Covey & Ramsay

Covey Oboes

Home | The Covey Oboe | New Instruments

  Repairs | Contact Us Shop Tour | About Us | How to Find Us | Links  


  Break-in & Maintenance Procedures | Selecting an Oboe to Buy

  History of the Oboe Recommended Methods and Repertory for Teachers & Students

  Oboe Orchestral Audition Lists Glossary of Oboe Terms


Catalog Index | Quick Index |  Order Form

 | Consignment (Used) Instruments


History of the Oboe

Basic Timeline

Brief Narrative History


Below is a basic timeline of the oboe's development and history including web links to interesting and informative sites for further research.  Also, check out the brief narrative history, which gives a more complete and comprehensive summary than the timeline, if you so desire. We will continue to make additions as our researching continues.  We hope you will find this useful!

Brief Timeline

Antiquity The oboe and its double reed ancestors are likely one of the oldest instruments.  Similar double-reed instruments appear in artwork and are referenced in literature from India, Mongolia, China and Japan as well as the Arabs and Greeks.  From there, its influence spread westward into Europe probably by means of the Silk Road and Medieval troubadours during the time of the Crusades.


Aulos- In ancient Greece, it is thought to have been important in theater as well as other important occasions. Consisting of a double-bodied, cylindrical bore (connected at the mouthpiece) with finger holes.  It is considered the ancestor of the bagpipes and one of the earliest recorded appearances of a double reed instrument.


1200's Doucaine- "The doucaine was discovered a few years ago (circa 1969+) in the sunken wreck of one of Henry VIII's war ships. It is somewhat like a shawm but has a mostly cylindrical bore instead of conical, which gives it a somewhat more subdued presence."


1400's Crumhorn- A precursor of the recorder. It's bore is cylindrical and the double reed is enclosed by a wind cap.


Curtal- A descendant of the shawm, but precursor to the bassoon. The body is a folded conical bore.


1500-1600's Rackett- An ancestor of the bassoon.  The internal structure consists of 9 parallel cylinders creating a long tube capable of very low pitches.


1200- 1600's Shawm- The direct ancestor of the oboe which was probably introduced into Europe during the Crusades when the Saracen armies invaded and used this instrument in war as well as for dancing.  The bore is conical and wide, as is the double reed. The body is constructed from a single piece of wood with finger holes.


1600's Hautbois- Jean Hotteterre developed the "indoor" version of the shawn due to the increasing need for chromatic flexibility in the music of the time.  The changes made were a narrowing of the bore, the instrument was broken into three joints, and the reed decreased in width.  In addition, some keys were added to facilitate range and fingerings.  Keys were added as time progressed.


1600's English horn (cor anglais)- Though it was developed in the late 17th century, it did not enter the standard orchestra until the 1830's.  The instrument's name is said to be a mistranslation of the French "cor anglé" which actually means "bent horn."  It is characterized by its bulbous-shaped bell and use of a bocal. In addition, it is pitched in F (a fifth below the oboe in C), making it the so-called "tenor" voice of the oboe family.


1632-1687 Jean-Baptiste Lully was the Italian born French composer and conductor in the court of Louis XIV.  He is credited as the founder of French opera and greatly influenced execution and composition of orchestral literature.  In addition, he added several new instruments to the orchestral scene and was likely involved in the development of the hautbois.


?-? Jean Hotteterre came from a family credited with the development of several musical instruments in the 17th century, including the hautbois.  Jean was a musician in the court of Louis XIV for whom it is said the hautbois was created by request.

1700's Oboe d'amore (d'amour)- This instrument was first used by Christoph Graupher and frequently thereafter by J.S. Bach and G.P. Telemann.  However, it fell out of use until the 19th century when composers such as Strauss and Debussy revived it.  Pitched in A (a third below the oboe in C), it is often described as the alto voice of the oboe family. It resembles the oboe in structure except that it is slightly longer and requires a bocal to secure the reed to the instrument.


1800's Heckelphone (bass oboe)- Created by Wilhelm Heckel, it is a wider bored and lower range version of the oboe.  It is not commonly used, but appears in a few 19th century orchestral literature such as "The Planets" by Gustav Holst.


1820 Stephen Koch (1772-1828) and Joseph Sellner (1787-1843) develop the Viennese style oboe with "a classic appearance with a bore that was extremely narrow by the standards of the time."


1860's Modern oboe- The "modern oboe" is developed by the Triebert family. "As on 18th century oboes, its bell has an incurved inner rim, and the third hole on the upper joint is double. All ten keys are of silver, mounted on posts and axles; rings, wells, sockets, and a narrow thumbrest are of silver as well. Springs are flat, of tempered steel, and are in general attached to the underside of the keys. The keys have round cups, slightly domed, and the joints are lapped with thread."


