“Majestical and Stately, and not much Inferior to the Trumpet.” So wrote Henry Playford of the oboe in The Sprightly Companion, an oboe ‘how to’ published in 1695. Handel’s ‘favourite’ instrument, Tomaso Albinoni’s vehicle to fame (listen to his Opus. 7 oboe concertos) and the lucky recipient of some of Vivaldi’s most technical writing (he wrote 17 concertos for oboe and strings), the Baroque oboe is one of the OAE’s glorious instruments. First constructed in Versailles, the oboe’s majestic tone was the magnificent aural embodiment of 17th century France. The word ‘oboe’ is English and stems from the word ‘hautbois’; the French name for the instrument which translates as ‘high wood’. In the introduction to The Eloquent Oboe by Bruce Haynes, period instrument superstar conductor and regular OAE collaborator Frans Brüggen states that he is ‘constantly aware of how important that perfect triangle: first violin, first oboe, and basso continuo – the core of Lully’s orchestra – really is.’ By placing the oboe on the same level as the first violin (the lead instrument) and the basso continuo (the constant bass line) Brüggen emphasises how important the instrument was at the beginning of the 17th century. Its popularity was largely down to Lully’s inclusion of it in his ballets and operas, alongside strings. The oboe’s predecessor, the shawm, was often considered too overpowering to be used with other instruments, but the more refined oboe could now be utilised as a blending instrument which could complement the delicacy of the string section.
The modern oboe glistens with a complex system of silver keys against a body of dark, dense wood, often African Blackwood. In contrast the Baroque oboe has only three keys: two side keys are complimented by a single ‘great’ key, and the player is required to ‘overblow’ to reach different harmonics. Keys were added to the body of the instrument during the early nineteenth century. A far cry from the open holed system which required cross fingerings and half-holing (covering the hole only halfway, which alters the pitch; much like the bending described in the introduction to the Natural Horn), keys now allowed players to achieve more notes and to play them in a quicker, smoother fashion. But it is not only the complexity of the outside that contributes to the distinctive characteristic of the oboe. The sound is also greatly defined by the width of the ‘bore’, which essentially means the hollow space inside the instrument. The baroque oboe has a wider bore than its modern counterpart and this combined with light boxwood contributes to the richer and quieter tone of the baroque instrument.
The reed is constructed from two thin pieces of cane, secured together on a thin metal tube which is pushed into the top of the instrument. When blown into, the reed vibrates and makes a buzzing sound. How far you push the reed in determines the length of the instrument; different lengths cause slight alterations to the tuning which is why you see oboists pushing in or pulling out the reed as they tune up. Oboists often make their own reeds as subtle differences in the shape and construction of the reeds compliment individual styles of playing. Reeds used for baroque oboes are shorter and wider than the slimline modern reed.
The baroque oboe is a member of a large woodwind family. Other members include the Cor Anglais, oboe da caccia, oboe d’amore, bass oboe, heckelphone, musette and contra bass oboe. The oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia were often used by Bach. In the St Matthew Passion, a pair of oboes take centre stage in the stunning aria Sehet, Jesus hat der Hand. The oboe d’amore has a richer, warmer tone than the oboe, an aural combination of the cor anglais and the oboe. After Bach, the use of the oboe da caccia decreased and it became an instrument sought out for special works.