The oboe is a soprano-ranged double-reed woodwind instrument. It’s made from a wooden tube roughly 23.5 inches long and has metal keys, a conical bore, and a flared bell. Sound is produced by blowing into the reed and causing the air within the tube to vibrate. The way I’ve described it makes it sound like a kazoo, but when played properly, it’s one of the most magical instruments in the whole orchestra.
The oboe’s sound is clear and penetrating. It was mentioned by Henry Playford (familiar to all you contra and English country dancers) in 1695 as a majestic and stately instrument and others have claimed that the oboe sounds like a duck if the duck could only sing. The timbre of the oboe comes from its conical bore (unlike the cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets), and is readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.
Oboe music written in C (it’s a tuning thing—more on that later) and has a soprano range, although there are other voices in the oboe family (more on that later, too). Orchestras frequently tune to the A of the oboe because the pitch is secure and its penetrating sound makes it ideal for a variety of instruments to tune to it.
Wind players and instrument makers at the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) are in large part responsible for building an oboe from a shawm. The oboe first appeared in England in the 17th century, under the French name of hautbois, and surely came from France, as the French were especially fond of the instrument. This name “hautbois” was also used for the oboe’s ancestor, the shawm. The two major differences between the shawm and the oboe include the oboe having three sections (or joints), which allow more precision during manufacturing and precision in both tuning and comfort, and the elimination of the pirouette, the wooden ledge or ball below the reed that was a resting point for the player’s lips on the shawm.
The 17th century flutist Michel de la Barre wrote that the Philidor and Hotteterre families might have been the inventors (separately or together, it’s unclear). Regardless of who or how it came to be, it grew in popularity all over Europe and in England, where the name morphed through hautboy, hoboy, hautboit, and howboye before settling on oboe (in English—the French still call it an hautbois). It was the main instrument in military bands until the clarinet came along and dislodged it.
The reason for the oboe’s popularity was that it was an expressive instrument, equal to that of the traverse flute (another rising star in the 17th century). The shawm had demanded attention by being almost obnoxiously loud, but the oboe tempered the sound with dynamic range (loudness AND softness) and eloquent nuance. It soon became a favorite instrument of the Baroque era, especially played in conjunction with the violin, which was another new invention (evolved from the vielle).
In the early 18th century, the oboe’s sister, the oboe d’amour developed, which was even more evocative, as the name rather romantically implies. The oboe d’amore is pitched a third lower than the regular oboe and was unknown until the early Romantic period. In the 1870s, Victor Charles Mahillon (1841-1924), of the Mahillon instrument makers in Brussels, revived the instrument for historical performances. It’s evolved further since then to include the same improvements as the modern oboe (more about that in the Structure section).
The alto bombard (one of the names for the shawm) became the alto oboe (the same way as the shawm became the oboe), and it had a pear-shaped bell, like the oboe d’amore. It had a warm and full tone and was also called the oboe da caccia (the horseman’s oboe) and was used during fox hunts. The oboe da caccia was 30 inches long and had a peaceful and quiet sound.
The English horn is another version of the oboe, but it’s curved, carved of two pieces of wood at an angle, like a sickle, and is encased in leather to make it airtight. It’s a little bit longer and although the finger holes are wide apart, it’s fingered the same way as a regular oboe and oboe d’amore. It rose in popularity around the middle of the 18th century and had an elegant pear-shaped or spherical bell. By the 19th century, it had gained the oboe’s helpful key mechanisms. The English horn is often found in large orchestras today and plays a fifth lower than the oboe.
The baritone oboe plays a fourth lower than the English horn (or an octave below the oboe, if it’s easier to think of it that way). It’s more than three feet long, has the pear-shaped bell of the English horn, and is blown, like the bassoon, through an S-shaped tube. It sounds a lot like an English horn, only lower.
The heckelphone is an even lower oboe, made in the early 20th century, with a wide conical bore. It was made of maple-wood and has a barrel-shaped bell. The heckelphone was more than four-feet long, producing a rich sound, so much so that it was used by Richard Strauss (1864-1049) in “Salome” and “Alpine Symphony” and by Max von Schillings (1868-1933) in “Der Moloch” and “Mona Lisa.”
The pioccolo-heckelphone is a smaller version of the heckelphone and sounds a fourth lower than an oboe. It’s still pretty big.
In the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715), French ensembles consisted of an oboe, a tenor oboe, and a bassoon, but by the middle of the 18th century, they had expanded to two oboes (or two clarinets) with two horns and two bassoons.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) orchestra had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and between 12 and 16 strings (violins, violas, and cellos, doubled by bass viol), and a harpsichord. Trumpets and timpani were occasionally added.
