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The Mysterious Baritone Oboe

By Deborah Check Reeves
Curator of Education and Woodwind Instruments

Note: Click on any image to see an enlargement.

An air of mystery surrounds a baritone oboe in the NMM's collections. It was made in the first half of the eighteenth century by the Parisian maker, Charles Bizey, who was one of the few makers who dominated the centralized oboe trade in France at the time. Bizey supplied oboes to the opera, theater, and the military. In addition to regular treble oboes, Bizey made a variety of other sizes including tenor oboes, oboes da caccia, and baritone oboes.

NMM 13175.  Baritone oboe by Charles Bizey, Paris, ca. 1716-1751

Maker's stamp

NMM 13175 is one of only two Bizey baritone oboes known to survive and is thought to be one of the earliest baritone oboes ever made. The other specimen is housed at the Musée de la Musique in Paris. That baritone oboe is made in three sections and has two keys. Two would have been typical of the number of keys employed on oboes of the Baroque Era.

Right side Front view Back view Left side

NMM 13715. Baritone oboe by Charles Bizey, Paris, ca. 1716-1751. Stamped on all three sections: [fleur-de-lis] / BIZEY / A PARIS / [sunburst]. Boxwood body. Ten brass keys. Horn ferrules. Arne B. and Jeanne F. Larson Fund, 2007.

One mystery surrounding NMM 13175, as well as all "baritone" oboes, is terminology. Philip Bate, the late wind instrument historian, defines a "bass" oboe as one that plays one octave below the treble instrument (this is how the term is applied to members of the clarinet family). Since both extant Bizey "baritone" oboes are pitched approximately an octave below the treble oboes of the day, Bate suggests that these instruments should be classified as "bass" oboes. He acknowledges, however, that in English the terms "bass" and "baritone" tend to be used interchangeably. The French, on the other hand, prefer to use the term "baryton." Therefore, the Bizey example in Paris is classified in English as a "baritone oboe." A decision was made to classify the NMM's example in a similar manner.

Like the Parisian example, the NMM’s baritone oboe is constructed in three sections. When assembled, the instrument resembles a bassoon complete with a long, wing-joint upper section and a doubled-back bore in the boot. The bell, curiously, points backwards, towards the player. This is just opposite of what one would expect. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the bell to point outward in order to benefit the sounds of the lowest notes that rely on the bell to project toward the listener? Upon examination, the reason for this mysterious arrangement is revealed. The long keys on the oboe extend downward onto the boot part of the doubled-back bore. There was no alternative but to point the bell backward.

Unlike the Parisian two-keyed baritone oboe, the NMM’s example has ten keys. It is highly unlikely that an oboe with ten keys would have been produced during the Baroque Era. Visual evidence of the post-manufacture addition of the keys is easily perceptible. The bottom joint ring where the original keys would have been mounted has been altered. The wooden ring itself has been whittled down to make room for brass saddle mounts. Alteration plugs can be found on the top joint on the back near the top ferrule and on the third fingerhole. The alterations themselves are not a mystery. They are plainly visible. But why and by whom those alterations were made has proven to be a mystery.

Details of Long Joint Keywork

Upper joint ferrule and bocal receiver Long joint, front Long joint keywork, front detail 1 Long joint keywork, front detail 2 Long joint, side key Long joint, back view

Details of Bottom Joint Keywork

Transition from long joint to bottom joint Bottom joint, front Bottom joint, back Bottom joint, bone ferrule Bottom joint, neck strap eyelet

Bell Bell joint, side view Bottom joint keywork, side view detail 1 Bottom joint keywork, side view detail 2 Bottom joint keywork detail, front

Bocal and Lower Joint End Plate

Bocal Lower joint end plate

A revival of the baritone oboe—styled like Bizey’s with a doubled-back bore—took place during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, championed by the Parisian maker Guillame Triébert and his family. In fact, it is the Triébert family that is credited with carrying on the development of the oboe into the twentieth century. Similar Bizey-type baritone oboes also were made by Henri Brod, another Parisian maker. Paris, during the early 1800s, was a cosmopolitan city experiencing rapid mechanization due to the influence of the Industrial Revolution. Spurred on by composers like Hector Berlioz, new sonorities were being introduced to the orchestral palette. The envelopes of loud and soft, and low and high, were being pushed as never before. Thanks to industrial mechanization, woodwind instrument keywork became increasingly more advanced in design and technology. Not only were makers constructing instruments of new concept, they were modifying good surviving instruments to meet the increasing demands of composers and performers. It is within this atmosphere that Bizey’s baritone oboe was resurrected. Not only were makers like Triébert and Brod devising "new" baritone oboes, but more than likely, this is when Bizey’s oboe received its remodeling. Extant Triébert baritone oboes have eight to ten keys. For this period, the ten new keys on NMM 13175 would have been state-of-the-art. Although no information has come to light to identify the refurbisher, it might very well have been either Triébert or Brod.

At first seemingly mysterious, NMM 13175 has revealed itself to be an excellent example of the manifestation of a rapidly changing musical scene.

Baritone oboe in its case

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (March 2010)

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Most recent update: August 27, 2010

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