A Youtube Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, part 2: Woodwinds / Oboe

Hello! Continuing from the last post, let’s move to the next woodwind instrument, which is the

Oboe

A photo to start with, as before, to see what it looks like:

I couldn’t find one really satisfactory photo this time, so this and this are two more, to show it from different angles. The length, which is difficult to judge from the photos, is about 62 cms, so slightly shorter than the flute – but it’s really not about the size (and anyway, comparing flutes to oboes is like comparing apples to oranges, and I’d better stop before I get completely buried in bad similes/clichés/metaphors).

Seriously, though, as opposed to the flute, the oboe is a double reed instrument, which means its mouthpiece (the part the player blows into – bottom right in the photo) consists of two pieces of cane vibrating against each other. These pieces of cane, called reeds (doh!), are usually cut by the players themselves, to suit their individual needs, as the reeds affect in a most direct way the tone color and pitch. The oboe is also way more recent that the flute – it appeared in the mid-17th century, with the modern version coming from the 19th century (and with minor improvements continuing through the 20th century).

The oboe is usually the first instrument you would hear at a symphony concert, as this is the instrument all the others normally tune to. While thinking about this post, I realized I didn’t have a clue as to why this was the case – it seemed to be one of those self-evident facts which no one ever cares to explain. Well, Google to the rescue, I thought – but not quite: there are several reasons floating about (‘the most steady pitch’, ‘the most carrying tone’, ‘situated at the very center of the orchestra’), some of them contradicting each other (‘fewest overtones’ vs. ‘easiest to play overtones on’) and there’s even a website to refute them all. Most agree that tradition plays a big part – some of  reasons were correct in the past, and even when things changed (the late-comer clarinet seems to have as steady a pitch at least), oboists were reluctant to relinquish the privilege/duty. The piano, by the way, gets the prerogative, whenever it is on the stage – while one can argue whether or not an oboist can change the pitch of each note, a pianist most definitely cannot, so in this case the oboist tunes to the piano and then everybody tunes to the oboe.

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The choice of the first piece to show off the oboe was inspired by Wikipedia (and by the last post as well), namely by their mentioning the description of the oboe’s voice in Angels in America as sounding like that of a duck if the duck were a songbird. Prokofiev would probably have agreed, as the oboe is the instrument he chose to represent the duck:

Notice the slightly nasal and quite straightforward sound, yet full of personality – it’s a trademark of the raw oboe tone. But the oboe is much more versatile than that – consider, for example, the pure and noble sound in this short interlude from the opening of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 1st movement (if you continue till the entrance of the main theme at 03:50, or jump to it,  you’ll be treated to a delightfully cheery flute solo [doubled at 04:05 by the oboe – doubled meaning that the two play the same melody, or part of it, at the same time]):

Or the lyricism of the main theme of the 1st movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto:

Or this artless narrative from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, 2nd movement (where it comes straight after a very artful solo of the bassoon, which we’ll cover later):

Or else the plaintive, haunting solo from the 4th movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony:

(there’s a much better version, technically at least, here – and different musically too – but I wanted to show just how shrill and chillingly empty an oboe tone can get.)

I’ll finish with two of the most beautiful oboe solos I know – the first is the opening of the 2nd movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto (there are at least five versions of this on Youtube, with this probably being the better one overall):

And lastly the 2nd movement of the 4th Symphony by Tchaikovsky:

(if you get to 02:36, there’s a beautiful and intricate counterpoint in the flutes to correspond with the previous post).

Well, that’s a representative survey of the oboe (as an orchestral instrument, there are of course many solo works – you could have a listen to this [solo starts at 00:35], this [solo starts at 01:05], this [very beautiful music], or this, to name just some of the concerti).

Till next time – the Cor Anglais and the Oboe d’amore are next on the list.

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