Poster musician plays oboe
A musician plays an oboe during a television performance.
Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
Classical Basics

Is the oboe the best instrument ever?

The oboe might be hard to master and suffer from a bit of an inferiority complex, but this distinctive woodwind instrument occupies a special and crucial role: It tunes the rest of the orchestra with its distinctive A note. It’s easy to hear over other instruments because of its penetrating sound, the result of its conical interior chamber and a double reed.

In 1695, Henry Playford wrote in his musical instruction book The Sprightly Companion that the oboe is “majestical and stately, not much inferior to the trumpet.” We guess that counts as high praise. In Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, the instrument’s sound is described as “that of a duck, if the duck were a songbird.” Indeed, the oboe represents the duck in Sergei Prokofiev’s musical primer Peter and the Wolf.

That distinctive, plaintive sound has been used to great effect in classical and popular music and has been a favorite of many composers — Vivaldi, for one, wrote 15 concertos for the oboe! Here are some works that feature the instrument prominently.

Classical legacy

“The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” (George Frideric Handel): This sinfonia opens Act III of the 1748 oratorio Solomon, based on the stories of the biblical king. This piece, often used as a wedding processional or recessional, features a joyful oboe duet (starting at 0:38).

Swan Lake theme (Pyotr Tchaikovsky): Not a duck but an elegant swan is conjured by the melancholy oboe in this main theme to the iconic ballet, written in 1875. It introduces the melody, relinquishes it and picks it up again in the closing bars.

Le Tombeau de Couperin (Maurice Ravel): Each of the six movements in this piece, written during World War I, is dedicated to a different friend of Ravel’s who died in battle. Here is the “Prelude,” written in honor of 1st Lt. Jacques Charlot.

Oboe Concerto (Ellen Taaffe Zwillich): This piece was commissioned in 1990 to honor the Cleveland Orchestra’s longtime principal oboist, John Mack. Gramophone’s reviewer remarked that it “agreeably exploits the instruments capacity for lyricism.” See if you agree.

Beyond classical

“Gabriel’s Oboe” (Ennio Morricone): In this main theme from the 1986 film The Mission, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) plays his oboe to befriend the indigenous South American people. It’s such a popular melody that it has been adapted for other instruments including the human voice. But it’s best heard in its original form, here conducted by Morricone.

“Life in a Northern Town” (Dream Academy): Written in 1985 as an elegy to musician Nick Drake, the wistful oboe subtly underlines the nostalgic and, yes, dreamy quality of the song.

“Kiss From a Rose” (Seal): This hit, written in 1987 but released in 1994, appeared prominently on the Batman Forever soundtrack. Listen to how the oboe complements the vocals throughout this gorgeous ballad.

“I’ve Got You Babe” (Sonny and Cher): Who of a certain age isn’t transported back to the days of bell bottoms and flower power when they hear the piping oboe that punctuates the chorus of this 1965 hit?

These examples both old and new offer plenty of reasons why the oboe is the best instrument ever! 

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