What Are Baroque Oboes?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Baroque oboes are double reed instruments that were the predecessors of the modern oboe. They were played originally between roughly 1650 and 1750. Prior to the baroque period, the primary double-reed instrument was the shawm. This instrument, which was so loud it was played only out of doors, was the ancestor of the baroque oboe. It differed from the baroque oboe in that it was not divided into joints, had a pirouette or place upon which the player could rest his lip and possessed a wind cap over the reed. The elimination of these three elements made the baroque oboe a quieter instrument that could be played indoors with other musicians.

Handel favored the Baroque oboe.
Handel favored the Baroque oboe.

Baroque oboes originated in France in the mid 17th century, where they were used primarily as court instruments. These instruments spread rapidly through Europe over the next several decades. Each country put their own spin on oboe technique and making, with the Italians completely redefining the baroque oboe by the early 18th century to make it more of a virtuosic instrument.

Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.
Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.

Several major differences separate the baroque oboe from its modern counterpart. The first of these differences is the keywork, or lack thereof. There are only three keys on a baroque oboe. This makes baroque oboes look more like modified recorders. The modern oboe, by contrast, has a very complex "full conservatory" system that almost completely covers the top two joints.

Another difference between the baroque oboe and the modern oboe is the size of the bore, or the internal chamber of the oboe through which wind passes as the player performs. Bores in baroque oboes are wider than those in their modern counterparts. This is part of why baroque oboes have a characteristically different sound than their modern counterparts. The bore width also means that the pitch of a baroque oboe can be up to a half tone lower than the pitch of a modern oboe.

In any oboe, the size of the reed is proportionate to the size of the bore. In order to accommodate the larger bore in the baroque oboes, baroque oboe reeds thus are shorter and wider than those used on modern oboes. They are made similarly to modern reeds, however.

A final difference between modern oboes and baroque oboes is the wood from which the instruments are made. Traditionally, baroque oboes were made from boxwood. Modern oboes, by contrast, usually are made from grenadilla wood. The differences in density between these woods has an additional impact on the sound of the instruments.

Overall, baroque oboes sound warmer and more slightly diffused or cupped than modern oboes. This allows them to blend well with other popular baroque instruments such as viols and members of the violin family. The sound is still loud, however, with musicians, composers and members of the baroque public often describing the baroque oboe as the trumpet of the woodwind family.

The baroque oboe was a favorite instrument of multiple baroque composers, perhaps most notably George Frederic Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Other composers who wrote for the instrument were Antonio Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni and Arcangelo Corelli. The most notable baroque oboist was arguably Giuseppe Sammartini, sometimes called "Handel's oboist" due to the fact Sammartini played so many of Handel's works featuring the instrument.

Oboists sometimes choose to specialize in baroque playing. These oboists are familiar with the modern oboe, but play the baroque oboe in an effort to preserve the authenticity of baroque oboe music. The players frequently release recordings of baroque oboe solos, but they also perform in baroque festivals and similar events with other instrumentalists such as violinists, flautists and harpsichordists.

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