Friday, August 25, 2017

Oboe Concertos

No. 256 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


The oboe (and its larger relative, the cor anglais - literally translates from French as English Horn) produces a beautiful, sweet, haunting sound. When used as solo instruments the sound is sometimes described as a 'pastoral' sound. This is because it descended from the type of reed instruments that have been used in folk music and by shepherds the world over for thousands of years. Modern oboes blend superbly with all instruments of the orchestra and can also be surprisingly agile. Oboes have been used in orchestras for about 400 years and are among the most established instruments of the orchestra.

The standard oboe has several siblings of various sizes and playing ranges. The adorementioned cor anglais, the oboe d'amore, the “ mezzo-soprano” member of the family. J.S. Bach made extensive use of the oboe and oboe d'amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia.

I can’t find backing data, but I would hazard to say that of all the instruments that are featured as solo instruments, the oboe must be the most popular wind solo instrument in concerto repertoire, with more concerti than the flute, clarinet or trumpet. It was logical, given Italy's - and, indeed, Venice's - pioneering role in the development of the Concerto, that sooner or later the first concerti with parts for oboes would be written. The big question was how, if at all, Should, they differ in style and form from violin concerti?

For Vivaldi, as for most Italian composers, the problem was easily resolved. In his hands the oboe becomes a kind of ersatz violin. To be sure, he takes care not to exceed the normal compass of the instrument, remembers to insert pauses for breathing and avoids over-abrupt changes of register, but the solo part still seems remarkably violinistic - as Vivaldi himself tacitly acknowledged when, on more than one occasion, he prescribed the violin as an alternative to the oboe.

It was left to Vivaldi's important Venetian contemporary, Tomaso Albinoni, to find another way of treating the oboe in a concerto. Apart from being a capable Violinist, Albinoni was a singing teacher married to an operatic diva. His experience of writing operas and cantatas decisively affected the way in which he approached melody and instrumentation. His concerti equate the oboe not with a violin but with the human voice in an aria.

Domenico Cimarosa is mainly known for his scintillating operas, which are generally of a comic nature. His orchestral writing shimmers with transparent harmonies and lively rhythms. But in the year 1787, he took up the post of composer in residence to Catherine II of Russia. At the time, Russia's coffers were not overly plentiful, and the amount of money the Empress was willing to spend on opera dwindled with each season. Cimarosa took to composing instrumental music to pass the time. Among his instrumental works composed in Russia are a group of thirty-two keyboard sonatas after the style of Domenico Scarlatti. In 1949, Arthur Benjamin took four of his favorite keyboard sonatas of Cimarosa and combined them into the larger concerto form. He rewrote the pieces, scoring them for oboe and string orchestra, keeping most of the melody in the solo voice.

Two other opera composers complete our montage of oboe concerti - Vincenzo Bellini's only surviving concerto was most likely composed his in 1823 and constitutes an important part of his limited instrumental output.

American oboist John de Lancie was a corporal in the U.S. Army unit which secured the area round the Bavarian town of Garmisch where Richard Strauss was living in April 1945, following World War II. As principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Orchestra in civilian life, he knew Strauss's orchestral writing for oboe thoroughly, visited the composer in his home, and in the course of a long conversation asked him if he had ever considered writing an oboe concerto. Strauss answered simply "No", and the topic was dropped.

However, in the months to follow, the idea grew on him and he completed the short score of his Oboe in the Fall of 1945. The work was premiered on 26 February 1946 in Zürich. Strauss saw to it that the rights to the U.S. premiere were assigned to de Lancie, who after the war had switched to the Philadelphia Orchestra and was only a junior member there. Protocol made de Lancie's performing the premiere impossible since the Philadelphia Orchestra's principal oboist had priority. De Lancie instead gave the rights to the U.S. premiere to a young oboist friend at the CBS Symphony Orchestra in New York, Mitch Miller, who later became famous as a music producer and host of a sing-along TV show.

John de Lancie later became the principal oboist for the Philadelphia Orchestra for 30 years but it was only after his retirement that he finally performed the concerto.

I think you will love this music too.

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