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Oboe During The Romantic Period (1815 - 1910)

By Edited Jun 27, 2015 1 1

Considered a time of charm, the Romantic period was a time well known for instruments changing and music taking on a whole new meaning.  By being a musician or more specifically, an oboist, it is important to see the development of the instrument and  how the music has advanced to its current form. Many instruments used today advanced into their modern version during the Romantic period.  As time has progressed, changes have been made to develop it into the oboe as we know it today. The modern oboe is a descendent of the shawm from the Baroque period.  As time has progressed, changes have been made to develop it into the oboe as we know it today.  The Romantic period was a time when composers wrote to show off the advancements of popular instruments.  

The shawm was the first well known version of the modern oboe.  During the mid-seventeenth century in France the shawm advanced to the hautboy.  Burgness and Haynes explain that the hautboy was developed to play mainly solo works.  Many musicians and composers of the time, call the hautboy the eloquent oboe.  This version of the modern oboe was developed to play best in the keys of C and D.  The hautboy remained the main double reed instrument until 1760.  Exemplified in the music of Purcell and Bach, the hautboy remained the main double reed instrument until 1760.  Their compositions aided in the popularity of the instrument.

J.S. Bach wrote early concertos which are still popularly played today.  Two of his most famous concertos are “Brandenburg Concertos nos. 1 and 2”.  “Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major” has a very typical sound for the time it was written in.  While most modern recordings are played on a twenty-first century oboe, the listener can still understand how Bach was using the double reed in music.  In the first movement, “Allegro”, one can hear multiple oboes playing.  The music is written so that the players have non-chromatic jumps, usually thirds and fifths.  While it may sound otherwise, the fast passages that happen are in whole steps and usually are within an octave range.  If this movement was written later in time, the basic rhythm of the piece would likely include syncopation.  The second movement, “Adagio”, is very different than the first.  “Adagio” has a very slow and legato style, but the melody is still in whole tones and also has a very simple and straight rhythm.  These are just two movements of the famous pieces that Bach wrote for the oboe.  Bach’s compositions marked the beginning of popular oboe literature which will be enlarged during the Romantic period.

            The turn of the century marked another change for the oboe’s structure.  The classic hautboy soon developed into a key system.  Keys had already been in use on other instruments, like the flute, for the flexibility to play notes not in the natural seven note scale.  The addition of keys to the oboe allowed chromatic notes to sound crisper then before. Each country seemed to have their own key system for the oboe.  Most prominent were in European counties, especially France.  France had been the most industrial nation since before 1850, which allowed it to be the most progressive and influence on today’s oboe.

            The Triebert family in France modernized the oboe greatly during the Romantic period.  The family went through three different stages before coming to their final result.  Their first attempt, named simply ‘four’, had many advancements.  One convenient addition was a C/D trill key on the upper joint.  Before then, a player had to move all their fingers to trill between the two notes.  They also put the C# and D# keys on the right side so they were controlled by the right pinky finger.  There was also an added plate and pad for the right hand ring finger.  That allowed high D to come out with much clearer sound.  The left hand keys were now put all on only one axels.  The Triebert family also advanced the range of the instrument down to low b flat, though the note came out very weak in the first version.  Even with the extended range, many low notes were still awkward to play because of the gaps between the keys. The next two versions kept most of the initial changes but fixed some of the problems.

            In the next version, called ‘five’, the Treibert family developed something very different.  Many players had trouble fingering b flat and c.  Because of the problem, the keys were then moved to the center of the bore from the side.  There was also an added thumb-plate action.  It allowed the notes (b flat and c) to be played by moving the thumb.  This advancement is more commonly known as the Barrett Action.  There was also a problem with the low b flat from the first version, the Trieberts developed a b flat key for the right hand.  While the instrument was becoming much more flexible and versatile, it was not perfect.  There would be one more version.

            Players were still having difficulties with the b flat and c fingerings.  Therefore, makers of the Triebert’s version six, made it so that they player could use alternate fingerings by moving the three right hand fingers.  Loree, a growing craftsmen, took this version, and the Boehm version with some stylistic changes to create his own version.  This version become six a, and is more commonly known now as the conservatoire oboe.

            The Conservatoire oboe still had many concerns.  There were many trill combinations that did not have simple fingers.  Players had the most trouble with trills in the extreme high range and the extreme low range.  The forked f which was the only fingering for f was extremely flat.  Players also complained of the position of the second e flat key on the right hand because of the awkward reach it caused.  These concerns would slowly be resolved by other talented craftsmen.

