THE NAME OF THE GAME
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
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
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 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 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
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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