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Mozart and his Oboist
Jeremy Polmear talks to Richard Earle, an oboist with the Orchestra of the Age of
Enlightenment and maker of early oboes, about the players of Mozart's time.

Richard Earle and Floth oboe in his workshop
JP: Looking at the three original works for oboe on this CD - the Quartet K370, the Quintet K452 and the Quintet K617; do we know for whom they were written?

RE: There is no actual written evidence concerning any of the oboists; however, taking into account the circumstantial evidence, it is generally accepted that the Quartet was written for Freidrich Ramm. The Quintet K452 was probably first performed by him too, but the player of the later Quintet K617 is unknown. Ramm was very influential in Mozart's wind writing, and the first oboe part of the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments - the one mentioned in Peter Schaeffer's Amadeus - was probably written for him too.

JP: How did they meet?

RE: Ramm was playing in the court orchestra at Mannheim when Mozart visited in 1777. There were other fine wind players there too: Mozart was struck with them, and there is some evidence that it was mutual - they tried to get work for Mozart with their employer Carl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria. But nothing came of it. Not immediately, that is - historically, this has to be the most significant meeting ever between an oboist and a composer.

JP:Did they become friends?

RE: Yes, there are several passing references to Ramm and the other players in Mozart's letters, but they are not about music. It would appear that they would go out on the town together - they were drinking companions. The musical turning point came when Carl Theodor was promoted to a post in Munich, and took his players with him; and Mozart was commissioned to write Idomineo there in 1780. The wonderful oboe parts in this and subsequent operas can almost certainly be attributed to Ramm's playing.

Richard Earle's copy of a Floth Classical oboe JP: What else do we know about Ramm?

RE: Very little. He was born in 1744 (making him eleven years older than Mozart), and joined Carl Theodor's service - for life - at the age of fourteen. He did concert tours throughout Europe, and died in 1811.

JP: And what about his oboe?

RE: We can only guess. It would have been a Mannheim or Munich instrument, and several of these survive, but of course they only have their makers' names on them, not their players'. My nearest equivalent is a copy of an instrument from Dresden by Johann Friedrich Floth (pronounced Flott). Although it was made in 1807, the original was of the late eighteenth century type that Ramm - and Mozart - would have known.

JP: It looks lovely - a work of art. It looks like an expensive chess piece.

RE: The early makers learned their wood craft from furniture makers, so that's where you get the bulges and flowing lines. You could say it's more of a hollow chair leg! But the shape is practical, too. This was before metal was used at the joints, so the thicker wood there was less likely to split. And I have my theory about the lovely bulge at the top, which is that, as any oboist knows, moisture collects there making the wood liable to split. The thickness reduces this tendency. The whole thing is made in boxwood, smoothed and polished.

JP: And the keys - an E flat key, and a bottom C key for either a left- or right-handed player?

RE: Yes, but you'd need a double E flat key also to play with hands the other way round. There are some oboes like that (you can see them in Han de Vries' pictures), but mainly it's there for aesthetic reasons, to make the oboe look more balanced.

JP: And there is no bottom C sharp...

RE: No, but that didn't stop Mozart writing at least one! It's in the 13 Wind Serenade, but it doubles with the clarinets so it's easy to leave out. I've seen an instrument with an extra hole in the bell, presumably to produce the low C sharp, which could be filled with wax when it was not needed. This was on an instrument made in the early 18th century, so perhaps it wasn't a particularly successful experiment, as it never caught on!

Baroque oboes - Han de Vries collection JP: This is a Classical oboe; what were they like before, in the Baroque time?

RE: Earlier oboes were more rounded in shape, the wood was thicker, the bore wider, and the bodies longer. The sound was fatter, more 'blendy'. In the Classical period they wanted tighter, brighter sounds, to stand out, and they used the top register more.

JP: And later instruments, after Mozart's time?

RE: More keys were added, especially after 1800 and especially in Germany - the French were slow to get going. You could find the G sharp key, the B flat key, low C sharp, F, F sharp, occasionally even an alternate E flat key, and the slur key.

Classical keyed oboes - Han de Vries collection JP: You mean the octave key?

RE: Yes, but that wasn't what it was for originally, because they could play the upper octave perfectly well. The problem was slurring up from the lower octave, which was impossible; you had to use your tongue to break the air column to get it to vibrate at a different frequency. After a while they realised that these slur keys enabled the slur to happen, but they made the upper octave more stable, and kept them on all the time.

JP: And these keys all made for faster playing?

RE: It wasn't for speed - earlier players could run around the instrument, as the Oboe Quartet shows. No, they were initially for tuning; so for G sharp you used the G sharp key, and for A flat you half-holed the G hole. Keys were quite controversial: people noticed that the early pads often caused the instruments to leak, and many players stuck to the key-free models. For example, in the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra of the 1820s Brod (writer of the Oboe Tutor) used an oboe with many keys, while his Principal Vogt (a well-known soloist of the time) used one with hardly any. The Floth model I copied has eight keys, but two key versions exist by him, so I've made versions with two keys (this one) as well as the fully keyed model. Incidentally, the tradition of which Floth was part sent its oboes to Vienna, where they were eventually used by the Vienna Philharmonic. They look as if they still are (with that bulge at the top), though the current instruments are actually manufactured by Yamaha, with different bore dimensions.

JP: Coming back to Ramm's oboe - do we know what kind of reed he might have used?

RE: There are a few surviving examples of reeds from that time, but none I would do a concert on! From what I can see, they were made on principles opposite to what we have now: the gouge was thick, they were a fishtail shape, and they were scraped thinner down the middle than at the sides. The only explanation I can give for this comes from a tutor of around1800, which states that the cane must be green. Perhaps this very soft cane, just cut, needed this kind of treatment to work.

JP: So you don't use green cane yourself?

RE: No, I use standard cor anglais cane, with a wide shape and a scrape much like anyone else.

JP: And you can play the Mozart Oboe Quartet on this setup?

RE: Yes, and I have many times. I need a flexible reed (and embouchure) to get the full range that is required. But with that, the top Fs are perfectly possible, if something of a challenge, using a special harmonic fingering. Mozart never puts them in a running passage - there is always time to prepare for them.

JP: What about the other top notes - the A that starts the slow movement, for example?

RE: Actually, that is fairly easy with an alternative fingering. And the fast bits in the third movement are not too bad, because not every note has to be exactly in tune, and you can choose convenient fingerings that don't tangle you in knots. The octave jumping bars near the end, for example - with a bit of faking, they are easier on an old oboe than on a modern Conservatoire system instrument. In the 4/4 passage just before it, the lower B flats are a bit tricky as they need a cross-fingering, but the upper B flats don't. And the key of F lies well under the fingers when you are playing an old oboe, bettered only by D major and minor, which is the basic key of the instrument. The 4/4 section is actually in D minor. However, the twiddles just before the 4/4 section are hard on any instrument - maybe Mozart was giving Ramm a chance to show off!

JP: Is there anything else that's really hard?

RE: Without a slur key, I can't do those gorgeous slurs up to C from F and F sharp in the slow movement - I have to tongue them gently and hope the acoustic will cover the gap!

JP: But in general, is Mozart hard on the player?

RE: He stretches us, yes, but always with regard to the nature of the instrument and its limitations. And he also appreciated its strengths, which is why he entrusted so many of his glorious moments of musical feeling to the oboe - moments that can still stir us deeply.

© 2004, Richard Earle and Jeremy Polmear on www.oboeclassics.com

You can read about Richard Earle on sarasamusic.org, or contact him on dearle@mistral.co.uk.

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