.” In the 18th century we find it more elegant in form, but with all the defects of the primitive instrument. The idea of bending the instrument into a half circular form to facilitate the handling is usually attributed to an oboist of Bergamo, one Jean Ferlendis, who was established at Salzburg at about 1760. This is obviously incorrect, since Ferlendis would then have been five years old.[15] It has been suggested that the fact of the instrument's resembling a kind of hunting horn used at that time in England probably gained for it the name of “corno inglese,” which it still retains (“cor anglais” in French).[16] The first employment of it in the orchestra is referred to Gluck, who had two “cors anglais” in his Alceste, as played at Vienna in 1767. But it was not until 1808 that the cor anglais was first heard in the Paris opera; it was played by the oboist Vogt in Alexandre chez Apelle by Catel. The improvements in manufacture of this instrument closely followed those introduced in the oboe. The 18th century produced an intermediate oboe between (2) and (3), which was called hautbois d'amour, and was frequently employed by J. S. Bach. It was a third lower than the ordinary oboe, and was characterized by the pear-shaped bell with narrow aperture common to all wind instruments known as d'amour to which is due their veiled sweet quality. In the Spanish Cantigas, there are two Schalmeys with pear-shaped bells. This is in all probability the douçaine mentioned in the 13th and 14th-century romances. The oboe d'amore fell into disuse after the death of the great German composer. It has been resuscitated by the firm of C. Mahillon of Brussels, and reconstructed with the improvements of modern manufacture. A similar timbre was artificially produced in the oboe by means of mutes or sordini composed of hollow cones of wood, balls of paper,[17] pieces of sponge,[18] &c.

After the 16th century we find the instruments which were designated by the name of “gros bois,” the (5) and (6) of Praetorius, transformed into shorter instruments, the Fagott and Contrafagott, having a column of air of the same length and form as the Pommers, but the instrument itself consisted of two conical tubes communicating at the lower part of the instrument; they were pierced in a single piece of wood. It is probably owing to the aspect of this double pipe that the satirical name of fagot was given, preserved in Italian as fagotto, and in German as Fagott. A canon of Ferrara named Afranio has been named as the author of the transformation, about 1539, of the bass Pommer, but Count Valdrighi, the curator of the Estense library,[19] and Wasielewski,[20] who has reproduced the drawing of Afranio's invention, deprive him of the merit of the innovation. The fagottino was transformed in the same fashion.

Sigismund Schnitzer of Nuremberg[21] acquired a great reputation in the 16th century for making the “basson,” a French word substituted for the old fagot, and adopted in England as bassoon. His instrument had only two keys Britannica Oboe Schnitzer Bassoon Keys.jpg. We cannot tell when the bassoon gained its present form, but it was probably at the end of the 17th century. It was used in the orchestra in Germany by H. Schutz in 1619 (cir.),[22] and in 1625, 5 fagotti were in use.[23]

Cesti, in his grand opera il Pomo d'oro,[24] which was performed with the utmost brilliancy at the nuptials of the emperor Leopold in Vienna, where printed editions of 1667 and 1668 are preserved, used fagotti combined with two cornets, three trombones and a regal to suggest the terrors of Hades.

Michael Praetorius (1618) expressly mentions the fagotto as an orchestral instrument.

In France it was used with the oboe in 1671 in Cambert's Pomona in the newly founded French Opera, for which Cambert & Perrin had received in 1669 a Royal Privilège expiring in 1672, and thereafter granted to Lully.

It had three keys then Britannica Oboe Three Keys.jpg. The B flat key rendering a lengthening of the instrument necessary, we may suppose it took its modern form at that epoch. The fourth key Britannica Oboe Bassoon Fourth Key.jpg is found in a bassoon stamped Stanesby Junior, London, 1747,[25] and also in one without maker's name, obviously earlier, to judge by the very early pattern of the keys.[26] The bassoon appears with four keys in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert (Paris, 1751-1765). The number of keys increased by the beginning of the present century to eight, viz.: Britannica Oboe Bassoon Eight Keys.jpg, and two keys to facilitate the production of acute harmonics. It was improved by Almenräder in Germany, Sayari, and more recently Triebert and Goumas, Paris, and C. Mahillon, Brussels. (See also Bassoon.)

