For centuries it has been the ultimate goal of instrumentalists to emulate the singing human voice. Playing lyrically, or making notes sing, they aspire to sound as closely possible to a vocalist. Violinists frequently remind us of their warm and longing sounds in comparison to the singing voice, then along comes the dirty little secret — the oboe. With the rise of opera, the double-reed instrument emerged to prominence in the late 17th century, to be performed obbligato with solo voice in arias, and to serve as the wind equivalent of the violin, initially in operas of French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Like strings, the oboe produces a sawtooth sound wave, containing both even and odd harmonics with amplitudes in inverse proportion to the fundamental frequency (base tone). For example, the second harmonic sounds at half the volume of the base tone, the third harmonic sounds at a third the volume, etc., creating an abrasive yet clear sound. Likewise, the larynx of the human voice produces a complex sound resembling a sawtooth wave, and then the mouth cavity filters it out using subtractive synthesis to achieve a desired sound. The human voice, violin and oboe, all have pronounced fixed-frequency resonances, which remain constant regardless of the pitch being played. The oboe has fixed resonances at 500 Hz and 1.5 kHz, giving it a unique acoustic quality closely resembling a soprano.
In emulating the human voice, the oboe edges out the violin via similarities of its double-reed to the human vocal chords. As the elastic-like strings of the voice box vibrate when air passes through, so are the oboe reed’s finely scraped blades of cane vibrated by the player’s exhaling breath. The ligaments and muscles of the voice box stretch and relax vocal chords to make varying tones and pitches. Likewise, the length, width, density, and thickness of an oboe reed, in addition to the external pressure applied to the reed by the player's lips, affect the tones and pitches of resulting notes. Both oboists and vocalists produce sounds using similar breath techniques.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the oboe rose to popularity as the unifier of both strings and winds, and of orchestral and vocal parts. It is the instrument that brought it all together with the right timbre and dynamics to both blend with and stand apart from the strings section, other winds, or voice as needed. Two performers, pianist Gayle Martin Henry and oboist Gerard Reuter, bring it together on Saturday, January 13, at the Olin Concert Hall at Bates College in a recital of opera and song transcriptions titled Songs Without Words. Also that day at 2 pm will be a free master class for any interested performers (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
The program starts with Ludwig van Beethoven’s "Eight Variations" on La ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Leone Sinigalia’s "Twelve Variations" on a theme of Franz Schubert, and Franz Liszt’s rework of Two Songs by Robert Schumann appear in the first half. Two songs by contemporary composer Stephen Sondheim, and another Liszt transcription — this time "The Ballad of the Flying Dutchman," Isoldens Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, appear after intermission.