Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Oboes and Oboists


A beautifully made musical instrument can give you the magical feeling that it is playing itself. On the contrary, my first oboe, loaned by my high school, was plastic and absolutely worthless. Although I was privileged to take lessons from Harvey McGuire, longtime English horn player in the Cleveland Orchestra, I was not happy with my progress. 

At college, after a couple of stints with a reproduction Baroque oboe and later an unusual oboe d’amore, an alto oboe pitched in A, they finally located a regular oboe for me to play.

A serious player might have been dismayed. An obsolete ring system oboe, it was full of cracks and did not have all the modern keys. But it was an early Lorée, a standard of quality among oboes, and its thin wood and light keys felt perfect in my hands.

Playing it was a revelation—all problems ceased to exist. The low notes, almost impossible on the plastic instrument, sounded easily. A morendo (the tone fading away to nothing) was previously crude and uneven, and I blamed it on poor breath control. But on the Lorée, the note spun out effortlessly.  


**News Flash** I just received an email from the Lorée company, stating that this special oboe was made in 1882, presumably under the supervision of François Lorée himself, as he started the company in 1881. Although a real antique, it was a regular ring-key Conservatoire system with a low Bb. Perhaps this history might account for its singularly enchanted quality.

After college, I started searching for an oboe to replace my beloved Lorée. I collected the following five oboes, three of which are Lorées, but none of them seemed to warrant putting into good playing condition.



The top oboe in the photo is a Lorée from the 1920’s. It might have promise, but unfortunately, it has an undesirable automatic octave system. Semi-automatic octave keys are the only good type.

The next one is also a Lorée, this one from the 1960’s, but somehow its magic quotient is low.

The middle oboe is marked Getzen, usually an American maker of brass  instruments. This oboe was in fact made in France and only labeled for Getzen. It is not a bad instrument, but is no substitute for a Lorée.

This Getzen tends to be watery, meaning that condensation from playing sometimes climbs the bore and gets into the keywork, creating a  gurgling sound. The temporary solution is to insert a piece of absorbent cigarette paper. This was difficult to buy, since people assumed it was for illicit purposes. When I found a brand without glue (Reynolds OCB), I bought two cartons, enough for several lifetimes, and gave one case to the dignified Mr. McGuire. He thanked me, adding that it was embarrassing for him to have to ask for the incriminating cigarette papers.

The fourth example in the photograph is an antique oboe by Lorée, and the fifth and last example is a similar instrument by Barnett Samuel. These might be o.k. if put in playing order, but the keywork is not what is known as Conservatoire system, and so these two will remain simply as curiosities.

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Early photographs of oboists are fascinating to collect. These are more difficult to locate than photos of players on, say, the violin or cornet (another instrument I love), but as always patience is rewarded.


This distinguished photo is British, but the oboe seems more Continental. With its heavy turnings and wide ivory rings, it appears to have been old-fashioned even at the time of the photograph.

This young man seems at ease with life and with his choice of instrument—let’s face it, he chose wisely.

This gentleman from Reading, Pennsylvania is playing a Boehm-system oboe made by Buffet, Crampon, a rather daring and avant-garde oboe for its day.

An unusual photograph of a female oboist. One wonders how you can "breathe from the diaphragm" while wearing a corset. This photo is marked for Nice, France, but another photo of the same woman was taken by a photographer in Brighton, England.

An oboe collector’s card that came in a packet of chocolate.

This trade card is too cartoonish to tell much. Since it is French, perhaps it is intended to depict a musette, a small, pastoral version of the oboe.

This oboist is perhaps a soldier from World War I.

This man was versatile enough to play both the oboe and the violin. Good luck reading that signature.

This is Charles Nutick, oboist with the Cincinnati Symphony in the 1920’s. The instrument on his lap is a slightly odd English horn. With its light wood and spherical bell, I thought it might perhaps be a tenor Heckelphone, but I wrote to the Heckel company, and they said that it was not their product.

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Many oboists made fine recordings during the LP era. These include John Mack (whom I also heard in person), Neil Black, Pierre Pierlot, Jacques Chambon, Alfred Hertel, and Heinz Holliger. Some of the legendary earlier oboists who also recorded are Marcel Tabuteau, Leon Goossens, Evelyn Rothwell, and Mitchell Miller, who later achieved fame as “Sing Along with Mitch.”

All of these oboists can now be found on Youtube, along with a host of younger talent, but I would like to point out two special recordings that you should not miss. The first is Neil Black playing my favorite version of the Mozart Oboe Concerto.

