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Oboe d'Amore soloist JENNIFER PAULL
meanders through the maze of musical instrument names


I wonder how many months are invested in the marketing and advertising campaigns of some of today's most successful consumer products? Imagine the global marketing of a new, stunning Parfum Pathétique, complete with Gala Parisian soirée launch, a celebrity's face in association with the product's every glossy advertisement, and prime TV spots aiming at the Winter Solstice Marketing Scherzo Furioso. Would all this take as long to conceive and plan, capture and compose, as the Symphony of the same name? Most probably it would take much longer.

In other words, images and names are very, very important. Even if the ophecleide had not died out from lack of repertoire, it would most certainly have shuddered towards a vibration-less halt with such a name today. An instrument with a label sounding like a Glaswegian Frequent Ferry Service doesn't have much in the way of romantic imagery and seduction.( I should perhaps explain to any puzzled non-British reader, that Glasgow is situated on the River Clyde!)

The heckelphone conjures up Houses of Parliament (anywhere!), or Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park W1 (London). I don't think I need elaborate with a video clip of parallel images for the 'sackbut' in the contemporary mutation of today's world!

Some musical marketing jobs were brilliant from the off. Flutes, whether of Pan, of alto or bass or whichever affiliation, variety and persuasion, were still called a 'flute'. That sounds like what it is. It's almost an onomatopoeic word. Piccolo only means 'little' in Italian and so nobody could take offence there or mistake what they were talking about -- after all, the size does speak for itself. The Italian adjective stuck so fast to the instrument that British Leyland had to invent the Mini car.

When it came to the clarinet family, one must admit that the basset horn does sound a trifle canine, but as with flutes and saxophones, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone or bass always flowed on in logical order. Of course, naming the piccolo clarinet in Eb did lack invention, a fault of which one cannot accuse the marketer of the micro-wave oven (not its original name). Having two varieties of the same instrument for different keys and calling them in Bb and in A was inevitable after the Eb set the tone -- as it were, for simple DNA (to go with simple reed).

Everybody did a better job than the double reeds. Their names are a marketing executive's worst nightmare. Those of us who play these wonderful instruments often bemoan the fact that there are so few of us so doing. I think that's hardly surprising. Today, in virtually every educated country, people are still not certain what an oboe is or whether it is that 'long thing like a chimney with a squiggley bit leading to the mouth'.

The hautbois or 'highwood' as the direct translation would have it, came to us through its stages of hautboy, dropping the 'h' and altering vowels to oboe. 'Why', one asks one's self? I suppose there is little point hoping to read that the 'Band of Highwoods played sweet music as the King and Queen feasted upon plates of pig, and cow.' That will forever remain in Norman French which was, after all, the official language of the English court for nigh on 200 years. What a great marketing job Guillaume le Conquérant did. Whilst making sure we called him 'William the Conqueror', he did make a stake (most common at the time) for the naming of 'pork' and 'beef' (and much else) remaining in his native tongue (no pun intended).

Now the plot thickens. Oboes in all shapes and sizes upon all the continents of the earth have strange and wondrous names. This uniqueness of name is not only present in our western culture. However, I shall not digress via the ugab and the shawm, tempted as I might be. I did cover that ground with a hovercraft's glimpse in a recent article.

In the good old days of Louis XlV ( back in France again), the oboe was 'where it was at' (to somewhat mix my linguistic inspiration). Lully conducted the Bande des Hautbois and the whole lot of them played XS, S, M, and L oboes. Nothing so simple for the oboes as piccolo, soprano, alto, tenor or bass. We started out the way we have continued -- often moody, and somewhat obscure as musicians, slaves to the reed knife and the Weather Channel. However, when put to the test, we can melt the ice cube from within with our tone colours!

Later, Marie-Antoniette used to enjoy playing shepherdess games in the Petit Trianon at Versailles. With her ladies-in-waiting and a few shampooed sheep (wood ash mixed with white of egg), she would brave the weather and lead her flock in a small, comfortable circle, before retreating to sip a glass of restoring wine after the excursion (the inspiration for après-ski, no doubt). The two musette players braving all elements, and playing sweet ditties in major thirds behind a tulip tree in the rain, often required more in the way of repair (musicians and instruments).

