The Altissimo Range of the Oboe

Composing Using the Altissimo Range of the Oboe - Christopher Redgate © C. Redgate 2018


Other information on this site:
Below There is a demonstration video
In the Oboist’s Guides there are lists of fingerings etc.

Have you ever noticed how much smaller the standard oboe range is in comparison with the other woodwinds? Have you ever been frustrated by this limited range? In the more up to date orchestration books A6 is usually given as the top note of the range with advice such as "... G# and A are impractical for orchestral writing... lacking in oboe quality” (Piston). However, during the 20th century the range of the oboe has slowly been going up. At the beginning of the century, and for many years afterwards, G6 was considered to be the top of the range, only usable under certain conditions and by the finest performers. The first A6 appeared in 1936 in Wolpe’s Suite im Hexachord (Post) and then not again until 1952 in the Zimmermann Concerto. During the 1960s a few composers ventured up to B6 and by 1971 C7 had been used. Early in the 1980s a few composers asked for a high D7 and more recently I have been asked for high F7 (an octave above the Mozart F)—I am still searching for this one!


I define the top range, from G6 upwards, as the altissimo range. When writing for soloists I suggest that the top range should be considered as ending at C7. In non-soloist music Bb6 should be considered the top of the range. This range should only be used in compositions for professional level performers or for very advanced students.


In order to gain an understanding of the range for compositional purposes the altissimo range can be divided into three small sections and, as will be seen, there are very clear reasons for this.
The three sections are:
1. G6 to Bb6
2. B6 and C7
3. Anything above that!


The first section, G6 to Bb6, should now be considered the normal top range of the instrument. Many oboists will have had to play A6 at some point in their career but probably only occasionally and some will not have ventured above G6. The Bb6 therefore should be considered usable but challenging. Any professional, however, once they have found fingerings for the pitches, should be able to obtain them.
The second section, B6 and C7, is for soloist’s music only. These pitches can be more difficult to obtain but they really do exist and should be used. If you are thinking about writing for a soloist from B6 upwards then it is advisable to talk with the soloist about these pitches, their attitude to them and their approach to the technical side of obtaining them. If they are worried about producing these pitches in public then I suggest that ossias should be offered. In this way your ideal aims in the music can be stated even though not initially realised. Subsequent performances could, at a later date, realise your ideal.
The third section, anything above C7, is the realm of specialist oboists who are prepared to spend a great deal of time working in this range. The comments for section two still stand but, in addition, writing in the third section carries a number of other problems. Unless you are prepared to work with the high risk strategy of having performers miss the notes frequently, which can be a very exciting or frustrating experience depending upon your approach to the music, you will be advised to talk things through very carefully with your performer. My advice therefore is not to venture into the third section unless you are sure of your performer and prepared to take risks! 


The divisions between sections are not arbitrary but have logical reasons for their existence. There are two ways in which performers can obtain the pitches in this range. First, the standard embouchure can be used, and, particularly as the performer ascends to the higher pitches some modifications to the blowing technique can be employed. Second, the oboist can place the teeth on the reed and close the lips around the reed to avoid leaking air. Up to and including Bb6 there is no need at all for the teeth to be employed on the reed and for many performers there will be little need to enhance the embouchure and blowing techniques: perhaps some extra support, but that is all.


In The Techniques of Oboe Playing (Veale, P. C.-S. Mahnkopf) standard embouchure high range fingerings are offered up to Bb6 but the B6 and C7 are reported as being teeth notes; they can be easier to obtain using the teeth. It is however possible to play the B and C, especially with practice and good fingerings, without using the teeth but they can be difficult pitches. This documentation and my own experience then are the arbitrating factors for dividing up the range between Bb6 and B6. 


The third section, above C7, has hardly any published fingerings available and so performers willing to go up there will be involved in some serious research and practice if they are going to find the pitches. This range is strictly teeth embouchure only!


