Conducting a Question and Answer session at a Fulbright Seminar.

Photo by:  Anastasia Popova.

Dr. Abby Yeakle Held spent ten months in Vienna, Austria, on a Fulbright grant researching the Viennese oboe's history, traditions, current state, and relevance to the modern French conservatory oboist. She advocates looking at the Viennese oboe as a period instrument, in order to understand the oboe’s classical/romantic repertoire on a deeper level. Dr. Held is the first to conduct and publish research of this kind. As a result, she is now considered one of the foremost scholars on the Viennese oboe outside of the instrument's native community. 

While living in Vienna, Dr. Held learned to play the instrument, and studied with Univ.-Prof. Harald Hörth, oboist with the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Dr. Held plays on a beautiful Rado Viennese oboe, made by Karl Radovanovich.

 

In accordance with the Fulbright mission to increase mutual understanding among nations, Dr. Held serves as an unofficial ambassador between the American and Austrian oboe communities. One of the most effective and visible ways that she accomplishes this is by touring a lecture-recital on the Viennese oboe to major universities across the United States.

Viennese Oboe

What is the Viennese Oboe?

Today the overwhelming majority of the world plays on what is called the French conservatory oboe. We are hardly ever this specific in referencing it, as to us it is simply just the oboe. I include British oboists in this category, as the existence of one modification, the thumb-plate key, is hardly cause for a different categorization. However, the fact of the matter is that there is indeed another kind of oboe in use. In Vienna, oboists are still playing on the historical instrument of the late 18th-19th century, called the Viennese oboe. They are doing this despite the fact that the French conservatory oboe gained world-wide popularity at the turn of the 20th century. The Viennese oboe employs a different bore design, fingering system, and reed to that of the French conservatory oboe. Along with the Viennese horn and timpani, the Viennese oboe is a traditionally defining member of the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Orchestras, as it is characteristic to their unique sound.

Presenting a Lecture-Recital on the Viennese Oboe at Lawrence University

Photo by: Taylor Blackson

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A comparative look at the French Conservatory (left) and Viennese (right).

Photo by: Hardy Meredith

History in a Nutshell

The German Oboe is the direct predecessor to the Viennese oboe of today. In fact, the modern Viennese oboe still bears almost all the characteristics of classical and German instrument construction. The changes that the Viennese oboe has undergone since the German oboe are slight and mostly superficial or aesthetic. Those who study the Viennese oboe are not shy to admit that it is actually just a modified German oboe.

 

Karl Golde (1803-1873) was a German instrument maker out of Dresden, and built what was considered to be the perfected German oboe. Golde intentionally ignored French innovations of the time and improved the oboe according to the standard of German instrument building traditions. Golde’s German oboe design included the larger scale bore, more true to the classical oboe. The Germans considered this to be an important feature for its resulting sound, which was considered to be dark and more suitable for blending with other instruments. This oboe has a thick-walled body, a “Zwiebel” (“onion” bulge at the top of the upper joint), and slightly bulbed shape on the inside of the bell. Keeping in accordance with the previous German innovation of the Sellner-Koch oboe, he equipped his instruments with independently applicable flaps with wooden blocks and simple levers. It was also around this time that we also began to see harder woods such as grenadilla, rosewood, and ebony being used for oboes.

 

In 1880 one of these Golde oboes came to Vienna in the luggage of Richard Baumgärtel, who had just won the audition in the orchestra of the Viennese Court Opera. His beautiful sound was enthusiastically received by all the members of the orchestra. At this time the Sellner-Koch oboe (a Viennese innovation) was still in use, to which the Golde German oboe surely sounded full and warm in comparison. Baumgärtel’s orchestral peers envied him for his balanced and even tone.

In the following years, the orchestra would begin to complain that Baumgärtel's pitch was too high. To make matters worse, a vote took place in 1885 which resulted in establishing a lower pitch for the orchestra, A=435. Baumgärtel was forced to take action and secure an instrument that could play down to pitch. Unfortunately, he could not purchase another oboe from Golde, as he had passed away twelve years prior in 1873 without a successor to his business. Because of this, Baumgärtel went to the shop of Viennese instrument maker, Josef Hajek (1849-1926). As Baumgärtel's personal oboe was considered to be an excellent example of Golde’s German oboe, Hajek copied and maintained its design with only slight modifications to remedy the issues in pitch. The result was the birth of the Viennese oboe, sometimes referred to as the long-Viennese oboe. This oboe was adopted across Austria and neighboring regions. Today, Viennese oboists trace their lineage back to Baumgärtel, as he is considered the father of the Viennese oboe.

The Viennese oboe was adopted with wide popularity for over two decades until the turn of the twentieth century. At this time, history sees the arrival of the French conservatory oboe, and the World Wars result in a general distaste for Germanic instruments. Since then, this beautiful instrument has been in a constant state of decline.

Today the Viennese oboe exists only in Vienna, Austria, one of the world's greatest music capitals. I advocate looking at the Viennese oboe as a period instrument in order to understand the oboe's classical/romantic repertoire on a deeper level. I believe that oboists owe the Austrian and Viennese communities our gratitude for preserving this valuable piece of living oboe history.

 

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For more detailed information about the Viennese oboe, please see Dr. Held's article

published in the IDRS's "Double Reed" Journal Vol. 42, no. 3

Sources:

Benade, Arthur H.. “Woodwinds: The Evolutionary Path Since 1700.” The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 47 (Mar., 1994).

Rauch, Christian. “Die Wiener Oboe: Vergleich 19. Gegen 20. Jahrhundert aus der Sicht des Instrumentenbauers.” Journal der Gesellschaft der Freunde der Wiener Oboe, 5 (1999).

Stitch, Eva. Die Wiener Oboe. Wien: Penguin, Institut für Analyse, Theorie und Geschichte der Musik, 2004, 1–88.

For specific questions regarding the Viennese oboe, or to inquire about bringing a Viennese oboe lecture-recital to your school, college, or university, please use the contact form of the "About" page.