The reform in the construction of the flute due to Theobald Boehm of Munich about 1840, a reform which principally consisted in the rational division of the tube by the position of the lateral holes, prompted Triebert to try to adapt the innovation to the oboes and bassoons; but he failed, because the application of the system denaturalized the timbre of the instruments, which it was necessary, before all things, to preserve, but further improvements made upon the same lines by Barret and later by Rudall Carte, have transformed the oboe into the most delicate and perfect of reed instruments. In 1856 a French bandmaster, M. Sarrus, thought out the construction of a family of brass instruments with conical tubes pierced at regular distances, which, by diminishing the length of the air column, has rendered a series of fundamental sounds easy — more equal and free in timbre than that of the oboe family. Gautrot of Paris realized the inventor's idea, and, under the name of “sarrusophones,” has created a complete family, from the sopranino in E flat to the contrabass in B flat, of which his firm preserves the monopoly.

In order to replace the old double-bassoon of wood, the firm of C. Mahillon, Brussels, produced in 1868, a reed contrabass of metal, since much used in orchestras and military bands. The first idea of this instrument goes back to 1839, and is attributed to Schöllnast & Son of Pressburg. It is a conical brass tube of very large proportions, with lateral holes placed as theory demands, in geometrical relation, with a diameter almost equal to the section of the tube at the point where the hole is cut. From this it results that for each sound one key only is required, and the seventeen keys give the player almost the facility of a keyboard. The compass written for this contrabass is comprised between Britannica Oboe Contrabass Low Note.jpg and Britannica Oboe Contrabass High Note.jpg but sounds an octave lower. See Contrafagotto. (V. M.; K. S.)


  1. See Gaz. Archéol. (Paris, 1886), xi. pp. 70 et seq. Pl. X.; also 1885, pp. 288-296.
  2. A facsimile in colours of part of the Cantigas containing figures of 52 instrumentalists has been published by the Real Academia Española (Madrid, 1889), and can be seen at the British Museum. A reproduction in black and white is included in Juan F. Riaño's Critical and Bibliographical Notes on Early Spanish Music (Quaritch, 1887).
  3. The miniature is reproduced in Naumann's History of Music, i. p. 249, fig. 151.
  4. Harmonie universelle, ii. pp. 282-289 and 305.
  5. See Mersenne — op. cit. ii. pp. 287-292 and Hotteterre le Remain. Méthode pour la musette, le hautbois, &c. (Paris, 1737), chap. xvi.
  6. This picture, belonging to the National Museum of Madrid, represents a procession of all the religious orders in the city of Antwerp on the festival of the Virgin of the Rosary.
  7. For further details see Mahillon's catalogue of the Musée du Conservatoire royal de musique de Bruxelles (Ghent, 1896, vol. ii. p. 25).
  8. See I. Ecorcheville, “Quelques documents sur la musique de la Grande Écurie du Roi,” Int. Mus. Ges. Sbd. ii. 4, p. 633.
  9. Ib., Table 11.
  10. See Gropius, Beiträge z. Gesch. Berlins, 1840, Bd. ii.
  11. Complete edition, vol. v. No. 7. See Ernst Euting, Zur Geschichte der Blasinstrumente im 16 u. 17 Jahrh. (Berlin Inaugural Dissertation, 1899), published by A. Schulze, Rixdorf (Berlin), p. 47.
  12. See British Museum, Harleian MS. 2034, fol. 2O7b.
  13. See Versuch einer Anleitung die Flöte traversière zu spielen, p. 24.
  14. See Mattheson, Orchester, i. p. 268 and Eisel, Musikus αύτοδίδακτος, p. 96.
  15. See Henri Lavoix, Histoire de l'instrumentation (Paris), p. 111; also Gerber's Lexikon, “Giuseppe Ferlendis”; and Robert Eitner, Quellenlexikon der Tonkünstler, “Gioseffo Ferlendis,” born 1755.
  16. This question is more fully treated under Cor Anglais.
  17. See Mattheson, Orchester, p. 266.
  18. See Quantz, op. cit. p. 203.
  19. Musurgiana, Il Phagotus d' Afranio.
  20. Geschichte Instrumentalmusik im 16ten Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1878), p. 74.
  21. See Doppelmayr, Historische Nachrichten von Nürnbergischen Matematikern und Künstlern, Nürnberg, 1730.
  22. See complete edition, vol. iii. No. 4.
  23. Vol. xiii. No. 1.
  24. A fine edition has been published with reproductions of the original sketches for the scenes and the full score by Adler in Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Oesterreich, Bd. iii. p. xxv.
  25. See Captain C. R. Day's Catalogue of the Musical Instruments exhibited at the Royal Military Exhibition (London, 1891), p. 75, No. 151.
  26. Ib. p. 75, No. 150.