The Oboe: a word, when mentioned, rarely conjures up a clear image or any definitions. A few vaguely picture something akin to a clarinet, whereas others may not even associate the term with an instrument. Those who do correlate “oboe” to a small, narrow woodwind, often wince while recalling habitually painful memories of a shrill timbre, fragile double reed, and tedious tuning rituals. When researched, results are liable to yield a vast array of articles and lists deterring all musicians from uptaking the oboe, stressing the high level of difficulty, and unique sound commonly equated to a musical (or unmusical) duck. In a word, the oboe is unusual; an outlier amongst instruments and musicians. However, despite this obscurity, the instrument has emerged from ancient roots, crude likenesses speculated to have been used in approximately 2800 BC at royal funerals. The first accredited version and one bearing a more recognizable appearance arose some 9 centuries ago in the form of a “shawm,” which evolved into the mid-17 century French “hautbois.” This simplistic variant – nicknamed “hoboy” in England – retained only two keys and was used as the predominant melody in marching bands, until it was replaced by what immintly became a lifelong adversary– the clarinet. However, despite being outstripped continuously in popularity, no instrument can surpass the oboe’s eccentric tone, a tone that cuts through orchestras and, when mastered, can emit what is described as a “haunting, penetrating sound.” This mournful, vaguely nostalgic tint has enabled the oboe to play an integral role in the music world, and bravely persevere through its anomaly. In an orchestra, oboists are placed at the heart of the ensemble, generally next to flutes, and are responsible for tuning all instruments to an “A” prior to a concert. The most sentimental fragments of a piece are then bequeathed to the typically small group of oboists, of whom penetrating, if nasally, sound can provide a poignant effect. Thus, when featured in solos, the oboe is prone to forge an impression within a listeners memory, even affecting those unaware of what apparatus may be emitting that hallmark “haunting” melody. As a popular soundtrack in films, the instrument can also enhance emotional scenes, effectively extracting tears from an unsuspecting audience. For example, in the film The Mission, there is a particularly memorable scene where the protagonist, Father Gabriel, attempts to bid for his life using (of course,) his trusty oboe. His melody echoes throughout his vast forest surrounding, naturally captivating the Guerini community, who moments before were preparing to kill him, and allowing the oboe to hereafter be deemed a “hero.” This theme, aptly dubbed “Gabriel’s Oboe,” has inspired many to uptake the oboe, including me. As a new player, I have found the instrument to yield both utter anxiety but also – to make all worth it – even greater gratification.
Written by Clara Chalmers