As the original name, hautbois ("high wood", which was corrupted as "hoboy" and then "oboe" in English) shows, the instrument originated in France. That was in the mid-17th c., when it developed out of its predecessor, the shawm, the typical instrument of street bands (and, at least in literature, shepherds). Although the exact place and date of origin are not known, the Philidor and Hotteterre families may have been involved, and of course the instrument probably had multiple inventors.
The oboe is played with a double reed. This is one of the features it borrowed from the shawm, together with its conical bore, but on the other hand it also departed significantly from the older instrument, for example in the circumstance that the player places his lips directly on the reed with no intervening pirouette (a small cylindrical piece of wood which acted as a support for the lips). This new oboe quickly spread throughout Europe.
There are about nine other members in the oboe family, differing in size and timbre, such as the oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia, which both have a lower and warmer tone. We often find them in the pastoral movements of Bach's cantatas. Another member of the oboe family is the cor anglais ("English horn"), which is neither English nor a horn. It is an tenor hobo which was invented in Silesia around 1720, based on the oboe da caccia - it also found its way into the modern orchestra.
The oboe gradually developed further, gaining more keys - the modern oboe was developed in the 1860s by the French Triebert family. As the pitch of the oboe is not affected by temperature or humidity, and the instrument is easily audible over other instruments, symphony orchestras tend to tune to an A provided by the principal oboist.
The oboe was extremely popular in the Baroque period, when many concertos, sonatas and other works were written for the versatile instrument. The first oboe concertos were probably written by Albinoni in 1715, but these were quickly followed by concertos and sonatas by other Italian composers, such as Marcello and Vivaldi, and Germans as Telemann, or the Bohemian Zelenka. The 1720s saw a real explosion of oboe works, and the instrument remained popular for many decades, as is seen in the Classical works by Dittersdorf and Mozart.
But the oboe dropped out of sight during the Romantic period, when among the woodwinds the clarinet and flute with their essentially romantic timbre were more popular. (What there is from the 19th c., such as the small concerto by Bertini, or the pieces by Kalliwoda, is mostly salon music, which I skip.) Until I researched this post, I never realized that the oboe as solo instrument was totally eclipsed in the Romantic period...
Happily, the oboe has made a strong comeback in modern times - the large number of works written in for example England is striking (Bax, Vaughan Williams, Rawsthorne, Alwyn, Berkeley, Rubbra, Jacob, Holst, Moeran, etc) although these are all small-scale, intimate pieces, even the concertos. Somewhat larger-scale works were written by Richard Strauss, Wolf-Ferrari and the Dutchman Voormolen with his Concerto for Two Oboes. There is also an interesting body of modern instrumental and chamber music for the oboe.
[Oboe from the Classical Period]
1. Alessandro Ignazio Marcello, Concerto for Oboe in D minor 
Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747) was a versatile Venetian nobleman, philosopher, mathematician and musician, who also painted and dabbled in literature. As the son of a senator, he led the comfortable life of a dilettante in an imposing palazzo on the Canal Grande. In that residence, he organized weekly concerts, where also his own compositions were performed. The present oboe concerto is Alessandro Marcello's most famous work, one of his twelve Concerti a Cinque, published in Amsterdam in 1716 by Jeanne Roger. The fine work was so much appreciated by Bach that he adapted it for keyboard. It was for a long time wrongly attributed to Alessandro's brother, Benedetto Marcello, who was in fact a more prolific composer. The first movement is an andante called "spiccato," which points at a style of playing a bowed stringed instrument in which the bow bounces slightly off the strings - or in general, any music which is played in that manner. The adagio of the concerto seems to be popular at wedding ceremonies, and indeed the oboe sings in rather ecstatic tones. The final presto scurries along like a mass of excitedly babbling people.
Recording listened to: Bruce Haynes, baroque oboe, with the Orchestra of the 18th Century directed by Frans Bruggen on Pro Arte. Authentic instruments and playing style.
