What Is an Oboe Quartet?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

An oboe quartet is a musical ensemble featuring the oboe, a double-reed wind instrument. The group always contains four players. Oboe quartet compositions, like other early instrumental orchestrations, were intended as intimate chamber music for entertainment purposes, but modern players usually perform them formally on the stage or in a recording studio.

An early version of the oboe was developed in France, particularly in the court of King Louis XIV.
An early version of the oboe was developed in France, particularly in the court of King Louis XIV.

In an oboe quartet, the most common orchestration includes the oboe, the primary soloist, and three supporting string players. Typically, the string players perform on the violin, viola and cello. This allows coverage of the soprano or upper treble pitches in the violin, the alto or middle and lower treble pitches in the alto, tenor and bass pitches in the cello. However, depending on the range necessary for each part, a second violin player occasionally may replace the viola player. Composers may use other instruments aside from strings to fill the supporting parts, but doing so creates an additional challenge of trying to preserve a cohesive, well-blended sound without distracting from the soloist.

People did not truly begin to write oboe quartets until the baroque period, which spans roughly from 1650 to 1750. Prior to this period, the primary double-reed instrument was the shawm, which used an endcap over the reed and which was so loud it was played only out-of-doors. Instrument makers modified the shawm, removing the endcap, allowing the player to put his lips directly on the reed for a quieter sound suitable for indoor playing. This early version of the oboe developed primarily in France, particularly in the court of King Louis XIV.

The oboe quickly became a widely-played instrument all over Europe after its development in France. The Italians in particular moved the instrument from the court into the everyday chamber music setting. As the Italians and musicians from other nations put their own spin on the oboe and its technique, composers demanded more of the instrument and made it more virtuosic. This allowed small groups to support the instrument to show it off for the first time, and thus the oboe quartet was born.

Although multiple composers have written oboe quartets, perhaps the most significant example from both the baroque and classical periods is the Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Oboists regard this piece for its delicate, singing and playful style, but also for the intricate weaving of all players' parts. More contemporary composers such as Benjamin Britten also have approached oboe quartet composition, experimenting further in technique, harmony and overall imagery. Compared to other orchestrations, however, the oboe quartet still remains a less common compositional choice.

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