1860's Triébert Family (Guillame 1779-1848), Charles-Louis, and Frédéric (1813-1878)  - The family which developed and established the "modern oboe" in the 1860's. Guillame's second son, Frédéric, developed the system which was declared the official oboe of the Paris Conservatory by Georges Gillet and Francois Lorée.  The Triébert tradition is continued in the current F. Lorée Company in Paris.


1799-1839 Henri Brod studied with the oboist Vogt (Reicha Quintet) and invented such tools as the cane shaper, gouging machine, and straight-bodied English horn.


1804–1879 Apollon M. Barret is most known for the Barret oboe method, but also contributed much to the mechanical innovations to the oboe in the late 19th century, such as the speaker key (eliminated the need to over blow the octave).  He was a student of Vogt (Reicha Quintet) at the Paris Conservatoire and spent most of his life playing opera in London.


1854-1920 Georges Gillet was the famous professor of oboe at the Paris Conservatoire who succeeded Vogt.  Several of his students (such as Marcel Tabuteau) became renowned oboists, as well, and went on to establish what is known as the "French-American school of oboe teaching and playing."

A Brief History of the Oboe

            What is known about the antiquated history of the oboe is little in comparison to most other instruments.  It is mostly based on pictorial representations of ancient civilizations or passing references in historical accounts, lending to the idea that some form of the double reeds did indeed exist in ancient civilizations.

            The oboe’s distinguishing feature from other instruments (excluding those in its respective family) is the existence of a double reed:  two flattened blades of bamboo that produce sound through the vibrations of one blade against the other.  In its most primitive form, the reed was a rudimentary reed pipe that would have produced a vibrating sound not much different than a honk or squeak.[1]  Combining the reed with the tube was probably a product of Eurasian descent.  Eastern civilizations took the idea of the reed and tube a step closer to creating an actual musical instrument.   Realizing the reed may damage or wear out, they started separating the reed from the pipe so that the reed could potentially be replaced.  Merchant travels on the Old Silk Road across Central Asia began to spread the influence of the double reed instrument and its descents.  Early forms of the double reeds still exist today, such as the whit horn (a one-note reed horn made of coiled willow bark pinned together with blackthorn spines).[2]

            An instrument such as this was first noted in an illustration dating from 3000 BC Egyptian art.  In an excavation at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, an instrument made of silver was unearthed.  There is reason to believe it may be a double reed instrument since its design (a narrow bore with three holes) would only allow it to play whole-tone scales.  This example also resembles an instrument common throughout the Middle East.  Rare surviving examples of Ptolemaic Egyptian reeds also show two reeds bound together with thread (probably done in the early stages of the reed’s growth for pliability).  This would have been inserted into a pipe, perhaps like those found in Ur.  Egyptian murals, like one depicting a feast in honor of the dead, shows a frontal view of a double-bodied oboe (probably with a single reed) with the reed mouthpieces clearly defined.

            Greek artwork also portrays musicians holding the reed directly between the lips, but the Greeks sophisticated the instruments by subdividing the semitone step.  This instrument was referred to as the aulos: a type of double oboe, which had two divergent pipes of equal length, each with double reed. However, Greek literature (such as in Homer’s Iliad) suggests the instrument might not have been originally Greek.  A passage describes the conversations of the Trojans:


And whensoever [Agememnon] looked toward that Trojan plain, he marveled at the many fires that blazed in front of the Ilios, and at the sound of the auloi and syrinz, and the noise of men.[3]


Whatever its origins, the oboe ancestors seem to have played a significant part in society and, through continued refinement and development, took an important role in Western music.

            The use of various predecessors of the oboe were often considered to be of some divine nature and thus an important means of expressions.  The hieroglyphics from the mural previously mentioned (“Feast in honor of the dead”) also relay the words to a dance praising their gods for natural beauty. From this it may be assumed the instrument’s sound was associated with nature or possibly celebrated as worthy of use in divine praise.  Similarly, in Greek mythology, the aulos was associated with Pallas (Athena), Zeus’s favorite daughter.  The sound was described as “many-voiced” and “capable of imitating ‘a cry exceeding shrill.’”[4]

