The Principal Oboe is the only member of the orchestra who plays a solo at every concert in which he or she appears, for it is this player - who in terms of tuning is in charge of the orchestra's quality control department - who is required to deliver the piercing 'A' at the beginning of each concert against which players carefully tune their instruments in order to achieve good intonation. The only exception is a occasional concert for which the services of the oboes are not required, in which case the responsibility is borne by the first clarinet or, in string music, by the leader or principal. In truth, it is sad to say that for much modern music, the principal oboist's efforts are in vain because the principal aim of many contemporary composers seems to be to achieve effects that are essentially discordant, the rare composer who deviates from this party line being branded as 'naďve' or 'misguided'; but we must not digress . . .
It may be worth recording that the 'A' to which the Principal Oboe tunes his or her own instrument (using either a tuning fork or, more often nowadays, an electronic tuning device) represents a sound vibrating at a frequency of 440 cycles per second. This standardisation has not been achieved without a struggle. In Handel's day, an 'A' was 422.5, and this pitch (plus or minus the odd cycle) remained the standard throughout the period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. However, the development of brass instruments for military bands (which were found to sound more brilliant at a higher pitch) led to the orchestral 'A' rising to 448 (for example, at the Paris Opera in 1858) and as high as 456.1 around the same time in Vienna.
In 1859, a commission was solemnly appointed in France to restore order from chaos, and its worthy members (who included Berlioz, Meyerbeer and Rossini) settled for a pitch of 435. Meanwhile, across the Channel, the London Philharmonic Society preferred 433, although it would fortunately have needed a very discerning pair of ears to detect the difference. But still the pitch would not stabilise: the growth of international radio in the 1920s and 1930s revealed embarrassing variations ranging from a dour 439.5 in Denmark to a shrill 443.5 in the UK. To the relief of all concerned, an International Conference in London in 1939 unanimously agreed to adopt '440 cycles per second for the note A in the treble clef,' to which the British Standards Institution thoughtfully added the qualification 'at 20 degrees Centrigrade'.
The oboe itself has its origins in the ancient folk instrument generally known as the shawm, being developed into the instrument we recognise today by the Hoteterre family who were very active in Paris during the seventeenth century as makers of woodwind instruments including the oboe (or 'hautboy'), flute, bassoon and bagpipes.
The two distinguishing characteristics of the oboe family are its conical bore with a slightly flared bell and the use of a double reed; both these differentiate it from the clarinets with their cylindrical body and single reed. If oboe players themselves have a single unique characteristic, it is their constant preoccupation with the correct functioning of their reeds; and, because of this, they are for ever scraping and testing them in the hope of producing one to take them safely through the next concert. The manufacture and titivation of reeds is indeed almost as much a part of mastering the oboe as a good technique with the keys.
The oboe has a range of just over two octaves, extending from B flat below middle C to a high G. Its music is generally notated at concert pitch, the only exception being the alto oboe (usually known as the cor anglais) which is pitched in F and is played as a transposing instrument.
In terms of repertoire, the oboe's penetrating tone makes it a prominent participant in any composition in which it appears. There are a number of well-loved concertos by such composers as Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Richard Strauss. The instrument also has many exposed solo passages in works such as Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin and Kodály's Dances of Galanta, and the cor anglais's famous solo in the second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony must surely be amongst the most famous in the entire musical repertory.