Viennese orchestras of the 1790s often had as many as 35 players, often also including clarinets. In the 19th century, orchestras grew from about 40 players to nearly 90. Oboes (along with flutes, clarinets, and bassoons) developed elaborate key systems by mid-century, and their ranges were considerably expanded (piccolos, English horn, bass clarinet, and contra-bassoon).
The oboe has a narrower bore than the shawm, which is why its tone is softer and more delicate. It was narrowed during the Classical period (1730-1820). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be played more easily, and composers indulged themselves in this broadened range. The new half-octave inspired Classical era composers (including Mozart) to write concertos for the oboe instead of leaving it buried in the orchestra adding color.
Also during the Classical period, the oboe’s bore was lined with a conical metal tube, which made it sound a lot more like a trumpet or a horn than a shawm. It didn’t last, and today’s oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore with no metal lining.
The oboe ends in a funnel-shaped bell.
The Baroque oboe was made of boxwood and had only three keys. After improvement to the keys in the 1840s, oboes were no longer made of boxwood, but of ebony or rosewood instead. Occasionally, metal or ebonite have been used.
Since the middle of the 19th century, the differences between the French oboe (also used in England, the U.S., Belgium, and Italy) and the German-Austrian oboe has increased. The French oboe is thinner and has a more delicate tone.
Instead of being constructed from a single piece of wood, instrument makers for Louis XIV (1638-1715) divided the oboe into three sections that fitted together nicely, facilitating the most delicate adjustments in tuning. This improved instrument had two octaves, and its smaller finger holes allowed the player to produce more accurate chromatic pitches.
The modern oboe is usually made from African blackwood, although some manufacturers use cocobolo, rosewood, or violetwood. Ebony is used occasionally, and some student models are made from resin to avoid cracking the wood with rough treatment and to make the instrument less expensive.
The oldest oboes had six finger holes, of which two, producing half-step intervals, were doubled so they could be played with either hand (like the recorder). It also had three keys, one of which was a swallow-tail lever to be played with either hand, called the great key, and the other two were opposite each other to be played with either hand to close the same hole, called the side key. The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the left or right hand on the bottom holes, just like the lowest hole on the recorder.
During the Classical period, the oboe gained keys. One special key was called a “slur” key and was similar to the modern octave key, although it was first used like a “flick” key on the modern German bassoon to facilitate chromatic changes. Later, French oboe makers redesigned the octave key to be used like it is on the modern instrument (held open for the upper register, closed for the lower).
In the 19th century, the Triebert family (Guillaume and his sons Charles and Frederic) in Paris used the Boehm flute (see Instrument Biography: The Flute) as a source of ideas for key work, and devised increasingly complex key systems. The Boehm-system oboe had large finger holes and was used in some military bands into the 20th century, but was never commonly adopted.
But even before 1800, Grundmann and Grenser of Dresden Germany experimented, fitting the oboe with keys so that it could play a chromatic scale. By 1825, the oboe had as many as 10 keys in addition to the holes. In 1825, the leading maker in Vienna was Koch, who developed the instrument that became the standard of the day with celebrated oboist Joseph Sellner (1787-1843), who would later write the seminal tutorial on playing the oboe.
Improvements continued until, by 1840, there were 14 keys. French makers, including Frederic Triebert, really tweaked the thing. The instrument made in 1880 was considered the best ever, and was called the “conservatoire model,” and is essentially the same as the modern instrument. The conservatoire model was made in Paris and was equipped with a complicated and ingenious key mechanism that makes it possible to play the same note in two or three different ways—even four, in some instance.
When he left the Triebert company in 1881, Francois Loree of Paris further developed the oboe by improving the bore and keys, and, after a few more changes, by the late 20th century, it finally settled into the instrument we know today.
Modern instruments have about 2.5 octaves. Some student models are missing the B-flat key that extends the range downward in the professional versions. There’s a similar key on the flute.
The Gillet key system (for the conservatoire oboe) has 45 pieces of keywork, with the optional additions of a third octave key and an alternate key for F or C. The keys are usually made of nickel silver and are silver- or gold-plated.
Oboes are also made using the English thumb plate system, which includes semi-automatic octave keys by which playing in the second octave closes keys from the first. Releasing the thumb plate has the same effect as closing the forefinger’s hole on the right hand, which produces alternate fingerings without distinctive tone changes. This can be handy when rapidly switching octaves running up or down a scale (the fewer fingers you have to move, the faster you can play).
