Re-thinking the Oboe: Developing an Instrument for the 21st Century

Monday 14th January to Thursday 28th March 2013

For three years an exciting and painstaking process of instrumental design and development unfolded at the Royal Academy of Music. Players, composers and makers spurred each other on to ever more imaginative efforts. The result is an oboe that reaches an incredible high C with comparative ease, with increased ability to play several notes at one time, and more playable fingerings for complex contemporary music including new microtonal options. All of these improvements have been implemented without compromising the instrument’s distinctive character and tone colour, creating an oboe for the 21st century.

This exhibition took a long view at the creative process of instrument development, tracing the oboe’s history from origins to its present reincarnation. The displays juxtaposed early original instruments alongside ground-breaking new ideas. Exhibition visitors learned about the arrival of the ‘hautboy’ in England around 1700 and saw a beautiful Baroque oboe by London maker Thomas Stanesby. The display followed various changes in both the instrument’s physical form and the technique used to play it over the following centuries, and showcased French instruments owned by the Italian virtuoso Antonino Pasculli.

At the heart of the exhibition was the process of creating a new oboe, documenting the various stages of its development. In 2009, enabled by a grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), renowned oboist and Academy Research Fellow Christopher Redgate began working with distinguished oboe makers Howarth of London. He has also collaborated extensively with a number of eminent composers, including Richard Barrett, Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, Sam Hayden, Dorothy Ker and Edwin Roxburgh, to create works for the new instrument. Visitors to the exhibition had a unique opportunity to see the new oboe, hear recordings of both historic and present-day oboe repertoire, see sketches from the design phase of the new oboe, as well as images of it in action.

An events programme also ran alongside the exhibition, with concerts and discussions, featuring the new oboe in performance.