The baroque oboe seems to have developed from the shawm starting around the 1650s in Paris. Earlier instruments were loud double reeds intended for use outdoors (a use that continued through the 17th century in the “waits” bands of England) , and while the new, more refined oboe (and its larger cousins) maintained that function in the oboe bands of France, it also began to find a place in the orchestra starting in the 1670s. Its early orchestral use was in doubling the first violin part, but gradually it began to be used independently for its own color and expressive capability. The baroque oboe’s sound is less compact and more plaintive than that of the modern oboe and has been described as more like the human voice than any other instrument.

Early baroque shawm from Harmonie Universelle (Paris, 1636) by Marin Mersenne.


French oboe by Dupuis (1692). Berlin, Staatliche Musikinstrumentensammlung.

Oboe band. Gigue from Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos by André Danican Philidor, performed by the London Oboe Band directed by Paul Goodwin, with Marie-Ange Petit, percussion. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907122 (1994). Trk 6.


Baroque oboes often have three keys as a kind of hold-over from the swallow-tail key of Renaissance shawms. There, the fork of the key allowed the instrument to be played with either the left or right hand down and, in the three key oboe, that functionality was maintained by providing duplicate keys on either side of the instrument. As technique became standardized with the right hand in the lower position, makers gradually stopped putting in the extra effort of providing a key that was never used. Baroque oboes also typically have double holes for the third and fourth fingerholes. This facilitates the playing of accidentals that would otherwise require forked fingerings, producing a more muffled tone.

Three-keyed oboe (Holland, ca.1700) made or perhaps decorated by W. Beukers (ca.1669-1750). London, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Oboe by Jacob Denner (N?rnberg, ca.1715), oboe d’amore by Johann Wilhelm (I) Oberlender (Nü?rnberg, ca.1735), oboe da caccia by J. Baur (Vienna, 2nd half of the 18th century). N?ürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Baroque oboe. Sonata in Bb major, 3rd mvt. (excerpt) by George Frideric Handel, performed by Gonzalo Ruiz. Handel Oboe Sonatas. Well-Tempered WTP 5174 (1996). Trk 3.


The same larger sizes of baroque oboe that participated in the oboe band, dubbed with Italian names, also acquired a solo repertoire which is known mostly from the music of J.S. Bach. The alto oboe, or oboe d_amore, was pitched a minor 3rd below the regular oboe, and the tenor oboe, or oboe da caccia, was pitched a 5th below. The latter takes its name from the curved profile of the instrument and the fact that some of them were even made with large brass bells supposedly in imitation of hunting horns. A bass or baritone oboe an octave below the standard instrument also saw limited use although its function was taken over by the bassoon in most circumstances. From successful reconstructions and depictions like the ones shown here, we can tell that baroque oboe reeds were wider and flatter than modern oboe reeds.


Oboe da caccia. Aria obbligato from Cantata No. 1, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, 1st movement (excerpt), by J. S. Bach, performed by J?ürg Schäftlein with the Concentus Musicus Wien directed by Nicholas Harnoncourt. Teldec 8.35027. Tr

Oboe top and reed. The Oboe Player (detail, ca. 1770) by Johann Zoffany (1734-1810). Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College Museum of Art.

Oboe top and reed. Anonymous early 18th-century portrait of an unknown oboist (detail). Berlin, Staatliches Institut f?ür Musikforschung.