Rosemary from Where Five Valleys Meet highly recommended Nicholas Daniel, a world-class oboist. I was particularly impressed by his distinctive version of the Mozart Oboe Quartet.



Many people take up a musical instrument at some point. Please let me know what instruments you have learned to play, and whether you had the luck of finding the exact instrument that was perfectly suited to you.




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All photos and original items property of the author.

31 comments:

  1. Dearest Jim,
    What a delightful post about Oboes and Oboists.
    LOVE your Mozart Flute Concerto, Oboe Concerto - Neville Marriner Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields. Probably because they played when Pieter was in London at the 1980 MGA Conference: https://mariettesbacktobasics.blogspot.com/2019/03/1980-mga-conference-reception-in-royal.html
    Our friend's son is playing the bassoon and it is different but comes close. Very few people playing these instruments.
    Pieter played several but never the oboe, nor bassoon.
    Hope you manage to stay well, sending you our best regards.
    Mariette & Pieter

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    1. Hello Mariette and Pieter, The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is a fine orchestra, and I have many of their recordings conducted by Neville Marriner. The bassoon is also a great instrument. I have played on bassoons and a contra-bassoon by Heckel, another of those magic names in wind instruments. The same record that included the Neil Black concerto also included Mozart's Bassoon Concerto, which you can probably find on Youtube.

      I never mentioned it because I didn't want the article to get too long, but historically, Dutch oboes have been important and fine instruments, and are extremely beautiful. My college possessed a high quality 17th-century oboe by Dutch maker Richard Haka.

      Of course I remember Pieter's accordion playing--that is a crowd-pleasing instrument, and Pieter showed a real flair for playing! --Jim

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    2. A perfect ending of Pieter's birthday for reading this... 🎶💕

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    3. Happy Birthday, Pieter! I love reading about your life and adventures, and hope you have many more years of pleasant adventures ahead of you! --Jim

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  2. I played the guitar at a young age!However, the teacher told my MOTHER she was wasting her money as I did not practice enough!I was not too terribly disappointed as I recall!
    I was at the ballet school five days a week so not much extra time!

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    1. Hello Contessa, Sometimes music lessons started too early or at the wrong time do not "stick." I took piano lessons for a brief time in elementary school, but gave them up. Still, I think the guitar would be a fun instrument. I never learned any strings, only wind and brass. It looks like the ballet lessons were your creative outlet. --Jim

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  3. OKAY JIM you have to tell your readers they cannot COMMENT on SAFARI and now it has to be CHROME which is a GOOGLE DO-DA!
    IF this is BLOGGER that is the PROBLEM...............
    I follow a few other BLOGS and someone finally FOUND OUT what was happening!

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    1. Hello again, I am glad that you found a solution--I hope it keeps on working! I usually use Firefox for blogs and it seems pretty good, but occasionally there will be an individual blog that causes trouble.

      The Blogger notifications are still a real mystery. I posted a test version of this on my experimental blog, and my email was notified of the new posting, but I didn't receive notification of the real version--no one seems to! --Jim

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  4. I love the sound of all woodwinds, including the beautiful oboe! You sound like a very accomplished musician and I envy you. The only instrument I ever learned to play was the recorder. We received 3 months worth of instruction on it in junior high school because we happened to have a teacher who could instruct us. That's how I learned to read music (barely) and how to play. Plastic recorders sound awful, of course, so it was wonderful to move up to a wooden one. I've played recorders made of various woods over the years, but my favourite is rosewood. It produces the best sound, I think.

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    1. Hello Debra, I too like the colorful sounds of wind and brass instruments. I never was an experienced or talented musician, but a good instrument makes all the difference. It is a pity that beginning musicians are given poor instruments that cause most of them to simply give up.

      The recorder is another great instrument, with a venerable history. Your rosewood one sounds beautiful, and a joy to play. Plastic instruments are terrible if they are made to be cheap, but if they are carefully made, they can be surprisingly good. --Jim

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  5. Hi,

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    It is said, “Everyone has something to teach us”.

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    ReplyDelete
  6. Sadly I cannot play any instrument myself, but of all the instruments in the orchestra, the woodwinds sound the most haunted. Clarinets, oboes and bassoons create a wonderful sound, much more so than the piccolo and flute.

    Best of all the oboe and clarinet together create a full, mellow sound.

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    1. Hello Hels, Playing instruments is not for everyone, and obviously you have managed to keep yourself busy! Woodwinds do have a wonderful sound, and I love concertos, but as you point out amazing effects are achieved when composers know how to blend these timbres.

      Perhaps you should reconsider the flute and piccolo. The golden age of the cornet also produced many phenomenal flute and piccolo soloists, and I used to collect their records. Marshall P. Lufsky was a prime example of virtuosity c.1900, and mid-century there were serious orchestral flutists such as Julius Baker. --Jim

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  7. I've learnt a lot about oboes today. I would never have thought that so many variations existed. And now I know about Loree.

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    1. Hello Loree, You are privileged to share a name with some of the world's best oboes. The ones I talked about barely scratched the surface of this subject. There is continuous progress in oboe design, and modern oboists would not even touch any of the ones I have illustrated. I am willing to give up those extra keys and features, but of course I am not playing in an orchestra with modern music that requires those features. --Jim

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  8. Hello Jim - I was pleased to learn that you had checked out our friend Nicholas Daniel and I will now make a point of listening to the Mozart piece of his that you recommended.
    I was wondering whether you have any of your oboes with you in Taiwan? and if so, do you still play them?
    I think that one of the great joys of being able to play an instrument is when you can be part of an orchestra and make wonderful music together.

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    1. Hello Rosemary, Nicholas Daniel is internationally recognized, and I admire his great tone, style, and individuality in addition to an incredible playing technique. I can't understand why I did not discover him before.

      Unfortunately, the oboe is not an instrument that you can play just occasionally. The muscles that control the reed have to be in peak condition, and it is incredibly painful to start playing again after a long interval. I have an alto horn in Taiwan, a nice older Conn one, but it is too loud to practice in an apartment. --Jim

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  9. Very enjoyable post Jim! To remind myself of the sound of an oboe, I made a search on Spotify and am currently listening to Albinoni's D Minor Oboe Concert while I write this. Mozart next!.
    For many years before I was married I played classical guitar and just about got up to concert level. However, it's not the kind of thing one can make progress on a part-time level. I bought a Suzuki guitar from tutor which I still own.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s immediately insipid Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

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    1. Hello Bazza, I was thinking of you when I wrote this piece, because there is a 20th century composer named Eugène Bozza who wrote a number of solo pieces for oboe and other double reeds. (You can find many performances if you search Youtube for Bozza and oboe or bassoon.)

      You are correct that to play professionally takes both time and talent, but I used to enjoy playing an instrument just to relax for a bit in the evening. --Jim

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  10. Great. You have preserved the long history of oboe. Last year I bought a bamboo fruit. I tried 10 more fruits to get the best one for me. Though bamboo fruits are mostly made by machine nowadays, it is not easy to produce same ones by using natural material.
    May your oboe sounds spread under the blue sky. 注意別感染病毒。

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    1. Hello rtc, Bamboo flutes, even though they seem simple, vary greatly because of the nature of the bamboo of which they are made, and the skill of the maker. You are correct that the best method for obtaining any instrument is to try many examples until you find the one that best suits you.

      You stay safe, too. --Jim

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  11. Interesting post. Your blog is very cool :)!
    I am following you and invite you to me
    https://milentry-blog.blogspot.com

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    1. Hello Milentry, Thanks for your visit. --Jim

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  12. I stop by your blog on a regular basis hoping to see you posting again. My eyes widened at the delight of finding this! I hope you keep it regular.
    One of my high school friends plays the oboe; she is a modest one about it but I think she's one of the top oboe players in the nation. Through her I get to experience a lot of lovely woodwind pieces and news. I wish I could play the oboe.

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    1. Hello Ur-Spo, Well, I have at least a couple more posts in the works. Sometimes I have to write for permissions or information, and that is a losing battle these days!

      There's no reason you can't start playing the oboe. Like all instruments, it is easy to to play a little, and very difficult to play expertly. I think the oboe is easier than many to begin with. It is small and easy to handle, doesn't squeak like the clarinet, and doesn't make me dizzy as does the flute. If you do come across an oboe, get your friend to check it out its quality for you! --Jim

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  13. awesome article guys
    have a nice day :)

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    1. Hello Azka Kamil, Thank you for the compliment and greeting. --Jim

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  14. a kind of historical instruments article.....I get knew knowledge.
    thank you for sharing

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    1. Hello Tanza Erlambang, Thank you for stopping by. I am glad you enjoyed the article. --Jim

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  15. Only air guitar, I'm afraid.

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    1. Hello Kirk, Well, at least with air guitars, it is easy to afford the best! --Jim

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