The modern oboe is an adaptation of a 14th century shawm. This was an outdoor instrument used primarily in the military.
It was purportedly so loud that large groups of people playing shawms were used as a tool of psychological warfare.
From the shawm came an instrument known as a hautbois. This differed as the hautbois was split into 3 and had no pirouette. The pirouette was a small wooden shelf beneath the reed for the player’s lip to rest on.
The modern oboe as we know it was first found in around the 17th century, during the Baroque period. J.S. Bach wrote all of his music for this style of oboe. It had 3 keys and holes like a recorder which are covered with the player’s fingers.
What is an oboe?
It is an instrument in the woodwind family with a double reed. They tend to be constructed from wood but you can also find resin, plastic, or hybrid composite oboes.
There are 2 main styles of oboe, French and German. The German version is commonly referred to as the Wiener oboe and was at its most popular in the 19th century. In modern days, it is only really played by members of the Vienna Philharmonic.
It has a right and bright sound and is similar to a recorder with holes that must be covered by your fingers. The oboe is smaller than the French style and has a flared top section. A tube tied by string is placed inside the hole at the top of the pipe-body.
The French oboe is known as the Conservatoire style and was developed during the 19th century. This is the most common style of oboe as it has keys. These allow notes to be played in quick succession, meeting the requirements of modern music.
This style of oboe is best suited to beginners. The tube inserted into the pipe body is metal and contains a cork tube inside too.
What does a double reed mean?
A reed is a thin section of cane or a synthetic material that sits in the mouthpiece of some woodwind instruments. The sound of the instrument is created by the reed vibrating against the mouthpiece when air is blown into it.
Double reed instruments usually do not have a mouthpiece. Instead, the sound is created when the two sides of the reed vibrate against each other. They tend to be constructed from a material known as Arundo donax cane.
This is dried, cut, and processed into the correct size and shape. They are organized according to the reed’s diameter and are graded from hard to soft.
Reed diameters fit into 3 size categories - 9.5 - 10mm, 10 - 10.5mm, and 10.5 - 11mm. Different reed diameters will be preferred at different times of the year as the climate alters. Once the reeds have been processed and shaped, they are re-soaked and then tied to a staple using thread.
Double reeds are found on oboes, bass oboes, oboe d’amores, English horns, Heckelphones, bassoons, sarrusophone, contrabassoons, shawms, bagpipes, shehnais, and and nadhaswaram. Double reeds also appear in crumhorns and Rauschpfeife.
In these instruments, and in bagpipes, a reed cap with an airway covers the reeds. This allows the reeds to be blown without actually making contact with the player’s lips.
Semi and fully automatic oboes
The difference is in the operation of the octave keys. For semi-automatic oboes there is a lot of flexibility with the fingering style. You must move the first and second octave keys. This is the most common system.
Fully-automatic oboes do not have a second octave lever. They are simple to manipulate but have a very intricate structure. This makes them hard to adjust and can often sound off-key.
What does key mean?
A key in music refers to the scale on which a piece of music revolves. This can be either a major or minor scale.
When we talk about an instrument being in a specific key, it refers to the pitches that are considered to be ‘natural’ for the instrument in question.
What key is the oboe in?
The oboe plays in the soprano or treble ranges. They are in the key of C. It has a 2 ½ octave range, from the B♭ under middle C to the high A written above the stave.
You can also find bass oboes, which play at a much lower key.
The oboe is known as an untunable instrument as it has no pegs or tuning slides like other instruments in the orchestra. The only way to change the pitch is by altering the size and shape of the reed used.
The sound of an oboe is referred to as pure - one that is easy to listen and tune to. For this reason, an A played by an oboe is used to tune the orchestra before performances.
How many oboes are there in an orchestra?
In a standard orchestra, there are between 2 and 4 oboes. The first oboist is the person responsible for playing the tuning A.
They have been a standard element of an orchestra for at least 400 years.
What are the other kinds of oboe?
The Cor Anglais, also known as the English horn, is very similar to an oboe and often also features in an orchestra. It is larger than a standard oboe and has a lower pitch. This creates a more melancholy and resonating sound.
You can also get Heckelphones and instruments known as Oboe d’Amore. Heckelphones are very similar to oboes, but have a pitch that is an octave lower. This is due to the wider bore, and this allows the range to drop an extra semitone from that of an oboe.
Oboe d’Amores are larger than regular oboes and have a calmer tone. It has a tone somewhere between an oboe and a Cor Anglais. It is known as a transposing instrument. This means that it sounds a minor third lower than the notes are written.