There is also evidence suggesting double-reed instruments were used as morale builders for troops in battle.  The Roman tibia often held this function in war, although it was more widely used for a variety of other occasions.  In fact, musicians were in high demand, thrived on popularity, and were entitled to guild member privileges.  Tibia was likely the most significant of the instruments in Roman society since it referenced musicians playing tibia in groups in the Twelve-Table Law of 451 BC (a document regulating relations between plebeians and patricians).  Rome took many Greek artists captive during the Hellenistic era, which seemed to influence the refining of the instrument.[5]

            No one knows the exact means of the instrument’s migration into the West, but it is generally accepted that the double reed reached Europe during the Crusades.  Increased trade propelled Medieval Europe’s growth and expansion.  With silks and spices came wandering minstrels playing instruments of Byzantine origin.  The crusaders themselves might have heard a double reed instrument on the battlefields of the East.  The Latin calamus (“blade of grass”) was the re-emergence of the Roman tibia in early Medieval Europe.  Each European country then gave birth to its own version of the instrument such as the German schalmei, English shawm, Old French chalemie, and Old Spanish chalemel. [6]

            At its places of origin, double-reed instruments continued to play an important part in worship and exalted occasions.  However, sacred music of Europe was up (to that point) exclusively monophonic plainchant.  Association with “Infidels” from the East, and perhaps the historical accounts of pagan worship and ceremonies of Rome, resulted in the Church’s unwillingness to acknowledge foreign instruments in sacred music since the adoption of Christendom in Europe.  However, artwork indicates that instrumental music was popular among secular society.  Unfortunately, very little instrumental notated music survived from this period.

            However, Interest in instrumental music began to flourish in the ensuing Renaissance period of Europe.  Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) documented detailed descriptions and information on “all ancient and modern musical instruments” in the second volume of his work Syntagma musicum.  The shawm and bagpipes were named among the double reed instruments.  The shawm, considered the predecessor of the modern oboe, was a popular instrument of this period, lending to the notion it had been growing in popularity through the silent medieval period.  However, the wideness of the shawm’s reed and bore produced a mellow, yet intense amount of sound.  Thus, it was often only used for outdoor or large-scale activities.  Other double reed instruments mentioned were rackets (precursor of the modern bassoon) and pommels.  These instruments would have commonly been played in varying ensemble combinations as the music was often written to accommodate any instrumental grouping.

            The musical sphere was altered dramatically in the early 1600’s, due in part to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  Power and wealth centralized solely in the monarchy and aristocracy of Europe, which profited only the artists and musicians who could win their favor.  However, this power shift also launched many notable refinements and inventions.  It is suspected the shawm’s popularity with King Louis XIV of France led him to request that the instrument be modified for indoor performance.  But the increasing chromaticism and dynamic range of music was also limiting the use of the shawm in progressive music.  During the 17th century, members of the prominent instrument-making Hotteterre family narrowed the bore of the treble shawm, dispensed of the pirouette so that the reed was in direct contact with the lips, added two mechanical keys and a contraction rim to the bell.  The pitch was lowered by one tone to a concert C.  These modifications lent to an enlivened, but still uneven timbre.  This was due in part to the use of cross-fingerings (in place of a key system) which obscured the sound.

            Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), was another musician and innovator that played a significant part in the oboe's role in the music world. An Italian born composer and conductor in the court of Louis XIV of France, he is primarily credited as the founder of French opera.  He also greatly influenced execution and composition of orchestral literature and added several new instruments to the orchestra.  The hautbois made its orchestral debut in his ballet L’amour malade (1657) and the success of its incorporation in this and other prominent performances attracted the attention of courts across Europe.  Oboists were often well paid if they were willing to travel, which in the fashion of the medieval troubadours, expanded its popularity.  The Edict of Nantes (1685) and the growing power of Lully’s musical and social associations in France also caused many musicians to flee the French courts and establish academies of music throughout Europe.  The first musical tutors began emerging in England where the virtuosic oboist Jacques Paisible was gaining recognition.

            While instruments were developing at a quick pace in the upper crust of society, there is evidence the older instruments were still being played.  An engraving by the poet Wiegel (1661-1725) makes reference to the shawm and gives an interesting insight into the societal structure:


Away thou rural shawm! My sound shall drive thee hence

I serve right well in time of peace and time of war,

I serve the church and serve at court, where thou art not,

Wine is my reward, and thou must do with yeasty beer,

Though in the village, I in castles live and towns,

Though hast but a penny ribbon; I have golden chains. [7]


