Today, the oboe is recognised as a member of the woodwind family in the modern symphony orchestra. Its roots, however, go very far back into the past where it can be traced to shawms of the 13th century.
A number of scholars have traced the oboe to several points of origin rather than one founding maker or invented. The instrument as we know it today began to take shape in the 16th century. One person credited with the development of the oboe was Jean Hotteterre who narrowed the bore of the instrument and reduced the width of the reed. The instrument was also split into the 3 sections and keys were added to increase the chromatic abilities of the instrument. Compared to the oboe you see pictured above this text, oboes of the 16th century often featured just two or three keys and it was not until relatively late in its development that oboe manufacturers turned to African black woods such as grenadilla to make the instruments. Oboe were often made of boxwood prior to this.
The classical period so further development of the instrument. More keys were added during this time and the bore of the wood was narrowed again. It was in the late 19th century, however, that a significant step was taken towards what we now recognise as the modern oboe. The Parisian family of Triebert are credited by most sources as driving innovations in oboe building forward. They adopted the Bohm key system as found in Flute making and made more adjustments to the size of the bore once more. By this point in its development the oboe had at least 10 keys.
The key work system that has been in use across the world since the late 1800s is now standard across almost all oboes. Student oboes tend to have just the most basic keys while more complex oboes are available for advanced students and professional players. These oboes feature a number of extra trill keys required for more advanced repertoire.
It is worth noting that it is only in the UK and Iceland that most players use what is called the ‘thumb plate’ system. Elsewhere ‘conservatoire’ oboes are used. More advanced oboes purchased with thumb plates often have the ability to play with conservatoire fingering as well.
In recent years a number of attempts to further develop the oboe have been made, most recently by the English oboist Christopher Redgate, who has developed the ’21st Century Oboe’ (see http://www.21stcenturyoboe.com for more information).
Finally, it is worth knowing that the oboe has a number of related instruments. It is often grouped with the Bassoon as a ‘double reed’ instrument because of its reed featuring a piece of cane being folded in half, thus making a double reed (compared to single reeds found in clarinets and saxophones). It does, however, have a number of direct relations. The most important of these is the Cor Anglais. Sounding a fifth lower than the oboe, you will often find this instrument next to the oboes in the symphony orchestra. The Oboe D’Amore is another significant oboe relation. This instrument is found more prominently in Baroque music and sounds a third lower than the oboe.
For further information on the history of the oboe, please visit the ‘Recommended Reading’ page to see relevant books that can give you far more detailed information on the subject. There are also a few more internet based resources available below:
For more information about the Cor Anglais, a visit to Geoffrey Browne’s website is highly recommended:
Please note the article above is merely a concise general history of the instrument. There are a number of fantastic books that explain in great depth the origins of the oboe. Information here is only to serve as a broad background knowledge of where the oboe has come from and how it has developed.