Exploring the forgotten last generation of the simple system oboe in France
My practice-led research at the Academy focuses on the oboe in France under Berlioz. As a historical oboist performing in Europe, North America and Australia for the past twenty years, I have observed a widening gap between supply and demand. With the HP movement pushing its frontier inexorably forward into the nineteenth century, historical oboists are increasingly being called upon to perform Romantic repertoire, despite an extreme paucity of historically-accurate instruments. Being repeatedly confronted with this paradox has galvanised my commitment to formally interrogating these issues in a structured framework.
While the evolution of the oboe and its repertoire in nineteenth-century France have been studied to varying degrees, and while a large corpus of treatises aimed at amateurs was published during the period, no research to date has taken a practice-led approach to investigating the specialised performance techniques required to make the nineteenth-century French oboe practicable in high-level professional settings. My motivation for undertaking this research project has therefore been pragmatic, a means of documenting the solutions I have found in my own practice to keep abreast of rapidly changing fashions in the field.
Through engaging with an original model by Guillaume Adler (Paris, c.1835), this study examines how the instrument’s performance capabilities respond to the needs of current-day HP in a professional context. By exploring this specimen’s innate properties and the resulting two-way, reflexive relationship between player and instrument, my aim has been to acquire embodied knowledge of the oboe in France between 1800 and 1850, in turn leaving a practical record of my findings for peers to mine according to their needs. Structured as a case study, this dissertation examines source materials (including reeds, treatises and repertoire) to analyse the instrument’s inherent attributes. Personal narratives are interjected throughout, recounting my own empirical experience with the Adler oboe, and are underpinned with a selection of recordings. Two additional ethnological components shed light on the paradox: the first, a series of live interviews with leading historical oboists, explores the practical ways in which performers navigate the gap, while the second, a formal survey of builders, aims to better understand why the oboe is the only woodwind instrument for which nineteenth-century replicas remain commercially unavailable.
Header Image Credit: Georges Berenfeld