INSTRUMENTS IN DEPTH


HISTORY AND CONSTRUCTION

INSTRUMENTS OF THE OBOE FAMILY

THE ROLE OF THE OBOE IN MUSIC

REEDS

PLAYING THE OBOE

 

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Katie Scheele performs an excerpt from J.S. Bach's Magnificat on the oboe d'amore

 

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An excerpt from Rossini's William Tell, performed on the English horn

INSTRUMENTS OF THE OBOE FAMILY

There are several members of the oboe family. The oboe is the soprano member and is in the key of C. The second most popular member is the cor anglais, also known as the English horn. Ironically, this instrument is neither English nor a horn. It was given its name because it resembled the baroque oboe da caccia, which had a slightly curved shape and a bent-looking bocal and was called cor angle, or bent horn. The word angle is believed at some point to have been mistranslated as anglais, or English, thus giving us the name English horn. It is the alto (sometimes considered tenor) instrument of the family and plays in the key of F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The English horn has a longer, wider bore and a bulb-shaped bell. Instead of having a hole for the reed to be inserted in, the English horn has a bocal that the reed sits on. The reed is also a double reed but is distinct from the oboe reed, and the fingerings are basically the same as the oboe. The English horn has a beautifully rich and somber tone that can be heard is some of music's most moving solos, including Dvorak's New World Symphony, Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.

The mezzo-soprano instrument of the oboe family is called the oboe d'amore, which sits in the key of A, a minor third lower than the oboe. The oboe d'amore is slightly longer than the oboe and has a bulbous bell similar to the English horn. The fingerings are similar to the oboe, and its own unique reed sits on a bocal that is slightly smaller than that of the English horn. The oboe d'amore can be heard in much of Bach's music, and sometimes is included in more modern pieces such as Ravel's Bolero.

The bass oboe is the most obscure member of the oboe family. Like the oboe, it is in the key of C, but sounds one octave lower than written. The instrument looks like a very large English horn, but has a more curved bocal and again a different reed. There are only a few pieces that call for a bass oboe, including Holst's The Planets.

Finally, the hecklephone and the musette are the least-use members of the oboe family. The hecklephone is similar to a bass oboe, but has a larger bore and a more powerful sound. The musette (also known as piccolo oboe) is the highest member of the family, usually pitched in E-flat or F above the oboe, and is seldom used today.

Around the World

Many oboe-like instruments exist in non-Western musical traditions. Examples of these are the North Indian sahnai, which has a flared brass bell, the Indonesian sarunai, with a palm-leak reed and buffalo horn bell, and the leather-covered algaita of West Africa pictured below. The Korean p'iri is pictured right.

Left to right: Bass Oboe, English Horn, Oboe d'Amore