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Aulos and tibia – ancient forerunners

Double-reed wind instruments have been used since antiquity; the earliest images depicting such instruments are from Mesopotamia from about 3,000 BC.

In the Greek and Roman civilizations double-reed instruments were the most highly regarded of all instruments. Playing the aulos or tibia was associated with high social standing and the musicians enjoyed great popularity and many privileges.

Portrayals of aulos players in Ancient Greece traditionally depict a musician blowing two instruments; this proves that the aulos was a double instrument. Different types of aulos were played on different occasions – as was the Roman tibia – for example on the battlefield, during the preparations for a banquet, at festivities and in the theater, where it accompanied the chorus.

The shawm – the minstrels’ instrument

It can no longer be ascertained for certain whether modern oboes are direct descendants of the Greek and Roman double-reed instruments or whether they were lost during the migration of peoples in Europe and returned there later by way of Byzantium and Asia.

In the Europe of the early middle ages, however, an instrument was in use that consisted of a single tube and was known as the calamus (calamus is the Latin word for reed). It is from this word that the English name shawm was derived (as was the German Schalmei and the French chalemie and chalumeau). The term shawm was not restricted to any one single instrument but described an instrument type which was played with a single or double reed.

The Renaissance shawm family included not only crumhorns, dolcians and bagpipes but also the bombarde or pommer groups, which are regarded as the direct precursors of modern double-reed instruments.

In keeping with Renaissance custom, the bombarde family consisted of instruments of every pitch, from the treble shawm (third octave above middle C) to the great bass shawm (contraoctave). The treble shawm was the oldest member of the bombarde family, and, like all bombardes, had a wind-cap which was taken into the mouth for blowing. The double-reed was inside this wind-cap and was not touched by the musician who consequently had no possibility of influencing the sound, which was relatively static.

Renaissance shawms were played mainly by itinerant minstrels, who did not specialize in any one instrument but could play several different ones.

From the shawm to the hautboy

During the 17th century the treble shawm evolved into the hoboy or hautboy (known in France as the hautbois), which was tuned to C. This early oboe no longer had a wind-cap and the musician’s lips made direct contact with the double-reed, which meant he was able to inject more life into the instrument’s sound. The tube, which was made of boxwood and on the shawm had been a single piece, now consisted of three parts, the upper and lower joints and the bell. In addition, three keys were added (although these were reduced to two a short time later). The bell was bordered by a contraction rim.

These innovations originated in France and were probably due in no small measure to the instrument-making families of Hotteterre (the name had been a byword for innovative instrument-making since the 16th century) and Philidor. Like all baroque woodwinds the hautboy’s timbre differed throughout its range because intermediate notes which were played with cross-fingerings sounded more veiled.

In the late 17th century the hautboy was accepted into the orchestra. Jean Baptiste Lully, court composer to the "Sun King" Louis XIV presumably used it in his ballet L’Amour Malade in 1657. Robert Cambert included the instrument in his opera Pomone in 1671. From that point on the hautboy flourished, its heyday lasting until the end of the 18th century. During this period up to thirty hautboy players were engaged in the grande écurie, the French court orchestra.


Oboe, Europe, Adi Schlinger, ca. 1730. Courtesy of Heinz Preiss (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Sammlung Streitwieser)

Starting from France the hautboy rapidly gained great popularity all over Europe. Unlike the flute there were no particular national styles or schools of oboe playing initially; the musicians passed the latest playing techniques and instruments around among themselves. The baroque hautboy was a special case inasmuch as it was the only instrument to be used in every context, from military to chamber music to the opera, the orchestra and sacred music.

In the orchestra hautboys were initially used mainly to double the violins, although they had asserted themselves by the Classical period and were performing functions of their own. In the opera orchestra they were given their first solo roles (obligatos) in arias. The instrument’s repertoire in chamber music originally consisted chiefly of pieces for consorts (two oboes, two tenor oboes [later replaced by horns] and two bassoons). At the beginning of the 18th century countless solo sonatas, suites with basso continuo, suites for trios (oboe, flute and violin) and concertos were produced. In the second half of the 18th century the oboe quartet (oboe with a string trio) emerged. At the same time the hautboy was gradually losing its place as the lead instrument in military ensembles to the clarinet.