            Also in Europe, the Boehm oboe was being produced by Buffet in the 1840s, (Bate 61).  The Boehm system is modeled so an instrument to have eight keys controlled by the fingers and one key for the thumb.  The flute was developed into its final state based on the Boehm model.  The keys on the Buffet oboe were made out of nickel, gorermal, or silver, alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc.  Buffet was also able to develop a way to vent the f# with a tiny mechanism lower on the instrument.  The Boehm model was very popular in Spain, but others like the Treibert’s found it too defective to play.

            Elsewhere in England the oboe was being produced by lesser known craftsmen.  In London, a famous flute maker named Wallis, developed a way to solve problems that others where having.  He found a way to bring the lower note fingerings closer together which helped out oboe players and allowed more literature to be written with an extended range.  Towards the end of the Nineteenth century, Loree adapted the Boehm fingering system to their oboes, the conservatoire model.  The model of the oboe was similar to the flute, and the model of the oboe later influenced the development of the saxophone.

            Germany and Italy were also working on the oboe, though many believed they had a different goal in mind.  Germans were more worried about playing in tune that having the ability to play chromatically.  Therefore, they did not place keys or levels by the ends of the joints.  The German oboe also produced a trumpet like sound compared to the Treibert oboe.   Italy was also concerned about tuning, but instead of changing the oboe around, they tuned at A= four-hundred and fifty-two.

            Overall, by the Romantic period the oboe was fully chromatic, had air tight mechanisms and a consistent timbre.  Manufactures were also producing the oboe with the similar bore shapes and hole sizes which helped composers when writing for the oboe.  There were still some changes that did not get worked out until the end of the Romantic period or beginning of Twentieth century music, for example, like Bonnet’s solution to the forked f fingering.  Because of the differences still, the oboe was never mass produced like the brass instruments of the time.

Even with the advancements in to manufacturing of oboes, it was still a difficult instrument.  Professional oboists usually came from the middle lower class.  There were many positions available for orchestras through the communities of Europe.  There were few amateur players, though, because of the difficulty of the instrument.

Music during the Romantic period grew throughout every genre.  From orchestra to smaller ensembles, music written was different than previous periods, like Classical and Baroque.  Composers focused on melodies and themes.  Because of that, music became more harmonic, fluid, and even more powerful.  Each instrument had their own story going through the Romantic period.

“There was no tradition of oboe playing during the Nineteenth century.  There was very little solo playing and the instrument nearly disappeared”.  Most popular oboe literature was found in orchestra works.  Yet, most composers ignored the oboe all together and wrote for flute and clarinet instead.  Many believed the oboe was too delicate for military bands.  That is when a new genre developed.  Wind quintet music began to grow in popularity during the Romantic period. 

Orchestra works were the first and foremost place where the oboe were used.  In Europe, many towns had their own orchestra during the Romantic period.  Most advancement in orchestra, though, happened in London (Philharmonic Society) and Paris (Societe des Concerts).  London and Paris were common locations for composers to debut their orchestra works.

Most orchestras had a pair of oboes, but it would change based on ensemble size and composer’s writing.  Composers, like Mendelssohn, figured out that two oboes sounded well with a pair of horns.  The oboe had prided itself on being the highest woodwind instrument in the orchestra until the flute. The role of the oboe was to either to play solos or to be a harmonic filler.  Compared to other woodwind instruments the oboe had one large difference.  All other instruments aside from the double reeds increase in volume as the notes are written higher in the register. The oboe, though, naturally sounds louder when playing in the low register and softer when playing in the high register.  The oboe took on a new role in orchestras and many composers to advantage of it.  One in particular was Gustav Mahler.

Gustav Mahler changed music when composing his largest work, “Symphony No. 8 in E flat Major”.  This symphony is more commonly know as the “Symphony of a Thousand” (Franklin 192), mainly because of all the players needed, though, Mahler did not approve of this title.  This work was written towards the end of the Romantic period in 1906.  It debut four years later in Germany.  Though it is Mahler’s largest work, the symphony only lasts ninety minutes.  The piece requires a larger than average orchestra, an addition brass ensemble, and two choirs, a male choir and a mixture of eight soloist.  The symphony is split into three sections; Hymnus, Veni, and Creator Spiritus.  Even with all the performers for this piece the oboe has a very important role.

In Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major”, the oboe plays a very important role.  During the opening movement, Hymnus, the oboe is mainly a filler for the vocal melody.  Towards the end of the movement the oboe plays allow side the flute with similar parts.  Then the oboe plays an after thought to the melody which remained in the vocal and flute parts.  In later movements, the oboe is heard as a solo instrument when it is just the orchestra.  Mahler continues to use the oboe to express a deep, dark sound during expressive vocal parts.  Many composers also wrote for oboe in their orchestra works.

Other popular composers of the time were Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Wagner, and Rimsky-Korsakov.  Mendelssohn was famous for his Overture to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the new sound of the woodwinds.  Berlioz had changed the way or orchestration in his writing to create new timbres.  Wagner expanded the orchestra past Berlioz’s orchestration.  The greatest of the composers dealing with orchestration was Rimsky- Korsakov.

Composers used woodwind instruments differently than in previous written music.  Mendelssohn opened his Overture to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by five bars feature the woodwind color.   Yet, he still used string as the main instruments to carry the melody.  Berlioz expanded the woodwind section on the orchestra.  He had at least two flutes, oboes, and clarinets, and four bassoons and horns.  Wagner used multiple parts so that he may subdivide each section (Riedel 62). Rimsky- Korsakov used large violin sections but then added clarinet and oboe to balance the timbre, he also added trombone to the cello sections in his work.  Orchestra works were not the only genre which oboes were used in during the Romantic period.

A new genre in music was developed during the Romantic period.  Wind Quintets began in 1800 by Giuseppe Maria Cambini.  He wrote his first wind quintet in the key of E flat major and included the flute, oboe, clarinet, cor anglais, and bassoon.  It did not become very popular until 1820 by composers like Anton Reicha and Franz Danzi.  Reicha and Danzi wrote wind quintets for different instruments then Cambini. Those instruments were flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon, and are now the instruments used in woodwind quintets today. Henri Brod and Carl Nielson were popular composers of wind quintet during the Romantic period.  Carl Nielson wrote one famous quintet in the end of the Romantic period.

“Quintet for Winds Op. 43” became a very well known work among woodwind players.  Nielson wrote five parts; flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.  The oboe player also doubled as a cor anglais. The piece was debut right at the end of the Romantic era. Nielson wrote this after hearing Mozart’s own woodwind works.  Neilson had plans to compose a concerto for each instrument in the quintet but past away after only finishing two, flute and clarinet.  The piece itself was very important to oboists. 

The oboe took many roles in Neilson’s “Quintet for Winds Op. 43”.  During the first movement, “Allegro den Moderato” the oboe is part of the melody.  Though, the bassoon opened with the main melody, the oboe had the response.  The second movement, “Menuet”, opens with a flute and oboe duet.  The duet is then repeated with the clarinet and bassoon.  The last movement, “Adagio” shows of the most advancements of the oboe.  Towards the beginning the oboist will switch and play the cor anglais.  Later the oboist will return to the oboe to replay the smooth, calm melody.  Later in the movement, Neilson places the oboe in the upper register, which was not a common technique used.  Wind Quintets were important to oboist, but solos were still composed for the oboists of the Romantic period.

Though the oboe was a difficult instrument to play, there were still composers who wrote for solo oboe.  A famous solo work for oboe was written by Robert Schumann. “Three Romances for Oboe and Piano” was a very popular and controversial piece.  The pieces were written for Clara (his wife) in 1849.  The selection was said to be a Christmas gift for her, but no original manuscript has been discovered. The year he wrote “Three Romances for Oboe and Piano” was his most productive year.

The most popular piece is “Romance No. 3”.  “Romance No. 3” is written in a minor key, which was very popular for this period.  The tempo is much slower and written in an expressive style, showing emotion.  The beginning idea is repeated twice in the piece.  The middle section changes key signatures and style.  The rhythm becomes more straight like a Classical piece.  At the end Schumann adds a coda.  The coda seems to be an after thought of his work.  Though, the rhythm and notes are different it seems to add all that had happened in the piece and put it into a wonderful ending.

Many changes have helped develop the oboe as a popular instrument like we know it today.  The Romantic period brought everything from mechanical changes to different roles in ensembles for the oboe.  

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Comments

Jul 16, 2012 9:20am
Bobski606
Some great information and a very interesting read, thanks for sharing this.
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