A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Oboe

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OBOE (Fr. Hautbois; Ger. Hoboe, Hochholz). A wooden reed instrument of two-foot tone, borrowing one or two semitones from the four-foot octave. It is played with a double reed, although it is possible to produce all its scale with a single-reed mouthpiece somewhat similar to that of the clarinet. It is of the highest antiquity, and in one form or another is used in all parts of the globe. It can be traced in the sculptures and paintings of ancient Egypt and Greece; indeed, specimens are preserved in the British and Leyden Museums, which were found with straws beside them, probably to be used in making the reed. Instruments from Arabia, ancient America, China, Hindostan, Italy, and Wallachia are deposited in the South Kensington Museum. It occurs under many names in the older writers, such as Schalmei, Schalmey, Chalumeau, and Shawm. There was also a family of instruments named Bombardi, of which the Oboe was the treble. This name was corrupted into Pommer in Germany, the Bassoon being named Brummer.

Many kinds of Oboe were known in the 17th century, and are named in Bach's scores. [See O. d'Amore; O. di Caccia.] There is evidence to the effect that in 1727 Hoffmann added the G♯ and B keys. It had been used for military purposes long before it was introduced into church and secular music. Indeed, military bands were in Germany termed 'Hautboisten,' and a wellknown copper-plate engraving of the 18th century shows the band of the English Guards passing to St. James's Palace, consisting principally of oboes of different sizes, with bassoons of primitive shape, drums, and cymbals.

At the present day it is usually made in three pieces, a top, bottom, and bell joints, to which is added a short metal tube, the staple, on which the reed, consisting of two blades of thin cane, is attached by means of silk. It is essentially an octave instrument, like the flute and bassoon, with a conical bore enlarging downwards, thus differing from the flute; and without the extra joint which carries the scale of the bassoon down several tones below its natural tonic. It is understood to stand in the key of C, and is always written for in the G or treble clef. B♭ oboes are occasionally used in military bands, by way of reducing the number of flats in the signature. These require the same transposition of the written parts a whole tone higher, as is habitually practised with the B♭ clarinet. An E♭ soprano oboe, resembling the corresponding clarinet, is not uncommon, and is known under the name of the Musette or Pastoral Oboe. There is slight confusion in this name between the oboe proper and a similar instrument of the bagpipe family. It, of course, has to be written for a minor third lower than the corresponding note on the scale of C. With the exception however of the now almost obsolete Oboe d'amore, oboes in C are invariably employed in orchestral music. It will be seen elsewhere that the Oboe da Caccia was rather a modification of the bass oboe, bassoon, or brummer, than of the treble instrument, and that it corresponded to the forgotten Chalumeau, which figures in the scores of Gluck. The harmonics of the oboe, like those of conical instruments generally, are consecutive, and similar to those of an open organ-pipe. Its extreme compass, excluding the low B♭—not present in many instruments, and only occasionally needed, as in the Intermezzo of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music—is of two octaves and a fifth, from the B♭ or B♮ below the treble stave; or even two semitones higher, the last three or four upper notes being difficult to produce and ineffective in combination. In consequence of its peculiar and somewhat strident tone, it is not well adapted to rapid or arpeggio passages, although a long and difficult solo of this character has been allotted to it in the Benedictus of the Mass known as 'Mozart No. 12,' extending to the upper E♭, very little below the extreme compass of the instrument.

The fingering in the older and less complicated specimens is not dissimilar from that of the flute and bassoon, the latter of which is its natural bass. From the lowest note, whether B♭ or B♮ (1), to the B♮ next above (2), thirteen or fourteen consecutive semitones are successively obtained by lifting fingers or depressing keys, those of the lowest C and C♯ being very unnecessarily transposed. The next C (3) resembles that of the flute in its cross fingering by lifting the forefinger, and keeping the middle finger of the left hand pressed down, or the upper F of the bassoon in adding to this a depression of the three first fingers of the right hand also. The top orifice remains open or half stopped, for the C♯, D, and E♭. E♮ (4) is produced by closing this and the other left-hand orifices, as well as the first two for the right, and pinching the embouchure with the lips. In older instruments the scale is thus carried up to the E♭ above (5), beyond which the slide, or octave-key, manipulated by the thumb of the left hand, is called into requisition. Extreme treble A can thus be reached (6), though the F below this may be considered as the practical limit of the oboe's compass.

