Double Reed Instruments
The oboe, English horn, and bassoon are used almost exclusively in orchestras, chamber ensembles, and concert bands. Unfortunately, they have not had significant crossover into popular milieus (unless they appear in an orchestra that plays pop music).
It's very difficult to even make a sound on a double reed instrument, and beginners must practice hard to develop their embouchure, or mouth position. However, for students who work diligently, the payoff is great because double reed instruments all have hauntingly beautiful tone qualities and their contribution to the orchestra is immeasurable.
The oboe and the English horn (often called a cor anglais) are very similar instruments. In fact, the English horn is nothing more than a tenor oboe pitched in F. The oboe itself is pitched in C. In orchestral settings, the oboe is often used to invoke majesty, sophistication, and elegance. The oboe may also be used to convey darker emotions, but as the composer Hector Berlioz warned, it cannot convey anger or threat very well.
Double reeds are made from Arundo donax cane that is carefully folded then bound together with wire. Some instrumentalists purchase premade reeds. However, most professionals use a variety of tools to make their own reeds.
Breathing and Range on the Oboe and English Horn
When writing for any wind instrument, you must remember that musicians must have regularly spaced rests so that they may breathe. However, oboists and English horn players have a greater ability to play longer lines without a break since they exhale less air per note. Why? Their embouchure is so tight that only a small amount of air is released when they play. The result is that longer, uninterrupted phrases may be created.
When compared to other woodwind instruments, the range for the oboe and English horn is somewhat limited. The range for the oboe is notated in Figure 17-10 and the range for the English horn is illustrated in Figure 17-11.
Like the oboe, the bassoon is conical. Two versions of the instrument, both pitched to C, are in use today. The first is the German or “Heckel” system. The second is the French or “Buffet” system. The difference between them lies in the keywork and the bore specifications (i.e., the instrument's hole). The former is more common among today's bassoonists.
The bassoon's range is larger than you might expect. For example, the modern Heckel-style bassoon spans some five octaves. In the right hands, the Buffet-style can reach even higher notes. Despite its vast compass, composers traditionally view the bassoon as a baritone registered instrument. As such, the bassoon typically plays in octave ranges below the oboe and cor anglais in orchestral contexts. The range of the bassoon is illustrated in Figure 17-12.
FIGURE 17-10: Range of the oboe
FIGURE 17-11: Written range of the English horn
FIGURE 17-12: Range of the bassoon
The bassoon has often been used to evoke humorous or silly emotions in music. However, this instrument is capable of producing a whole assortment of emotions. For example, the fluttertongue technique used on many wind instruments (including flutes, trumpets, and trombones) is particularly alarming and menacing on a bassoon. More and more, composers are expanding the role of the bassoon as a solo instrument, a member of the double reed family, and as a color within the orchestra.