Some conservatoire oboes have keys constructed of rings rather than plates (called open-holed), so that the finger closes the hole but still manipulates the key, and most professional models have at least the right hand’s third key open-holed. Professional models usually use this open-hole system combined with a thumb plate.
The cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument in the shawm (called the pirouette) was discarded when they were designing the oboe at Louis XIV’s French court. The reed isn’t entirely within the mouth as it is in the shawm, but is held between the lips, about half in and half out of the mouth. The player can control the volume as a result of this change, and it’s also possible to overblow to achieve harmonics for higher notes. The free-standing reed allows greater control of intonation and tone quality than the old-style-enclosed reed.
The oboe’s double reed consists of two thin blades of cane tied together around a small-diameter metal tube called the staple. This staple and reed are bound together with three carefully placed wires and then thread is wrapped around the wires. The cane-surrounded staple is stuffed into a length of cork, and the cork is pushed into the reed socket (called the farrow) at the top of the oboe.
Professional oboists make their own reeds, as every oboist needs a slightly different design to suit their own needs. This way, they can control things like tone color and tuning. Some beginners use reeds made of synthetic materials because it’s both hard and expensive to make your own.
Commercially available cane reeds are available in several degrees of hardness. A medium reed is most popular, and most beginners used medium-soft reeds.
As oboists gain experience, they usually start making their own reeds, often in the style of their teachers, or they buy handmade reeds (usually from a professional oboist) in various stages of construction, and using special tools, including gougers, pre-gougers, guillotines, knives, and other tools, adjust the reed to their own liking. It takes many attempts to get the reed right. Orchestral musicians sometimes make reeds to sell and earn a bit of extra money.
Oboe reeds, like those for the clarinet, saxophone and bassoon reeds, are made from cane that’s called Arundo donx. Professional oboists import their reed cane directly from the growers in southern France.
The cane is split into three vertical parts. Oboes require the thickness of about 10 millimeters and bassoons need the reed to be more than twice as thick. Each player adjusts the reeds for his or her own embouchure, the angle at which they hold their oboe from their bodies, and lung capacity. The reed is considered the most difficult aspect of playing the oboe because slight variations in temperature, altitude, and weather can change a hitherto good reed into an unplayable bundle of twigs.
The oboe’s pitch is affected by the way the reed is made. There can be variations in the construction materials, the age of the reed, and the difference in scrape and length. German and French reeds differ in many ways, and the sound is different in response. Skilled oboists can adjust their embouchure to compensate for such factors by manipulating embouchure and air pressure.
Oboe d’amore, which is larger and a third lower than the conservatoire oboe, has a pear-shaped bell rather than the oboe’s funnel shape, which softens and mellows the tone.
The range of the Baroque oboe is a little more than two octaves.
The Wiener (Viennese) oboe is a modern instrument that retains the essential bore and tonal characteristics of the Baroque oboe. The Wiener oboe was developed in the 19th century by Josef Hajek from earlier instruments designed by C.T. Golde of Dresden (1803-1873), and is now made by several European makers and the Japanese maker Yamaha. Its bore is wider than that of the conservatoire oboe, its reed is shorter and broader, and the fingering system is different. The middle register of the Wiener oboe sounds reedy and the upper register includes more harmonics than traditional oboes. The Wiener oboe was thought to be an improvement on the historical oboe because it was a little easier to get a nice sound out of than the earlier instruments and could be played expressively, like a modern oboe. It was said to blend nicely with other instruments, and is, with the Vienna horn, distinctive and unique to the Wiener Philharmoniker instrument museum.
Other members of the oboe family include the cor anglais, or English horn, which is the tenor (or alto) member of the family. It’s a transposing instrument, pitched in F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d’amore, which is the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made extensive used of both theoboe d’amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, which were both Baroque parents of the English horn.
Less common is the bass oboe (usually called the baritone oboe), which sounds an octave lower than the oboe. Then there’s the heckelphone, which has a wider bore and a louder sound than the bass oboe—and only 165 of them have ever been made, making it hard to find competent heckelphone players. The rarest member of the oboe family is called the musette (or piccolo oboe), which is the sopranino member of the family, pitched at a minor third or a perfect fourth above the oboe. SImilarly rare is the contrabass oboe, two octave lower than the oboe.
Folk versions of the oboe, sometimes with extensive keywork, are found throughout Europe, including the musette (French), the Piston oboe and the bombarde (both from Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (from Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (from Spain). Most of these are played with bagpipes accompanying them, particularly the Italian zampogna or Breton biniou. Similar instruments to the oboe are believed to derive from Middle Eastern instruments, which are also found throughout Asia and in Northern Africa.
