Instruments | Oboe | Early Baroque | Classical
The oboe was developed in the mid-seventeenth century and the credit is usually given to Jean Hotteterre (c. 1605–90/2), a shawm player at the court of Louis XIV. Its immediate predecessor was the shawm and the oboe took over the French name for smaller shawms, hautbois or ‘loud woodwind instrument’.
The distribution of the finger holes and the bore was changed, the instrument was shortened and it was made in three jointed pieces, rather than one. This last alteration allowed for a subtler tapering and greater precision in construction. The reed was mounted on a staple clear of the body of the instrument, without the shawm’s pirouette, to be held directly in the mouth. Like the flute, the oboe acquired an extra chromatic key.
The modifications created a new instrument – one capable of a more refined and controllable sound and able to participate in mixed ensembles. In addition, it possessed the full chromatic compass that the shawm lacked. As a result, where the shawm had tended to be played out of doors, the oboe moved indoors and into the developing Baroque orchestra. It was quickly accepted as a standard instrument, being written for by Vivaldi, Handel and Telemann, and acting as soloist in some Baroque concerti grossi. Purcell wrote the oboe into all his larger works after 1690.
The Baroque Oboe
The Baroque oboe was first built with two hinged levers called ‘keys’. These stopped the holes at the lower end of the instrument (the D-sharp and the low C) mechanically, rather than directly by the fourth and fifth fingers. Interestingly, the low C key was made in the shape of a fish tail, in such a way that the instrumentalist could play with the hands in either position, suggesting that the modern practice of left above right had not yet become fixed. To ensure it could be played by either left- or right-handed people, it carried alternative extra keys, one on each side of the instrument. The alto variant of the oboe, known as the oboe d’amore, was also popular in the Baroque era. J. S. Bach used it in more than 60 of his works.
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