In a concert, it is always the first instrument to raise its voice: the oboe, with its long, nasal tone, plays a concert A to give the other instruments a last opportunity to “fine tune” before the conductor steps up to the desk. “It is completely pointless because no one is listening. A somewhat outdated custom, but it is part of tradition,” says Albrecht Mayer, principal oboe with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Apart from this, the oboe, which was named instrument of the year by the Landesmusikrat in Schleswig-Holstein and Berlin, fulfils important tasks in symphonic music: “It brings light to the orchestra and lends an unforced, intimate mood. It is an ambassador of simplicity,” explains principal oboe Jonathan Kelly.
The oboe owes this image not least to its “simple” origins. As a descendant of the shawm, a shepherd’s instrument, it evokes pastoral, lyrical, tender moods: “Candour, artless grace, soft joy, or the grief of a fragile being, suits the oboe’s accents; it expresses them admirably in its cantabile,” as Hector Berlioz wrote in his Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration. Added to this are its mischievous, bucolic, and sometimes even knockabout sides. The deeper sounding cor anglais contributes to mainly elegiac, melancholy and sad moments. In short, the oboe – something the orchestra’s oboist Andreas Wittmann and cor anglais player Dominik Wollenweber agree on – is an instrument whose sound touches the soul, moves you and comes closest to the human voice. And their colleague, Christoph Hartmann, adds: “The oboe shapes the winds. We lie in the middle of the spectrum and as such, influence the character of the sound of the complete section.”
Capricious, fickle and skittish
The orchestra’s oboe players know about the strengths of their instrument – and about its weaknesses: compared to other instruments, the oboe’ range is relatively small and has limited dynamics. Furthermore, it is very temperature and weather-sensitive, which is immediately reflected in the responsiveness of the mouthpiece. A capricious, fickle and skittish being that can suddenly and stubbornly refuse to do what it should. But it is exactly this mouthpiece with its delicate double-reed blade which allows the musician to play with little air and thus have enough breath for those long extended phrases that are so typical of the instrument and that endear themselves to the soul of the listener.
The oboe became fashionable in France in the second half of the 17th century as an “hautbois” (high wood). Its direct, lively sound made it suitable for opera performances and for chamber, church and open air music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, composer at the court of Louis XIV, used the high wind instruments to enhance the violin line of his string ensembles – an unprecedented innovation at a time when ensembles of only one instrument family were standard. In doing so, Lully laid the foundations for the development of the modern orchestra with its various instrumental sound colours. During the Baroque, the oboe and its special forms such as the oboe d’amore and the oboe da caccia were among the most popular solo instruments for which the composers wrote numerous sonatas and concertos, as well as expressive solo parts in vocal works. “The roots of our oboe sound ideal lie in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I love to play his cantatas and oratorios,” says Jonathan Kelly enthusiastically. Since the late 18th century, on the other hand, the oboe has become increasingly important in the wind section of the orchestra. While the wind instruments doubled the violin line in the Baroque period, the oboes developed an independent profile from the time of the First Viennese School: with long drawn-out sounds, they supported the harmony and then again and again were given radiant solo melodies.
Wonderful, spun-out melodies
Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Ravel – they all knew how to use the oboe to great effect. Cor anglais player Dominik Wollenweber especially loves his solo in Marguerite’s aria of the at the beginning of the fourth act of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust. “This is not only beautiful music, but also dramatically, it has a central role in this long piece.” Albrecht Meyer is more intrigued by the unknown, by works that he has not played before: “After 38 years as an orchestral musician this doesn’t often happen, but it is what I look forward to most.” Hand-in-hand with the musical development, there were also changes to its construction from the Baroque onwards which improved the security of intonation, evenness of sound and playability of this tapered double-reed aerophonic instrument. At the end of the nineteenth century, the model which is still common in the orchestra today was introduced in France. Asking what qualities a good oboist needs to have – apart from musicality, intelligence, and diligence – the oboists of the Philharmoniker unanimously reply: patience, a certain stoicism regarding the instrument’s quirks and, most importantly of all, the skill to be able to make the tricky double-reed mouthpiece.