2. Jan Dismas Zelenka, Sonata V in F major for Two Oboes with Obbligato Bassoon and Basso Continuo, ZWV 181 [1715-16]
Zelenka (1679–1745) was the most important Czech baroque composer, admired for its harmonic inventiveness and counterpoint. He studied in Prague but spent most of life in Dresden, where he was employed in the court orchestra. Between 1715 and 1719 he was allowed to travel for study to Vienna and Venice. As musicians at the Dresden court were not allowed to have their music published, Zelenka was forgotten for 200 years - the modern rediscovery started in the 1950s, and now we tend to agree with the judgement of Bach and Telemann, who regarded Zelenka as one of the most important composers of their time. Instrumental music represents only a small part of Zelenka's output, as he mainly wrote large-scale sacred music. The present sonata for 2 oboes forms part of a group of six, which sets standards of overall high virtuosity. The sonatas are in Sonata di chiesa form, except the fifth one, which has three movements fast-slow-fast. In the fast movements, oboe and bassoon are employed in their most expressive and technical capabilities; the slow movement has a fittingly sweet melancholy.
Recording listened to: Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue, oboes, a.o., on Archiv (complete six trio sonatas for two oboes and obbligato bassoon)
3. Georg Philipp Telemann, Concerto in A major for Oboe d'Amore, Strings and Continuo TW 51:A2 [1717 or later]
The German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) is one of the most prolific composers in musical history. Much of his huge output is still little known and only slowly being rediscovered. It is of surprisingly high quality and great variety. Telemann managed to write in several styles and he always was at the forefront of new musical tendencies. From 1721 to the end of his life he settled down in Hamburg, where he was musical director of the city's five main churches. Telemann wrote about one hundred instrumental concertos, mostly for wind instruments. His concertos are usually in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. The oboe d'amore used in this concerto is somewhat larger than the normal oboe and possesses a warmer tone; it is so to speak the mezzo-soprano of the oboe family, between the oboe (soprano) and the cor anglais (alto). Telemann wrote three concertos for this instrument. The first slow movement of the concerto in A major is a beautiful pastoral siciliano, and the melancholic third movement a chaconne for solo instrument and basso continuo, framed by the tutti. In the finale Telemann presents an interesting set of strophic variations. The oboe d'amore fell out of fashion at the end of the 18th c., which is to be regretted as its tranquil and warm tone make it rather special.
Recording listened to: Heinz Holliger, Oboe d'amore, with Camerata Bern directed by Thomas Füri on Archiv Galleria (with oboe concertos by Graun and Krebs)
4. Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Oboe in A minor, RV 461 [1720s]
The great Baroque composer Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote more than 500 concertos; about 350 are for solo instrument and strings, of which again 230 for violin; the others are for cello and viola d'amore, or for wind instruments like the bassoon, oboe, flute, or recorder. About 40 concertos are double concertos for two instruments and 30 are for three or more instruments. Vivaldi wrote 15 concertos for the oboe, and RV 461 in A minor may well be the finest. It is a work on which Vivaldi seems to have lavished special care. The accompaniments to the solo sections are imaginatively conceived, employing a variety of scorings, and the thematic material of the solo sections is related in an effective way to that of the tutti sections. The concerto probably dates from the 1720s, Vivaldi's third and mature period, which was marked by high productivity.
Recording listened to: David Reichenberg, oboe, with The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock on Archiv (with 5 other Vivalidi concertos under the general title "Alla Rustica"). Authentic instruments and playing style.