In the 18th century the hautboy underwent continual improvements to its construction and sound. The bore was narrowed (from around an average of 5.9 mm to 4.8 mm), the reeds became narrower and shorter, the walls of the tube thinner and the tone holes smaller. A direct result of these measures was an increase in range: whereas the instrument’s range was given as C4 to D6 at the turn of the 18th century it increased during the next hundred years to G6. The sound of the new classical hautboy was narrower and more focused than that of its predecessors and its volume corresponded to that of the violin or the flute.

The most renowned oboe makers of the time were Christophe Delusse and the duo Thomas Lot and Charles Bizey in France, David Denner, Wilhelm Oberländer and Carl Golde in Germany and Thomas Stanesby and Caleb Gedney in England. In the second half of the 18th century the instruments made by Augustin Grenser and Jakob Grundmann in Dresden became accepted as standard all over Europe.

The 19th century – a mechanical revolution

In 1781 Grundmann added a third key to the oboe, and from that point on German instrument makers began adding more and more keys. The aim was to provide a tone hole which could be closed by a key for every half tone so that cross-fingerings would no longer be necessary. This trend was followed in France, albeit with some misgivings, since many musicians felt that the quality of the sound suffered from a surfeit of keys.

In around 1825 oboes with fifteen tone holes and ten keys were being made in both Germany and France. Despite this the instruments had a fundamental difference, since the differing sound esthetics governing oboe-making had led to the emergence of two distinct types which later became known as the “French” oboe and the “German” oboe.

In France the trend was toward narrower tubing, thinner walls and thinner reeds, whereas in Germany a wider bore was retained along with the characteristics of the classic oboe – thick-walled tubing, a contraction rim round the inside of the bell, the barrel (baluster) and rings on the upper joint with the simple mechanism featuring long-levered keys mounted on wooden blocks. Stephan Koch (1772–1828) and Joseph Sellner (1787–1843) developed an innovative version in 1820 in Vienna which combined features of both models: a classic appearance with a bore that was extremely narrow by the standards of the time.

Both the French oboe and the Viennese “Sellner-Koch oboe” had a bright sound and were distinctly audible in the orchestra, whereas the German oboe retained the darker timbre of the classical era which was more conducive to tonal blending.

In France, inventive instrument makers provided the oboe with a constant stream of technical innovations, among them the speaker key (which made overblowing unnecessary), a mechanism that made a complex interaction of levers and keys possible (introduced by the Triébert family), Theobald Boehm’s ring key (operating a key by means of a ring on a rod; at the same time another tone hole is closed) and Auguste Buffet’s pin springs.

Theobald Boehm (1794–1881), a trained goldsmith and flutist, developed a revolutionary keywork for the transverse flute which was received with great enthusiasm in France. Some parts of this system were subsequently adapted for use on the other woodwind instruments, although a radically altered Boehm oboe failed to gain acceptance on account of its novel sound (as did a Boehm bassoon).

Modern oboes

From the 1860s onward the instrument maker Frédéric Triébert (1813–1878) developed oboes together with the oboist Apollon M. R. Barret (ca. 1804–1879) which are direct antecedents of today’s instruments. Triébert’s système 6 with its extremely narrow bore and speaker key was patented in 1872. Ten years later the oboe professor Georges Gillet pronounced it the official model at the Conservatoire de Paris. After the Second World War this conservatoire model, modified only slightly, became the international standard.

The Viennese oboe played in Austria today is a development on a model made in the 1840s by the instrument maker Carl Golde (1803–1873) in Dresden. Its body still has the classic form, with the flared bell, the barrel (baluster) on the upper joint and the widening at the tenon joints. The tubing is shorter and more conical than that of the French oboe. The keywork, which follows the pattern of the German mechanism, was improved and extended during the 20th century.

Although the oboe was used almost exclusively in the orchestra in the 19th century, 20th century composers rediscovered the instrument’s potential as a solo instrument. This was due in no small measure to the outstanding oboists Leon Goossens (1897–1988), who established a number of techniques which facilitated playing (diaphragm breathing, relaxed embouchure) and Heinz Holliger (born 1939), who has propagated countless new playing techniques.