Saturday, June 30

Oboe Innovations – Appearance and Sound

You know the old joke?

A conductor is in love with two women; one is ravishingly beautiful but hates music, the other is a wonderful coloratura that looks like a blowfish. Being a deeply artistic musician, he decides to marry the soprano. But on the morning after the wedding, he wakes up to see his new bride “in the light of day”. In a fit of panic, he shakes her violently saying : “For God’s sake, SING!


It is very easy to say that what matters in an instrument is the sound, not the way it looks. In fact, for generations, nearly all oboes essentially looked like high-school band instruments! In a picture, an oboe by any maker could be passed off as any other maker.

NOTE: this post does not intend to compare the quality or merit of instrument brands. My purpose here is to show some of the more noteworthy innovations in the art and science of making oboes and how the manufacturers are aiming to recapture sound and qualities that might have been lost with standardization and industrialization.

pavillonVertical violinBoardGague pavillonMystereSeul
[1] Dupin Imperial [2] violin [3] past Fossati
orlowskiBellsCropped oboeDamoreBells
[4] Th. Orlowski (oboe) [5] Gebr. Mönning (d’Amore)

I can understand that the very complex keywork requires an even body to facilitate the mechanism, but how very bland compared to instruments from the classical or baroque eras. Even the Viennese oboe has retained a sense of woodwork. But this blog post intends to explore the opposite possibility: manufacturers who are passionate about giving their instrument a true personality might very much want to reflect that in the appearance as well as the sound.

Besides, it is very likely that the measurements of the wood in different parts of the instrument might well influence the sound: that is why great violins are not made of plywood! So “decorating” the instrument with different looking crowns or bells must certainly affect the sound.

Heinz Holliger, naturally, was my first oboe hero and he remains my standard for ornamenting Handel and dynamic expression. But when I heard Louise Pèllerin (Marigaux) my jaw dropped and my sense of sound aesthetic changed forever. Although Pèllerin remains a benchmark for me, Albrecht Mayer keeps turning my head when I hear him. At first, it was on the radio and I thought he played baroque oboe with a mediocre sound…. when I learned he played modern instruments, this was a revolution!

oboeAlbrechtMayer_largerludwigFrankRedaltuglassVerticalFOSSATI Oboe Soliste 20th Annivrosewood20anVerticalimperialInCaseVertical
Top: Marigaux M2
Left to right: Gebr. Mönning Platinum (Albr. Mayer),
Ludwig Frank, Marigaux 2001 Altuglass,
Fossati 20th An. Soliste, Josef 2th An., Dupin Impérial.

A.Mayer: Mön. Plat.
Google-searching Mayer is how I discovered the work of Ludwig Frank (here Pointing up) and how his instruments look different, inside and outside. At the insistence of Albrecht Mayer, Ludwig Frank developed a conical bell for his Oboe d’Amore and English Horn (branded as Mönning Platinum).

Gregor Witt: L. Frank
Although actual Ludwig Frank oboes already had a unique looking “traditional German” bell, similar to those made by Thomas Orlowski (tan and brown bells above Pointing up) Mayer also influenced the Mönning Platinum oboe that is more French in design, but still looks and sounds most distinctly. Although Mayer made the Gebrüder Mönning (here Pointing up) Platinum better known around the world, I have heard excellent oboists playing the real Ludwig Frank with a really special sound: “full-body velvet”! That is, as warm and smooth as one can imagine, yet capable of every dynamic and articulation: a real work of art!

François Leleux: M2
Marigaux is probably the instrument played most by international soloists and orchestras of all levels in Europe. has gained much attention with their “Altuglass” oboe (here Pointing up), and more recently with their M2 (here Pointing up) instrument has a particular design: the top joint has only the octave keys and the middle joint has all the finger keys! You typically buy a wooden head joint and a synthetic one to prevent cracks due to weather. The head joints also come in 3 lengths to help tuning for different orchestras.

J-L Fillon: 2001 Altuglass
The Altuglass need not fear cracking as it is fully synthetic: but the sound remains easily as beautiful as any wood instrument, ebony, rosewood or cocobolo. The M2 is becoming a favourite of soloists in Europe: the sound leaves no question as to why!

Tomoharu Yoshida: Fossati
Fossati (here Pointing up) decided to give a fully contemporary look to their instruments by removing almost all decoration. They produced a German-looking bell for a short while on special request. This bell gave a darker richer tone. It also served as the basis for their newest Soliste 20th Anniversary line: although the bell looks very plain, it is supposed to exaggerate the warmth and fullness of the tone. Perhaps Fossati’s most noteworthy innovations are a the trill keys that use only one hole and the metal alloys they use on the keys. The single hole trills help prevent cracks whereas the metal alloy apparently resists wear and tear from sweat and rubbing much better than silver, chrome or gold.

Simon Emes: Josef
Japan is one surprize after another: you can find there a whole society devoted to the Viennese oboe, a soloist (Oboe, Ob. d’Amore and English Horn) who is a fervent expert on Dupin oboes (below) and a maker of innovative modern instrument with the vision of creating the perfect oboe with a Japanese personality. Josef (here Pointing up) is this instrument maker and one of the means to get a Japanese personality is to change the decoration of the crown and the bell. The one pictured here is only one of several very different looking models.

Christoph Hartman and Renato Bizotto, Dupin Imperial.
Did I save the best for last? A true innovator while at the same time conserving the age-honoured craft of making oboes completely by hand, Rolland Dupin (here Pointing up) and his son Christophe have a solid reputation for making the most dependable modern oboes. They also make baroque oboes, which might explain how they imagined the Imperial oboe which has not only a very stylised bell, but also a decorated head-joint: not quite Viennese, but similar to baroque.The Imperial (made famous by Christoph Hartman) is capable of a variety of tone colours from the clear and virtuosic to warm and expressive. Dupin oboes are highly prized in Northern-Europe and many other places around the world. My absolute favourite style of orchestral playing is Scandinavian: when any instrument plays a solo, you don’t need to guess – you hear the flute solo, clarinets freely sound their beauty and oboes don’t sound as if they were ashamed of their tone. The oboes have remarkable qualities, rustic yet sophisticated, bold yet sensitive: truly my favourite style of playing. Perhaps the preference for Dupin instruments there might have something to do with it.


Donna Bogan said...

It is amazing to read about all of these advances in technology! Thanks, Robin, for the updates!

Anonymous said...

Sir, I am looking for any information about Mr. Czesław Kaczyński. Do You have any photos of him? Do you know his address or address of his relatives? I am preparing a history of Polish pre-war jazz. Mr. Kaczyński, though a classical pianist, was interested in jazz too. I would be very grateful for helping me in my research. Sincerely - Jolanta Fajkowska

RobinDesHautbois said...

Dzien Dobri, Jolanta,
I suppose you had found

I will look to see if I have any pictures, but I don't think so. Can you send me an e-mail to RobinDesHautbois @ live . ca so I can send them to you, if I find any?

I can only share my stories of him. Just before retiring from Conservatoire de Montréal, the oboe class was supposed to give a class recital, but it was cancelled because no accompanist was available. He very graciously agreed to accompany us, even though this was completely out of his job description.

Anonymous said...

Dzień dobry, Robin, thank you so much for a response. I am surprised that there aren't any pictures of Mr. Kaczynski in Canadian sources. Jolanta

RobinDesHautbois said...

Dzien dobry again Jolanta,
please send me an e-mail (remove all spaces from "robin des hautbois @ gmail . com" - this prevents spam).
I can explain to you personally that the Conservatoire was never strong on pictures and why Maestro Kaczynski, in particular, was not honoured to his rightful degree.