At first glance, the oboe resembles a clarinet, but there a few clues which distinguish it: the thin double reed which is about as wide as a pencil (the clarinet’s single reed is about as wide as a marker) and the bell on the end of the instrument, which curves in on the oboe and curves out on the clarinet. And the oboe and clarinet have similar ranges. But their sounds are quite different! While the clarinet has a very mellow, clean sound, the oboe produces a sound with both a haunting warmth and a raw edge, giving it the sensuous and sonorous tone which may even charm snakes! (This is, of course, when the oboe is played well; when it is not played well, it sounds like a duck – in fact, most people are introduced to the oboe as the duck in Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) Peter and the Wolf.)
The oboe is a member of the double-reed family of woodwind instruments, which includes the bassoon, the contrabassoon, the oboe and the English Horn, as well as less common instruments like the oboe d’amore and the heckelphone or bass oboe. The oboe produces sound by moving air through a pair of “reeds.” These reeds, made of a type of cane similar to bamboo, vibrate to produce a unique sound that then passes through a narrowly conical piece of plastic or wood. Beginners’ oboes are made of plastic; professional oboes (which can cost upwards of $5,000) are made either of rosewood or grenadilla wood. Holes cut into the instrument’s body allow the player to alter the pitch, and a complex series of buttons called keys that cover different combinations of holes enables players to utilize multiple “fingerings” to play different notes.
As the oboe cannot be tuned – reeds must be made so that the oboe plays in tune – it is the oboe that is called upon to tune the orchestra at the beginning of each piece.
The oboe’s origins are shrouded in the mists of time; the idea of blowing air through grass, straw or reed occurred to various peoples throughout the world in ancient times, and early ancestors of the oboe are represented artistically by diverse cultures. But the modern oboe is a product of the Renaissance, when the oboe’s immediate ancestor, the shawm, underwent several modifications and became the French hautbois (“oh-BWA” = oboe).
The oboe came to be a standard element of bands and orchestras by the end of the 17th century, and early 18th century composers like J. S. Bach (1685-1750) and Handel (1685-1759) began to establish the extensive and challenging oboe repertoire. Although the oboe repertoire is not as extensive as the clarinet’s or flute’s, the modern oboist has no shortage of beautiful and interesting music to choose from, spanning from the turn of the 18th century to the present day. And the modern oboist is humbled by the fact that oboists of that time had to play some extremely difficult music without the aid of multiple fingerings!
Most orchestras have two oboists, although some pieces require a third (the third oboist in an orchestra generally plays the English Horn part as well. The oboe is often featured in quartets, quintets and octets with a variety of stringed and woodwind instrument. Some of the most noteworthy elements of the oboe repertoire, such as Mozart’s (1756-1791) Quartet in F Major for Oboe, Violin, Viola and Cello, are small ensemble pieces. There is also an extensive amount of accompanied and unaccompanied solo work written for the oboe; a good contemporary example of an unaccompanied solo work is Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) Six Metamporphoses After Ovid.
While the oboe continues to be a mainstay of classical music, it has enjoyed significant attention from arrangers of popular music. Oboe accompaniments, counter-melodies and solos – nearly unheard-of a few decades ago, when the clarinet reigned supreme among the woodwinds – may be found among genres from “easy listening” to alternative rock, often taking the place of a saxophone, a flute or even an electric guitar, neither of which can match simultaneously the sweetness and raw edge of a well-played oboe.
A unique challenge that accompanies playing the oboe is the art of reed making, which serious oboists begin to learn after playing for a few years. Using a variety of specially designed tools – including half a dozen different knives – oboists turn a round tube of cane into two identical pieces that vibrate together at just the right pitch. This is exacting work and must be done by hand, as a fraction of a millimeter means the difference between a reed that will play beautifully and a reed that will produce a thin, unstable sound (and that only with great effort). Reeds are notoriously fickle, and will play differently based on the temperature and humidity of a given hall, so oboists always keep several reeds (and their knives, in order to make adjustments) available to ensure that they will have a reed that suits their performance needs. It takes an experienced reed-maker about 30-45 minutes to produce a reed that may be played for about a week before it is “played out” and can no longer be used. This explains why oboists are always fretting about their reeds.