5. Tomaso Albinoni, Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op. 9, No. 2 
Albinoni (1671-1751) was the first composer to publish oboe concertos: his Op. 7 of 1715 contains 8 concertos for single oboe, and 8 for two oboes. So he would have headed this list, were it not that I have selected one of his Opus 9 concertos, which were written in 1722. These later concertos are longer and more richly elaborated. Their greatest strength lies in the lyrical writing for the solo instrument. The adagio of op. 9, No. 2 is a long-breathed cantilena of the oboe set against an unchanging background of undulating violin semiquavers - infinitely more beautiful than the notorious and spurious "Adagio of Albinoni" (in reality composed by a 20th c. musicologist). About Albinoni's oboe concertos, see my previous post The Concertos of Tomaso Albinoni.
Recording listened to: Anthony Robson, oboe, with the Collegium Musicum 90 conducted by Simon Standage on Chandos (with other oboe concertos by Albinoni). Authentic instruments and playing style.
6. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Oboe Concerto in E Flat Major, Wq 165 
Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788) was the second son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He studied law at universities in Leipzig and Frankfurt and in 1740 he became Court Harpsichordist at the court in Berlin of Frederick the Great, a position he would fulfill for almost thirty years. He was one of the best keyboard players of his time. In 1768 CPE Bach succeeded Telemann as Cantor in Hamburg, a position he would enjoy for the last twenty years of his life. CPE Bach was in the first place a keyboard virtuoso and his two oboe concertos were originally written as harpsichord concertos, before he reworked them for the oboe. The fast movements waver between the Late-Baroque and the Pre-Classical period. The first movement of the concerto in E flat major possesses an energetic rhythm that evokes the French style. The slow movement is the musical center of gravity - it is a grandiose funeral threnody. The last movement is characterized by CPE Bach's characteristic chromatic style.
Recording listened to: Ku Ebbinge, oboe, with The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra conducted by Ton Koopman on Erato (with oboe concerto in B flat major, sonata in G minor). Authentic instruments and playing style.
7. August Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in G major [1765-69]
The Austrian composer Dittersdorf (1739–1799) was born and educated in Vienna, where he also played as violinist in the orchestra of the Burgtheater. From 1765 to 1769 he worked for the Prince-Archbishop's court in Grosswardein in Hungary, as successor of Michael Haydn. After that, Dittersdorf became Kapellmeister in Johannisberg. But despite his faraway posts, he kept in contact with Vienna, where many of his larger works were premiered. Dittersdorf produced fifty operas, four oratorios, masses, more than a hundred symphonies, a variety of concertos and chamber music. Revered by church and aristocracy, the career of Dittersdorf in its heyday even overshadowed that of Haydn and Mozart, but at the end of his life he was already largely forgotten. That is difficult to understand when you hear his music now, he certainly must rank as one of the most important representatives of Viennese Classicism. Dittersdorf composed six oboe concertos (one of which is for oboe d'amore). The concerto in G major stands with both legs in the golden age of Viennese Classicism, an elegant work that deserves to be heard.
Recording listened to: Heinz Holliger, oboe, with Camerata Bern conducted by Thomas Füri on Archiv (with other concertos and symphonies by "the early Vienna School"). Also available on Hungaroton (complete oboe concertos by Dittersdorf).
8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Oboe Concerto in C major, K314 
This concerto is better known in its version for flute (in D), but the oboe version that was discovered in 1920 in the Salzburg Mozarteum is the original one. Mozart wrote the concerto for the North-Italian oboe virtuoso Giuseppe Ferlendis, but it was also frequently played by the superb Mannheim oboist Friedrich Ramm. (Mozart made the flute version as he had a commission from the Dutch flutist Ferdinand De Jean, and through time pressure only managed to write one original flute concerto.) Despite the warm response the concerto received in Mozart's day, the oboe score later sank into oblivion. The first movement has witty repartees as in an opera; the slow movement is a straightforward aria for the oboe against a lovely cantilena in the strings; and the finale is a cheerful rondo on a theme Mozart liked well enough to use again, for the aria "Welche wonne, welche Lust" from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The reason this concerto in the first place came down to us as a flute concerto is the above mentioned circumstance that in the Romantic period, oboe concertos were unfortunately "out." Mozart also wrote an oboe quartet (K 370).