Notable oboe makers during the Baroque are the Germans Jacob Denner (1681-1735) and Johann Heinrich Eichentopt (c1678-1769), and the Englishman Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734). With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid-20th century, a few makers began producing copies of surviving historical instruments.
In English, the oboe was called the hautbois (meaning “high wood” in French) prior to 1770, and because spelling used to be more of a matter of opinion than it is nowadays, it was also called the hoboy or French hoboy. “Oboe” was adopted into English around 1770 from the Italian word oboé, which was a transliteration of the French.
Various voicings of the oboe are called oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, heckelphone, bombarde, musette, taille, cor anglais, English horn, Wiener oboe, Breton piston, and the conservatoire oboe. That last one is the modern oboe.
Famous Oboe Composers
There are loads of composers who wrote for oboe, so I’ll group them first by nationality and then by their dates. This list is not comprehensive by any means.
Italians:Antonio Lotti (c1667-1740), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
Germans: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote Brandenberg concertos #1 and #2 featuring the oboe. He also wrote a concerto for oboe and violin and frequently composed for the oboe d’amore. Then there was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and later, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote two concertos for the oboe. Next, Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who wrote an oboe concerto (it’s one of my favorite Beethoven pieces), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who used the English horn in his opera “Manfred.” Another opera composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), used the English horn in “Tannhäuser” and in “Tristan and Isolde.” Next up, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who preferred the French oboe, complaining that the German-Austrian oboe had a thick and trumpet-like voice, and that he thought it didn’t sound nice with flutes and clarinets. He wrote “Domestic Symphony” to illustrate the innocent child with the oboe’s voice. Last but not least among the Germans is Georg Philipp Telemann (1881-1767), who composed for the oboe d’amore in 1722.
Americans: Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
English:Henry Purcell (c1659-1695) wanted a tenor oboe for “Diocletian” in 1690 and afterward, the instrument became known as the English horn. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote for the bass oboe, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) managed to eke out a few pieces that included oboes, and Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934) wrote for the bass oboe. Then there were Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Madeleine Dring (1923-1977).
French: Robert Cambert (c1628-1677) used the oboe in his opera “Pomone.” Next up, there’s Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992),
Austria: The most famous Austrian musician so far, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), wrote two oboe concertos.
Russian: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1849-1893), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Czeck: Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) and Jan Antonin Kozeluh (1738-1814)
Famous Oboe Players
There have been quite a few famous oboists. I’ll group them by genre, and within genre, by their dates (if available).
Classical (etc.): Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790) and Joseph Sellner (dates unknown), who was an oboist and teacher who wrote the seminal oboe studies in 1825.
Jazz: Garvin Bushell (1902-1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924, eventually recorded with John Coltrane in 1961. Paul Whiteman played jazz oboe in the 1920s and 30s. Gill Evans (1912-1988) played oboe with jazz great Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef used the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) gave the oboe a solo role when played by Richard Hafer (1927-2012) in his jazz groups, and Marshal Allen (1924- ) played oboe with Sun Ra. Paul McCandless (1947- ) is co-founder of the Paul Winter Consort and later played the oboe in the jazz group Oregon. Romeo Penque played the oboe on Roland Kirk’s album “Return of the 5000 lb Man” in 1975. The Maria Schneider Orchestra features the oboe. Jean-Luc Fillon plays oboe and English horn, and Charles Pillow plays and teaches jazz oboe.
Celtic and Folk: Derek Bell (1935-2002) of the Cheiftains, David Cantieni of Wild Asparagus (a contra dance band in the US), Paul Sartin played in folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead, Welsh bagpipe player and maker Jonathan Shorland plays a rustic oboe similar to the Breton piston with the bands Primeaval and Juice. Welsh musician Karl Jenkins (1944- ) played the oboe with Nucleus and Soft Machine.
Pop: The Carpenters used an oboe in “For All We Know” in 1970, and both Donovan Leitch and Jennifer Juniper used studio musicians on oboes for their albums, rather than regular members of their bands. Peter Gabriel played oboe on some of Genesis’s albums. Robbie J. de Klerk played the oboe on the Dutch metal band Another Messiah’s albums in the 2000s. Hoboe defines itself as a rock band showcasing the amplified oboe since 2000, fronted by oboist Zen Ben.
Film: The oboe is often used in film music, especially in sad scenes. The Indian film composer Ilaiyaraja uses oboe in much of his film music.
“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.