The oboe we use in today’s modern orchestras and ensembles is the result of a 350
year development of the more primitive Renaissance shawm.
Shawms, (Double reed instruments) were brought to Europe during the Crusades of the
middle ages. They were played alongside trumpets, and drums by the Saracen armies
as they marched into battle against the Crusaders in sound and volume not unlike
Scottish bagpipe bands!
Shawms are still used throughout the middle and Far East little if at all altered
from these times. They come in many differing sizes and volumes. Today, we mainly
associate them with outdoor activity such as supplying music for festive occasions
including weddings etc., but many were designed for more intimate settings including
music for theatres and temples.
When the western shawm was developed, it was a more controlled and refined version
of the instruments seen by the Crusaders. They could be used indoors or out depending
on the circumstances and by the mid 13th century the shawm (French – chalmei, from
the Latin ‘calmus’ meaning reed) was widespread throughout Europe. A consort of differing
sizes was developed enabling the Western shawm to be played in family groups or alongside
During the 17th century and particularly under the influence of Lully, the chief
composer/conductor to Louis XIVth (the Sun King) at the Court of Versailles, the
orchestra was developed and refined along with many of its instruments.
The shawm was considered too inflexible in volume and technique and so a group of
player/makers at the court including the Philidor and Hotteterre families, together
developed several new instruments including the flute, oboe and bassoon.
By the 1660’s the hautbois (‘high wood’wind instrument as opposed to the bassoon
‘bass sound’) as the instrument was called, was in its prototype form and by 1700
had reached its final Baroque form. It had considerably improved performance over
the shawm and was praised for its ‘inimitable charming sweetness – (as) Majestical
and Stately, and not much inferiour to the Trumpet – (and) with a good reed ….as
easie and soft as the flute’ .
It proved extremely popular and spread rapidly throughout Europe as an outdoor military
instrument played in oboe-bands and as an orchestral and chamber instrument.
Although France is credited with designing the oboe and teaching the first generation
of players, it was the Italians who became the most competent and virtuosic technicians
of the instrument. Many of their leading players came to England where they were
highly praised by the music establishment. They went on to re-design the oboe into
the ‘classical oboe’ (a much finer and more delicate sounding instrument as used
by Haydn and Mozart) and from this point onwards it was the Germans who began to
dominate the world of oboe playing.
In the 19th century the French firm, Triebert took the classical oboe and further
developed it. They made it even narrower and added more keys to its body. By 1900
they had come up with a key-system that has not been superseded even today and may
These instruments however, are far removed in terms of playing style, sound and appearance
from their Baroque ancestors, and in order to capture and experience something of
the past, we, like many others, have taken on the task of learning and performing
on exact copies of Baroque instruments in order to capture some of the excitement
and flavour of those times.