Recording listened to: Michel Piguet, oboe, with The Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Christopher Hogwood on L'Oiseau-Lyre. Authentic instruments and playing style.
9. François Devienne, Oboe Sonata in C Op. 71 No. 3 
Born as the 14th child of a saddle maker, Devienne (1759 – 1803) was a French composer and professor for flute at the Paris Conservatory. He gained a European reputation as prodigious composer in various genres and for all manner of combinations. His music is characterized by classical grace and melodic originality. Devienne published 12 sonatas for oboe and basso continuo (Op. 70 and 71), probably in 1799. All works are in three movements. The oboe is dominant, the bass part has been relegated to a minor role. So compared with the duo sonatas of Mozart, formally these works are somewhat backward looking (but that is nothing strange - also Haydn's piano trios of the 1790s are "backward looking"). And the vivacity of the music makes everything good. The sonata in C Op. 71.3 starts with an allegro in sonata form; the second movement is an expressive aria; and the finale is a graceful sets of variations getting increasingly more virtuoso.
Recording listened to: Burkhard Glaetzner, oboe, with Christine Schornsheim, pianoforte, and Siegfried Pank, cello, on Brilliant Classics (with three more oboe sonatas by Devienne). Authentic instruments and playing style.
[Modern oboe - image Wikipedia]
10. Arnold Bax, Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet 
The English composer Arnold Bax (1883 – 1953) blended elements of romanticism and impressionism in his music, often with influences from Celtic or Irish literature and landscape. His scores are noted for their complexity and colorfulness. The Oboe Quintet was written just after Bax completed his First Symphony and is quintessential Bax in his Irish style. The mood of the rhapsodic first movement is predominantly dark. The slow movement is an atmospheric lento, starting with a long introduction in which the strings alone play a gorgeous tune. In the finale the composer brushes aside his somber mood and introduces a wild Irish dance, on a tune of Bax's own invention. The texture of the quartet is very rich, so it not surprising that it was later orchestrated by Sir John Barbirolli as a Concerto for Oboe.
Recording listened to: Sarah Francis, oboe, with the English String Quartet on Chandos (with oboe quartets by Holst, Jacob and Moeran)
11. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Idillo - Concertino in A major for Oboe and Small Orchestra 
With a German father and Italian mother, Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) grew up in two cultures, as symbolized by his name in which he combined those of both parents. He was born in Venice and is buried there, but he lived much of his life in Munich and Salzburg. In the first place active as opera composer, he was most popular in the years before the Great War. Wolf-Ferrari also wrote a number of lyrical orchestral works, among which concertos for oboe and for cor anglais. The oboe concerto is written in a warm, late-Romantic style, but the structure is neo-classical. The concerto is in four movements: the fast movements sparkle, while the adagio is the emotional center of the work. Unbelievable that such a delightful work can be forgotten...
Recording listened to: Andrea Tenaglia, oboe, with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma directed by Franceso La Vecchia on Naxos (with concertos for cor anglais and bassoon)
12. Alexander Voormolen, Concerto for Two Oboes and Orchestra 
The Dutch composer Alexander Voormolen (1895-1980) studied composition with Johan Wagenaar in Utrecht. In 1916 he went to Paris where he studied with Albert Roussel and also became acquainted with Ravel, who supported him. Voormolen was a Francophile and his music stands in the French rather than in the German tradition. Later on, Voormolen searched for a true Dutch musical style, as in his large piano work Tableaux des Pays-Bas and the Baron Hop Suites. From 1923 Voormolen settled in The Hague, where he became librarian of the Royal Conservatory. He also was music reviewer for an important Dutch newspaper. The present double concerto was written for the Dutch oboist Jaap Stotijn and his son Haakon, who premiered the work in 1935 in The Hague. The score is very virtuoso and full of spirit and also humor. There are hints at popular dance, while the concerto is broadly neo-classical. The slow movement is a beautiful arioso. The concerto was very popular in its time, and indeed, it is one of the best 20th c. oboe concertos I know.
