By Zachariah Friesen
Fact 1: What’s an oboe? Oboe is a double reed instrument. A double reed consists of two flattened blades of bamboo that produce sound through the vibrations of one blade against the other.
Fact 2: A reed? A double reed!? Yes, actually serious oboe players often make their own reeds. Many professional oboe players spend more time making and perfecting reeds than they do practicing their instrument.
Fact 3: Where did the oboe come from? The oboe is descended from an instrument known as the shawm that dates from about 2800 B.C in the Middle East. It was introduced to the French courts in the mid-17th century and became part of classical orchestras in the beginning of the 18th century.
Fact 4: Any oboe siblings? The oboe family, like most families, consists of weird members that you hardly ever see, and some you see all the time. These include the Shawm (the original), Oboe D’Amore (the Oboe of Love), the English Horn (Cor Anglais), the Hecklephone (bass oboe), and the Musette (piccolo oboe).
Fact 5: So what does an oboe sound like? “The sounds of the oboe are suitable for expressing simplicity, artless grace, gentle happiness, or the grief of a weak soul. It renders these admirably in cantabile passages. It can also convey a degree of agitation, but one must be careful not to intensify this to cries of passion, to vehement outbursts of anger, threats or heroism: its thin, bitter-sweet tones then become feeble and altogether grotesque.” ~ Hector Berlioz – composer
Fact 6: Great, well what does the English Horn sound like? “Quick runs for the cor anglais (English Horn) sound even worse than they do for the oboe. Its tone is less penetrating, more veiled and deeper than that of the oboe, and is therefore not suitable for expressing the gaiety of rustic tunes. It is not capable either of voicing passionate laments, and tones of acute grief are more or less beyond its reach. It is a melancholy, dreamy and rather noble voice, with a somewhat subdued and distant tone. This makes it superior to any other instrument when the intention is to move by reviving images and feelings from the past, and when the composer wishes to touch the hidden chords of tender memories.” ~ Hector Berlioz – composer
Fact 7: Wait go back, “The Oboe of Love”? The Oboe D’Amor (or Oboe of Love) was first made and composed for in the 17th Century (the Baroque era), Bach and other master composers used it frequently. After sleeping through the Classical period it returned to from hibernation to prominence in the Romantic Era most notably by Strauss and Ravel. It’s bigger than an oboe and the bell is shaped like a pear.
Fact 8: Oboe sure is a funny word… The word “Oboe” comes from a French Word Hautbois (pronounced HOE-boy) that translates to “High-Wood” or “Loud-Wood”.
Fact 9: What do oboists do for fun? The fastest oboe player in the world, Jack Cozen Harel, played Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee in 26.1 Seconds and is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest oboe player in the world. That’s 409 notes in 26.1 seconds which is a little over 15 notes per second.
Fact 10: Big deal, get to the good stuff. When does it enter in Bolero? Ravel brought back the Oboe D’Amore in Bolero and it is the first of the oboe family to enter with the melody. It enters 5th after the Eb Clarinet and right before the flutes and muted trumpet. Upon the 10th iteration of the melody, Ravel employs the oboe, English Horn AND the Oboe D’Amore for a colorful orchestration of siblings. Exciting, n’est pas?
Zachariah Friesen is the online merchandiser at Sheet Music Plus. He is also a freelance trombone player and private lessons teacher in the bay area.