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In more modern instruments a second octave-key has been introduced, worked by the knuckle of the left forefinger, which is usually lifted on reaching A above the stave. In the most recent instruments of all, these two 'vent-holes,' or harmonic keys, which serve only to determine a node in the tube, and which, unlike the corresponding mechanism of the clarinet, do not furnish an independent note of their own, are made automatic, and practically independent of the player's will. For most of the higher notes above A, the bottom D♯ key requires to be raised by the right little finger, just as occurs in the flute.

The above scale, from its close similarity to those of the flute and bassoon, may be looked upon as traditional and fundamental. But hardly any wind-instrument, except the flute, has been so altered and modified of late years in its mechanism as the oboe. The so-called Boehm fingering has been applied to it with considerable success, though the system has not been largely adopted by musicians. The form most in use at the present day is a modification of the older model described above, but with many devices borrowed from the Boehm system. It has thus become by far the most elaborate and complicated of reed instruments, and it is a question whether a return to an older and simpler pattern, by lessening the weight of the machine, and the number of holes breaking the continuity of the bore, and by increasing the vibratory powers of the wooden tube, would not conduce to an improved quality of tone.

The bulk of these additions is due to the late M. Barret, at once a distinguished artist and an ingenious mechanic, who devoted a long and laborious professional life solely to the elaboration of his favourite instrument. In this task he was ably seconded by the French instrument maker, Triebert, with whom he was in constant correspondence, and whose instruments have, until of late, almost monopolised the trade.

Comparative woodcuts of the simpler form as made by Mahillon of Brussels, and of the more elaborate model adopted by Morton of London, exhibit these differences better than verbal description.

Barret's chief modifications may be briefly named as (1) the introduction of a plate for the left-hand thumb, somewhat similar to that on modern flutes, by which this member, formerly idle, is called into action; (2) the double automatic octave keys named above; (3) a vast number of double, triple, and even quadruple alternative fingerings for particular notes which materially reduce the mechanical difficulty of inconvenient passages. On these and other points, the writer has to thank Mr. Mitcalfe, of Lowestoft, for some valuable suggestions.

It is not however in the mechanism only that the oboe of to-day is entirely different from that of half a century ago, but also in the sound-producer or reed. The writer is happy to have it in his power to illustrate this fact by parallel photographs, reduced in the woodcut to half dimensions, of two oboe reeds, which stand to each other in about the chronological relation named above. The right-hand cut is a reproduction of the modern reed as just sent over from France by Triebert. That on the left-hand is one of several given to the writer by the late Mr. Waddell, formerly bandmaster of the First Life Guards, and which belonged to the oboist who accompanied Rossini on his first visit to this country, in 1823, the great melodist being unwilling to entrust his elaborate oboe parts to any English pretender. It will be at once seen that it is a reproduction of the Pifferaro reed, approximating more to that of the bassoon and oboe di caccia, than to that of the modern oboe. A very similar reed was used even by so recent a player as Grattan Cooke. The effect of 26 such, as in the first Handel celebration, against about 40 violins, is difficult to realise.

The oboe has from ancient times held the prescriptive right to give the tuning A to the orchestra. This doubtful privilege obviously dates from the period before Handel, when it was the only wind-instrument present. The writer has elsewhere expressed his opinion that, for acoustical reasons, the function should rather devolve on the far more refractory and untuneable clarinet, than on any member of the double-reed family. For the bass section of the band however the low D of the bassoon, reproducing the open note of the middle string of the double bass, has many advantages.

