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On Planet Oboe

As previously mentioned on the blog, I’ve been writing an oboe concerto – and I still am! I sometimes think it would be interesting to keep a diary of progress (or the lack of it) on an extended composition. It’s certainly the case that different musical problems move into the forefront for a while, and then depart. But then I reflect that, rather than starting a diary, it would be better to get on with The Piece.

Just for the record, two perceptions are uppermost in my brain at present. The first is about familiarity with an instrument. I used to play the oboe up to student level (I actually stopped playing in my early thirties, when increasingly rare practice sessions meant that my embouchure gave up.) It’s generally assumed that inside knowledge would be a good thing when writing for the instrument. But I’ve been thinking lately that awareness of the instrument’s problems may lead to an excessively conservative composing outlook, especially when a concerto just has to be ‘virtuosic’ in some sense of the term. The passage shown in this sketch looked hideously high to me at first, and I wondered a lot about it – but of course it won’t be me playing it. I’ve had to do a bit of mental work about this sort of thing.

The other big topic is something I really should be thinking about, because it concerns the balance between soloist and orchestra. I’ve never written a piece for instrumental soloist and symphony orchestra before, and for a long time I’ve been wondering just how big that orchestra should be; or rather, how many of them I should leave out. It occurred to me to look at the score of the one oboe concerto of historic importance, by Richard Strauss. I used to love playing through the oboe part of this gorgeous work – but I recently realised I had no idea of its orchestration. In fact, apart from strings, Strauss uses only nine other woodwind plus horn players, and he scrupulously avoids letting the winds play at all (except in some light duet-type interchanges) when the soloist is at work. He must be right here – it’s something learned from writing opera, a high wind line will always mask a solo voice in the treble clef region. But creating a continuous, interesting orchestral texture under these conditions is by no means obvious. The quest continues !




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