Recording listened to: Pauline Oostenrijk and Hans Roerade, oboes, with the Residentie Orchestra The Hague conducted by Matthias Bamert on Chandos (with Voormolen's Baron Hop Suites 1& 2)
13. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings 
Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) was an English composer who worked in a great variety of genres, including film music - his interesting double name without a hyphen is of Welsh origin. Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music with Stanford and later Parry. Here he also befriended fellow-student Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams early on became interested in folk song, which he collected. As a central figure in British music he wrote 9 symphonies, several large oratorios, and concerts not only for the piano, but also for rarely used solo instruments as the tuba. His oboe concerto was written for soloist Léon Goossens in 1944. It is a typically English pastoral piece and is divided into three movements: a lightweight first movement, rondo pastorale, then a short minuet and musette, and a scherzo which is the longest and weightiest movement, although it ends on a wistful note. The entire concerto is suffused with a gentle melancholy.
Recording listened to: David Theodore, oboe, with The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson on Chandos (with 3rd symphony)
14. Richard Strauss, Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra in D major 
The late-Romantic German composer Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) was in the first place known for his operas, his songs and his tone poems. He was a subtle orchestrator, who wrote in an advanced harmonic style. His output of concertante works was also fairly extensive. The most famous of these are the two concertos for horn, a violin concerto, a burleske for piano and orchestra, a duet concertino for bassoon and clarinet, and an oboe concerto. The Oboe Concerto in D was written towards the end of Strauss' life, during a period often called "his Indian summer" - he was over 80 years old when he wrote it! The oboe concerto is a neo-classical work with clear thematic analogies to 18th c. music - although typical Straussian harmonies are not absent. The concerto is in four movements and full if wit. Among the ruins of WWII, Mozart and Viennese Classicism must have appeared like a bright light in the surrounding darkness.
Recording listened to: Martin Gabriel, Oboe, with the Wiener Philharmoniker, directed by Andre Previn, on Deutsche Grammophon
15. Alan Rawsthorne, Concerto for Oboe and Strings 
Rawsthorne (1905 - 1971) graduated from The Royal Manchester College of Music, and after first working as a pianist, from the 1930s he followed a career as freelance composer. Rawsthorne possesses a highly distinctive musical voice. He wrote an impressive number of symphonic works, nine concertos, and a large body of chamber music. His oboe concerto was dedicated to Evelyn Rothwell, the wife of Sir John Barbirolli. The first movement, with its slow and majestic opening, is modeled on the style of the French overture from the Baroque period. There is an animated middle section, before the opening is restated in a plaintive way. The middle movement is an allegretto, with a sad but tender tone - an introspective piece of music. The last movement is a vivace that with figures based on the jig and the tarantella dances towards its close.
Recording listened to: Stephane Rancourt, oboe, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos (with cello concerto and Symphonic Studies)
16. Francis Poulenc, Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Op. 185 
The French composer Poulenc (1899 – 1963) was a member of the group Les Six (with Honegger, Milhaud and others). His music, which covers all genres and is always tonal, can be mischievous and witty, but also serenely mystical. At the end of his life Poulenc wrote three sonatas for wind instruments. The sonata for oboe and piano dates from 1962 and is dedicated to the memory of Sergei Prokofiev. It is a sad and lonely work, a sort of valediction. The three movements are called Elégie, Scherzo and Déploration, a slow-fast-slow scheme. In the last movement, to express his mournful feelings, Poulenc uses the extremes of the oboe. It was also the last piece Poulenc wrote before his death early the next year. The sonata was performed posthumously in 1963, with Pierre Pierlot as oboist.
Recording listened to: Maurice Bourgue, oboe, and Pascal Roge, piano, on Decca (with the sonatas for flute and clarinet as well as the trio and sextet)
Written with information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen