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.


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.

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.

All photos and original items property of the author.