The oboe family, as used in Western music, consists of a group of conical-bore double-reed woodwind instruments in a variety of sizes. The most common member of the family, and the one usually referred to as the oboe, is the treble instrument in C. The term ‘hautboy’, one of a number of spellings in use during the early history of the instrument and found occasionally into the early 20th century, has been revived to designate the two- or three-key oboe in use from the mid-17th century to the early 19th; it will be so used here. A terminology for identifying the parts of the oboe appears in fig.1.
The oboe consists of a slender tube of wood some 60 cm long, in three sections united by tenon-and-socket joints. The modern oboe is made of grenadilla, occasionally of other woods, ebonite or plastic, and the hautboy usually of boxwood or fruitwood. The joints of the hautboy are generally decorated with turnery. The bore of the modern oboe, which is narrow and conoidal, expands fairly regularly for about five-sixths of its length and then opens out more rapidly to form a moderate bell (fig.1b). This expansion takes the shape of a smooth curve or a succession of cones, according to the formulae adopted by different makers and worked out experimentally by them. The effective length of the tube is made variable by means of 16 to 20 side holes, six of them directly under the player’s fingers and the rest controlled by a mechanism of keys which is sometimes most ingenious and complicated. At least four systems of Keywork have been applied to the oboe. Since World War II the Conservatoire system, developed in France and adopted by the Paris Conservatoire in 1882, has become an international standard.
The hautboy (fig.1a) has a contraction rim at the end of the bell, retained also in its descendant, the modern Viennese oboe (fig.1c). It has eight side holes, six under the control of the fingers, with holes three and four often split into two smaller twin holes, and keys for c' and E, the latter sometimes duplicated. Additional holes and keys for chromatic notes were added to this basic design during the 19th century.
Oboes are sounded by means of a reed formed of two hollowed-out blades of thin ‘cane’, actually the semi-tropical grass Arundo donax or Arundo sativa (fig.2). These are bound face to face with thread to a narrow tapered metal tube, slightly flattened at the tip, termed a ‘staple’. Although the dimensions of the reed may not match the volume of the missing end of the instrument’s conical bore, the reed nevertheless functions as an extension of the bore. At their free ends, the blades are scraped down to a feather edge. When placed between the lips and blown through, the blades of the reed vibrate together, alternately opening and closing the elliptical chink between them and thus transmitting bursts of energy to the air column in the body tube. The proper management of this very delicate apparatus is probably the most difficult part of oboe technique for the learner to acquire or for the teacher to impart.
On the hautboy, notes outside the basic scale are obtained by ‘resistance fingerings’ – cross- or forked fingerings and half-holed fingerings. The hautboy overblows an octave, giving a range of at least two octaves (e'–d''). The compass of the modern oboe extends from b to a''' – in all, 36 notes, of which the first 15 are fundamental notes. Acoustically, the remainder are harmonics of the first 15 and are produced by changes of ‘lip’ pressure on the reed, assisted by the use of speaker or octave keys.
Intonation, tone-colour and dynamics are modified by the combined control of breath and embouchure pressure. Because the oboe requires very little air, the player is able to perform long phrases in one breath, but must learn to exhale stale air before inhaling. Articulation is achieved by stopping the vibrations of the reed with the tongue.
In addition to the treble or soprano oboe in C, the family includes a number of deeper-toned members (fig.3). Lower oboes have appeared in a variety of forms, often with a bulb-shaped bell (see §III). The modern family includes the oboe d’amore in A, the english horn in F and the bass oboe in C. Smaller oboes were built for military use in the 19th century, and in the late 20th century a small oboe in F, the musette, was developed to complete the family.
Oboe, §II: The European oboe
2. History to 1800.
The term ‘hautboy’ has been adopted here to refer to the form of oboe that gradually separated itself from the Shawm in the first half of the 17th century and flourished until the first part of the 19th, when it was supplanted by the keyed oboe. Although the hautboy was revived in the 1960s for use in ensembles of historical instruments, only its past history will be considered here.
(ii) Before 1670.
Oboe, §II, 2: The European oboe to 1800: History
The normal size of hautboy was the treble, which gave a seven-fingered C. It was usually 58–9 cm in length and was made in three separate joints coupled by tenons and sockets, the top and centre being of about equal length and the bell somewhat shorter (see fig.1a). It had a conical bore with steps at the joints. The outer joints usually featured mouldings. There were six finger-holes, a key for E (sometimes doubled), an open-standing and articulated key for c' (the lowest note), and two vent holes placed opposite each other on the bell. The larger tone holes were undercut (i.e. they expanded inwards). The bell normally had a thick contraction rim, called a ‘lip’, at the bottom.
Of an estimated 15,000 original treble hautboys, about 750, made between about 1680 and 1820, were known to survive at the end of the 20th century. The majority (about 85%) are made of boxwood, which also appears to be the wood of hautboys shown in paintings of the time. Other materials used include ebony, ivory and fruitwoods. Darker stain was sometimes used, and some early instruments imitate tortoiseshell. Close to half the surviving hautboys have ivory tips; others have ferrules of brass or silver or are tipped with horn or bone. The fourth hole was sometimes twinned (i.e. two small holes were drilled next to each other), as was the third.
The hautboy's outward form was based on concepts of architectural moulding. Physical features such as the shape of the keys, the type of wood, the presence of ornamental mounts or twin holes, the turning profile and turning details, and the shape of the bell, varied with time and from workshop to workshop (fig.4).
No reeds made earlier than the late 18th century survive, and little written information on reeds and reed-making exists from before about 1780. It was not unusual for players (even some professionals) to purchase ready-made reeds from instrument makers. Pictures indicate that, dimensions apart, reeds were made much as they are for the key-system oboe (see fig.11 below). A staple, or metal tube, was used to connect the two blades of cane to the bore of the instrument; the reed could be separate or fixed permanently to the staple. The cane was shaped with parallel sides for at least half its length. Reeds must have varied considerably, as they do now (see fig.2), and no single way of making them can by itself be considered ‘historical’. In general terms, reeds tended to become narrower and shorter during the course of the 18th century as the bore became correspondingly smaller and both tessitura and pitch moved upwards.
Throughout its history the hautboy shared with the other woodwind certain techniques that seem stylistically remote today. It used an elaborate system of paired tonguing patterns, the flattement or finger vibrato (not the modern breath vibrato), and the messa di voce. These techniques were used throughout Europe, and descriptions and demonstrations can be found in sources and handbooks to the end of the 18th century.