There isn't an exact date upon which we can pounce for the abandoning of the bag and the exclusive keeping of the chanter. The double reed went into the mouth instead of a beast's stomach, in stages. To make matters worse, 'musette' was also given to the bagpipe musette de cour, amongst others. Also a form of a dance, quite how 'musette' became the name for the piccolo oboe (sans bag) is uncertain. The love for the bergerie and all things pseudo-rustic obviously swayed the naming of the orphan. After all, at the death of Watteau in 1721, this fashion was only at its beginning.

The soprano oboe itself was not considered to be the main instrument of the family in those days. Our orchestral tradition has done unjustifiable 'pruning' over the centuries, as the various forms of oboe life suffered the fate of the dodo. I am delighted to say that variety is the spice of the oboe family again. This has certainly been my own life's vision as I fought for a repertoire for the oboe d'amore and later the other rare oboes in today's world.

The Oboe d'Amore Collection Volume 1. Copyright (c) Amoris International

The oboe d'amore became the most viable of the longer oboes due to its beautiful, distinctive tone colour. Before this alto, or more correctly, counter-tenor oboe, there had been the oboe grande or luongo (Italian names), and the grand hautbois (French name). Everyone likes to mention the name not in his own language. Bach and some of his contemporaries welcomed the oboe grande as a convenience in certain keys in which the treble oboe was woefully out of tune. In other words, the Bb/A idea was not new at all to the clarinet. These variations on the mezzo-soprano or alto oboes were also in Bb and A; the convenient crossroads from sharp to flat keys. The oboe d'amore settled in A.

Again, can we be certain why there is this title 'of love' ? The popular belief is that it is due to the more sensual and sweeter tone of the instrument that bears this title. The British shudder at such a name and promptly put it into Italian; oboe pronounced 'obo-ay' being Italian in this case too. The French call it the hautbois d'amour which sounds like 'oboe of love' would to us. The Americans call it the oboe d'amour making yet another half English/half French hybrid in our name garden. However, there are points of view that maintain that it is entirely due to the rounded bell that the title d'amore is bestowed. In that case, I wonder where the viola d'amore fits in ? Very few bells to be found on these rare instruments even if there are many strings vibrating in sympathy. For those interested in a most informative web site about all matters d'amore, I recommend a visit to the web site of Thomas Georgi, the viola d'amore soloist. He even has information on the chalumeau d'amore!

Progressing to the tenor oboe, we strike the English horn, cor anglais, or what it really was, the cor anglé (bent horn) in F. Obviously due to this misspelling, the instrument which was not a horn but had followed on from the oboi da caccia and the hunting horn virus, became stuck with a nationality that was totally inappropriate. Calling it a 'bent horn' today wouldn't be politically correct either. If only it were called the 'tenor oboe' !

The bass oboe is called the baryton in France, but is at least, more or less what it says it is; logic at last! It is in C, sounding one octave lower than the soprano oboe. There is an 18th century contrabasse oboe in the museum at the Paris Conservatoire). Long may it stay there! After all,there is a point at which it is polite to pass matters along to the bassoon.

The word bassoon comes to us from French again, meaning 'lowsound'. Of course, the Italians got it right with their fagotto as indeed the bassoon does look like a bundle of sticks. The same name is used for both the German and French system-ed instruments by everyone except the French who refer to their German system playing rivals as fagottistes and their sadly diminishing number of French bassoon playing colleagues as bassonistes.

There did exist an entire family of these beautiful instruments in bygone times. There was an octave bassoon or soprano bassoon in C which was known as the fagottino. There followed a quint bassoon or alto bassoon in G, and a quart bassoon or tenor bassoon in F which was known as the tenoroon and was used during the 18th century. The baritone bassoon extended between the bassoon and the contra, and there is even a subcontra bassoon one octave lower than the contra bassoon in exceptionally rare captivity, possibly with a lamp shade.

The composer Hector Berlioz is quoted as having said 'It is a pity that there are only bassoons and contra bassoons left in modern orchestras -- the tenor bassoon has a timbre which should also be present.'

He was right, maybe some names should be changed to protect the innocent...?

Copyright © 13 September 2001 Jennifer Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland






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