            The shawm seemed to remain in use, but the hautbois was quickly emerging as a mainstream instrument of the orchestra.  During the 18th century, the orchestra set-up began to develop into what would become the standard for the Classical and Romantic styles.  The string section became the core of the orchestra.  Violas were not always included in the Classical period orchesta; instead, they would add a pair of French horns and oboes.  The oboe often held the function of sustaining chords and imitating string passages, giving it a prominent solo role. In addition, oboists often doubled on instruments such as the transverse flute or the bassoon, which were included in the score but never played simultaneously with the oboe.  Other oboe-related instruments, such as the cor anglais (also known as “English horn”) begin to emerge in scores from the Classical period, as well.[8]

            The wind section was beginning to take a more prominent seat in the orchestra.  Clarinets were added to the orchestra originally to supplant the technical uneasiness of the trumpet.  The new array of instruments opened a new spectrum of sound colors to manipulate. This also gave leeway to increased technical and lyrical demands on the instruments. Virtuosic compositions for oboe in chamber and orchestral settings emerged with great popularity. 

            The higher technical demands necessitated further improvements. By the early 19th century, there were already many oboes possessing up to eight keys, as opposed to the original two.  A foot joint with the C and C# keys was another significant enhancement.  Scientific research, such E.F.F. Chladni’s Die Akustik (1759-1827), discussed the woodwind acoustics of open and stopped pipes and brought up issues such as tone hole placements.  Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) attempted to apply his mechanical system [9] developed for the transverse flute, but the experiment was not successful and production was quickly abandoned.   

            The effects of the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) dramatically boosted manufacturing and commerce; musicians were no exception. Up to this point, there had been no differing schools of oboe playing as had developed for other instruments, like the transverse flute. However, German instrument makers had been developing a highly advanced key system for the oboe to avoid cross-fingerings beginning in the 18th century.  France followed in suit, although some felt the new system forfeited the sound quality.  By 1825, the French preference of a brighter and more manifest sound divided from the German preference for tonal depth and blending.  Both instruments were being made with fifteen tone holes and ten keys, but the French model assumed a narrower bore and thinner walls and reeds than the German.  In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a “combined” model emerged from the hands of Stephen Koch (1772-1828) and Joseph Sellner (1787-1843).  This joined the German appearance and key work mounts with the narrow French bore.  The Viennese oboe is still played in Austria, however the French system was to become the international standard. 

Guillame Triébert had worked under a German instrument maker in Germany until he began his own instrument manufacturing business in France by 1811.  His second son, Frédéric Triébert (1813-1878), inherited the industry and dedicated his life entirely to the manufacture of oboes.  He worked closely with other notable oboists and innovators, such as Apollon M.R. Barret (1804-1879) who added the speaker key to the oboe, eliminating the need to over-blow the octave, among other mechanical innovations; Henri Brod (1799-1839) helped refine the tone quality by developing reed making equipment. [11]  The bore was narrowed yet again, the walls of the bore made thinner, the tone holes smaller, and consequently, the reed became shorter and narrower.  The measurements increased the oboe’s range to approximately two octaves.  As a result, the oboist was more able to produce a focused sound and control the volume and balance in ensemble settings.[10]  The practice of switching between instruments became less frequent as musicians began to develop expert proficiency and methodology on single instruments.  The Triébert systéme 6 oboe was patented in 1872 and was later pronounced “the official model at the Conservatoire de Paris” by the oboe professor Georges Gillet and François Lorée, the Triébert factory foreman who inherited the business.  A successive line of prominent oboists emerged from the Paris Conservatoire, among them Marcel Tabuteau (1887-1966), who was one of the establishers of the French-American school of oboe playing and teaching. 

            While the 19th century oboist was almost exclusively confined to the orchestra and had no desire to venture out soloistically, most of the 20th century saw the budding of virtuosic players who pushed the limits of oboe playing beyond the standard.   The oboe’s potential has increased orchestrally and soloistically through the centuries and oboe manufacturers have continued to strive for perfection in mechanism and tone production as musical demands continue to expand.  Not only in the last 30 years but throughout all of history, the oboe's unique penetrating sound has not only given it a specific role in music but has inspired musicians to reach for perfection in the making of the instrument and its music.  



[1] Barnes 189

[2] Barnes 191

[3] Joppig 19

[4] Joppig 18-19

[5] Joppig 24-26

[6] Joppig 30

[7] Joppig 51

[8] Joppig 135

[9] Boehm System:

[10] Vienna Symphonic Library

[11] Storch 1



This information was compiled and written by Elizabeth McKeown Pevey, and is the intellectual property of Covey Oboes. Please credit the author and web-site if quoting. Please obtain permission before reproducing it. And please mention this web-site to your oboist friends!! 

Thanks for visiting.



© Copyright 1998 - Covey Oboes >
site by TurningPoint WebSetting