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The Sprightly Companion

This week on Harmonia, we explore what Playford describes as an honorable and courageous instrument: the oboe.

Baroque oboe

Up close and personal with the baroque oboe.

“Musick will give our hardest Labours Ease;
The Hautboy charms in War, the Flute in Pease.
Where Love or Honour calls, these Sounds inspire;
This charms with Love, That Courage sets on fire.”

This hour on Harmonia, we explore what Playford describes as an honorable and courageous instrument: the oboe. Then, stay tuned for our featured release Confluence: the merging musical style of Central Europe and Venice, performed by Ensemble Collina.


We heard “Love sounds th’ alarm” from Handel’s Acis and Galatea, performed by the Dunedin Consort and Players, directed by John Butt.


French Fashion

The baroque oboe that you hear in period performances of Bach and Rameau today remained largely unchanged from its development under Louis XIV in the late 17th century until the rise of the Classical oboe in the mid-18th century. Sometimes called the hautboy, it is an elegant double-reed instrument, with a wide conical bore, six finger holes (including two-twin holes) and two keys. The beautiful turnings on the instrument have lead some to say it looks like a pawn or bishop from a particularly elegant chess set.

Let’s hear two dances by André Danican Philidor, a man known for both his musical and his chess skills.

Dances by André Danican Philidor, performed by the London Oboe Band, with Paul Goodwin directing.

Alongside the Philidor family, the Hotteterre family is credited for having made major contributions to the development of the baroque oboe. Though known primarily as a flute maker, Jacques-Martin Hotteterre also had a hand in creating the oboe. He worked as a composer and instrument maker in the court of Louis XIV of France, and his intimate works have been championed by recorder players, flutists, oboists, and violinists. Here is Hotteterre’s Prelude in D Major from “L’Art de préluder,” performed here on traverso, viola da gamba, and theorbo.

Les Ordinaires performed Hotteterre’s Prelude in D from “L’Art de préluder,” on their 2018 release Inner Chambers: Royal Court Music of Louis XIV.

Thanks to its early popularity with the French aristocracy, the oboe grew to become wildly popular throughout western Europe. Although Louis XIV may not have conquered all of Europe, the new woodwind instruments that were first heard at his court certainly did! Within 20 years of the baroque oboe’s debut, the new oboe could also be heard in Munich, Hanover, and Hamburg. Let’s hear an aria composed by oboist Agostino Steffani.

That was an aria by Agostino Steffani. We heard Ensemble Barocco Sans Souci, from their 2009 release Del sonar pitoresco.


Not much Inferiour to the Trumpet”

At the turn of the 18th century, the trumpet held pride of place among wind instruments in Europe. 18th century trumpet players were kind of the rock stars of their day. They were highly paid professionals, protected by their powerful guilds, whose instrument was inextricably linked with royalty in the public’s imagination.

Here is Heinrich Biber’s Sonata a 7 in C Major, featuring the Barocktrumpeten Ensemble Berlin.

Biber’s Sonata a 7 in C Major performed by the Barocktrumpeten Ensemble Berlin.

Considering the important place that the trumpet held in musical society, it is significant that the author of the 1695 oboe method The Sprightly Companion defends the oboe, writing, in the flowery language of that time, “For besides its Inimitable charming Sweetness of Sound (when well play’d upon) it is also Magestical and Stately, and not much Inferiour to the Trumpet; and for that reason, the greatest Heroes of the age (who sometimes despise Strung-Instruments) are infinitely pleased with This [the oboe] for its brave and Sprightly Tone.”

Here are some oboes sounding first brave, then sprightly, and finally, sweet, in the opening section of the Sonata in G Minor by German composer and organist Johann Michael Müller.

Lingua Franca performing the Sonata in G Minor by Johann Michael Müller. That was from their 2010 recording Lustige Feld-Music.


Handel’s Hautboy

One of the first baroque pieces that many oboe students encounter nowadays is the Sonata No. 1 in C minor from Handel’s set of Op. 8 sonatas. The piece was written for an apparently sprightly oboe player with the apt name, Galliard, who played at the Queen’s Theatre in London. Here is the first movement from Handel’s sonata No. 1 in C minor.

The famous Largo from Handel’s oboe sonata no. 1 in C Minor. We heard Koji Ezaki, oboe and Kazuto Ito, harpsichord.

Handel also uses the oboe in his opus 3 Concerti Grossi. When performed by historically-informed ensembles today, audiences often have the opportunity to hear the type of rich ornamentation that was all the rage when this music was first performed. The Largo from Handel’s well-loved Concerto Grossi no. 2 from this collection opens with conversing cellos. The oboe soars above, with an aria-like solo for most of the movement. Here are the Largo and Allegro from Handel’s Concerti Grossi opus 3, number 2.

We heard the Largo and Allegro from Handel’s Concerto Grossi, opus 3, number 2. That was the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Richard Egarr, featuring oboist Frank de Bruine.

But the oboe shines most brightly in Handel’s operas. In “Consider, fond shepherd,” from Acis and Galatea, the oboe first introduces the character Damon and later converses with him.

That was “Consider, fond shepherd,” featuring tenor Thomas Hobbs and oboist Alexandra Bellamy. John Butt leading the Dunedin Consort & Players in the 1718 version of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.


Confluence: The Merging Styles of Central Europe and Venice

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Venice’s wealthy families poured money into supporting the arts, enabling the creation of a patchwork of rich musical traditions throughout western and central Europe. On our featured recording, Confluence: The Merging Styles of Central Europe and Venice, Ensemble Collina explores music of the early baroque period.

We heard music by the Polish composer Adam Jarz?bski.

Ensemble Collina is made up mostly of faculty members from the University of North Carolina, including string players Lea Peroutka and Brent Wissick, sackbut player Michael Kris, and keyboardist Elaine Funaro. The genesis for this recording emerged from a 2013 research trip to Europe by trombonist Michael Kris. This recording includes some rarely heard pieces by Andreas Oswald, who worked in Eisenach as well as Weimar, where Bach later worked. Let’s hear a Sonata à 3 in E Minor by Andreas Oswald.

We heard a Sonata à 3 in E Minor by Andreas Oswald from our featured release, Confluence, by Ensemble Collina.


Break and theme music

:30, Lustige Feld-Music, Lingua Franca, Ricercar 2010, Tr. 2 Suite in A Minor: II. Entrée

:60, Lully & Philidor: Ballet and Theater Music for Oboe Band, London Oboe Band, harmonia mundi 1994, Tr. 12 Air des Ivrognes, from Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos

:30, Confluence: the merging musical styles of central Europe and Venice, Ensemble Collina, Acis 2017, Tr. 7 Sonata à 2

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Sarah Huebsch.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at http://www.harmoniaearlymusic.org.

Music Heard On This Episode

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Sarah Huebsch

Sarah Huebsch , DM, performs on period oboes throughout North America. Sarah holds degrees from the New England Conservatory and Indiana University. She started writing for Harmonia in May 2016.

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