It is impossible within brief limits to do more than indicate the use made by great composers of an instrument which is at once historically the oldest and musically the most important of the reed band. It may however be noted that it possesses singularly little solo or concerted music. Handel composed six concertos for it in 1703, which are still occasionally performed. Mozart also wrote one for G. Ferlandi, of the Salzburg band, which was on several occasions played by Ramm; the composer himself in a letter noting its performance for the fifth time in 1778, and playfully terming it 'Ramm's cheval de bataille.' The score was formerly in the possession of Andre, but appears to have been lost or mislaid, as no trace of it can now be found. Kalliwoda wrote for his friend Reuther a concertino (op. 110) of considerable length and difficulty. Schumann contributes three romances for 'Hoboe, ad libitum Violine oder Clarinet," which seem better known under the latter instruments. Beethoven has (op. 87) a trio for the singular combination of two oboes and English Horn, an early composition in symphony form with four complete movements.

Six concertos of Sebastian Bach for trumpet, flute and oboe, with a sextet of strings, were first published from the original MSS. in the library at Berlin by Dehn in 1850. Two oboes, with a like number of clarinets, horns, and bassoons, take part in several ottets by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. They have been already referred to under Clarinet.

It is however in the great symphonies, oratorios, and masses that its full value must be appreciated. Bach indeed uses chiefly the more ancient form of the oboe d'amore. [See Oboe D'amore.] But the scores of Handel abound with fine passages for it. Indeed, it seems at his period to have been almost convertible with the violins as the leading instrument. This fact probably accounts for the large number in proportion to the strings which, as named above, were present at once in the orchestra. The oboe is distinctly anterior in use to its bass relative the bassoon, although this also often figures as reinforcing the violoncellos and basses in a similar manner. Haydn's works are equally liberal in its use. With him it appears as a solo instrument, usually in melodies of a light and sportive character. It may be noted that in a large number of his symphonies the minuet and trio are assigned to this instrument, often answered by the bassoon. Probably its pastoral tone and history pointed it out for use in a dance movement. There is however a fine adagio for it in the oratorio of 'The Seasons,' as well as a long and difficult solo passage (No. 11) in which the crowing of the cock is imitated, and which is a perfect study of minute realism in notes.

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Berlioz quotes several instances of the use of the oboe by Gluck. It is moreover probable that the 'chalumeau' which occurs in his scores was some form of this instrument.

No writer has made more frequent and varied use of the oboe than Beethoven. It takes a prominent part in many of his symphonies, in the opera of Fidelio, and in his church music. In the two last, it is hardly necessary to name the air of Florestan, and passages in the Masses in C and in D. In the Symphonies it leads the wind band in the funeral march of the Eroica, has a singular little cadenza of six notes and a turn in the first movement of the C minor, and the reprise of the Trio in the Finale; a long rustic melody preceding the storm in the Pastoral, several effective passages in the 7th, and the scherzo in the Choral Symphony.

Mozart is in no wise behind Beethoven in the prominence he awards to the oboe; indeed, the fact that many of his greatest works, such as the Jupiter Symphony, several of his masses, and even of his operas, were written for limited bands in which all the wind-instruments were not represented at once, gives this, which except in the E♭ Clarinet Symphony is almost always present, a still more marked predominance.

It is perhaps from the increase and greater development of the wind band that later writers, such as Weber and Mendelssohn, appear to make less use of the oboe than their forerunners. The former of these writers, however, evidently had a predilection for the clarinet and horn, as is shown by his concerted music; the latter has used the oboe most effectively in St. Paul, Elijah, the Hymn of Praise, and elsewhere.

Hummel, in his fine Mass in E♭, assigns it the subject of the 'Et incarnatus,' which as being less familiar to many readers may deserve quotation.

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He has also left as op. 102 a series of variations for oboe with orchestra.


Solos etc. for Oboe.

Handel.—Six Concertos for Oboe.

Mozart.—Grand Quintet in A for Oboe, 2 Violins, Tenor and Violoncello, op. 108.

Beethoven.—Trio for two Oboes and Cor Anglais, op. 87.

Hummel.—Variations, with Orchestra, op. 102.

Kalliwoda.—Concertino in F with Orchestra, op. 110.

Kreutzer.—Trio for Oboe, Tenor, and Bassoon.

Schumann.—Drei Romanzen, etc., op. 94.
For other concerted music see Clarinet and Bassoon.

[ W. H. S. ]