An oboe is a soprano-range double reeded woodwind instrument similar to, but longer than, the single reed clarinet and has a cone-shaped bore rather than the cylinder of the clarinet. It is considered a difficult instrument to play well; players also have to painstakingly fashion their reeds.
The oboe family, which, apart from the oboe itself and bassoon, are transposing instruments include:
- The oboe, in D, with a range of 2 octaves and a sixth. It has a distinctively penetrating tone that makes it more suitable for solo passages than ensemble playing although it is found in most works for wind quintet and larger. Most orchestras contain 2 or 3 oboes.
- The Cor Anglais (or English horn) in F is the tenor of the family, tuned a fifth below the oboe. It is the expressively emotional one, not used frequently enough to have its own player, so is entrusted to the second or third oboe in an orchestra.
- The Bassoon plays the baritone parts. It is an honorary member of the family as there is no true oboe to play its role. Its relationship in sound is much as the cello’s is to the violin, but is heard far less frequently.
- The Contrabassoon, tuned an octave below the bassoon is the true bass of the family, such as the stringed double bass is to the violin clan..
Other members of the family abound but are not normally included in the modern symphony orchestra. They include the “Heckelphone" (named after its inventor) with a pitch between the cor anglais and the bassoon but having a different type of sound; the “E flat Oboe” pitched the same as the clarinet and now rare; and the “Tenoroon”, a sort of mini-bassoon . The Oboe d'amore, and the long defunct “Oboe da caccia” (literally, “oboe of the chase”), whilst not members of modern orchestras, are stalwarts of the “authentic instrument” orchestras – J. S. Bach made extensive use of these instruments, so much so that many of his cantatas are immediately recognisable by their wonderful and distinctive timbre.
The family has a long and notable history. An instrument that may be a type of oboe is depicted in a 2nd-century Roman wall in Scotland. By the 16th century there were enough common members of the family to form their own consort. Their names however bore no relationship to the modern instruments (“Sharms”, “Schalmeys”, "Pommers”, “Bombards” “Curtalls” and “Double Curtalls”; the last two corresponding to the bassoon and contra-bassoon.)
Oboes and bassoons were frequent soloists in the 18th century. Handel wrote notable oboe concerti, as did Vivaldi and Albinoni. Mozart wrote concertos for both oboe and bassoon and it is from this time that the modern instruments stem. The wind ensemble, be it the classical wind quintet or the village band, could not exist without members of the family. The use of the oboe as the featured instrument in both chamber works (e.g. sonatas) or concertos into this century. Its unique expressiveness was used to full effect by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his “Ten Blake Songs” for tenor and oboe. Vaughan Williams also wrote a masterful oboe concerto, as did Richard Strauss. And even in orchestral works not written specifically as solo showcases, there are countless prominent oboe solos which are always highlights of the work; a venerable tradition experienced in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (first movement), Brahms's violin concerto (second movement), and Samuel Barber's violin concerto (also the second movement).