Using Teeth on the Reed
The placing of the teeth on the reed, while it can help a performer to obtain the pitches, has some drawbacks that do not exist when using a standard embouchure. In order to place the teeth on the reed there needs to be a slight gap in the sound while changing from a standard embouchure to a teeth embouchure. This means that a true legato is not possible and that the execution of faster passages may be difficult. It is possible to move from one to the other very quickly but there is still an interruption. Obviously therefore moving back and forth between embouchures at speed could be quite difficult and very disruptive. If an entire passage is written including, and above, G#6 then there are ways around the problem as a series of teeth notes exist for this entire range. The problem does not exist if the performer can use the standard embouchure for all of the pitches. 


Sound Quality in this Range
I have heard many comments to the effect that the high range does not sound like an oboe! At some levels this is a valid observation: The quality of sound is different but, rather than thinking that it does not sound like an oboe it is better to realise that it is a valid oboe sound which adds new expressive possibilities to the instrument and an increased range of colours. Using the standard embouchure in the altissimo range produces a particular quality of sound and using the teeth notes offers an alternative colour: They are more fragile and can wobble quite a bit, sounding rather vulnerable. In addition there are often alternative fingerings available in this range which in slower passages could offer further colour variety.


Dynamics in the Altissimo Range
There are differences of opinion in the writings of oboists as to the dynamic possibilities in this range. In Oboe Unbound (Van Cleve) Libby suggests that they are rather quite while Veal and Mahnkopf (The Techniques of Oboe Playing) suggest that they tend to be louder; ‘mp-ff’. My own experience suggests that they are very difficult to play very quietly but that there is a significant degree of control available. Van Cleve (Oboe Unbound ) mentions her disappointment when high notes are used for a loud climax; in truth I have never found this to be a problem. The performer may like to try experimenting with different apertures to their reeds as this can help control the dynamics – narrower apertures tending to produce quieter sounds. My suggestion therefore is to write your ideal dynamics but be prepared to be flexible. 


Dexterity
The fingerings in this range are very complex (from C#6 upwards fingerings become more and more complex requiring a lot of cross fingering) however, with practice, a significant degree of agility can be obtained. It is also possible to leap from range to range as long as you remember that any performer using teeth on the reed will be a little slower. Writing at breakneck speed in this register is not advisable at the moment (though it has been done) but as oboists gain experience and knowledge more should become possible.
In addition to the standard pitches it is possible to play microtones in this range, especially quarter tones and, if your performer is willing, third tones as well. There are also many microtonal inflections available simply by adding an extra key to the fingering. These can include microtonal and colour trills.
Performing in this register is very challenging and unless your performer is very capable it is necessary to pace a composition with great care.


A Personal Plea!
Almost all of the music that employs the altissimo range comes from the more adventurous and experimental composers. I would dearly love to see this range being employed by composers from across a broad spectrum of musical styles. There are many expressive melodic lines to be written which could use this range to great effect. 


Use with Other Techniques
Because of the demands on the performer in this range it is important to be careful when employing other techniques in conjunction with this range. My suggestions is that if you wish to use these techniques then test them out with a performer first. 


The performance technique employed by the performer, teeth or standard embouchure, makes a difference to what can be done: In general the use of teeth will limit the options.
• Double and triple tonguing are possible up to Bb6 but not very effective beyond that
• Flutter tonguing is possible – certainly up to Bb6 and if the performer uses the standard embouchure then possibly up to C7
• Small portamenti are possible though there is a danger of the pitch dropping
• Circular breathing is possible up to Bb6 and if the standard embouchure is used then up to C7
• While the occasional performer may be able to sing and play in this register I do not advise its use!


Other Oboes
This range is only available on the oboe the other instruments in the family do not produce the altissimo range pitches.


Some useful books, music and recordings to explore:


Bibliography

Ely, M. C., Van Deuren A. E., Wind Talk for Woodwinds: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching Woodwind Instruments, (Oxford: OUP, 2009)
Piston, W., Orchestration 8th Impression (London: Victor Gollancz, 1978)
Post N., The Development of Contemporary Oboe Technique PhD Dissertation (New York: New York University, 1979)
Van Cleve, L., Oboe Unbound: Contemporary Techniques (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow press, Inc., 2004)
Veale, P. C.-S. Mahnkopf, The Techniques of Oboe Playing (Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag Karl Vötterle GmbH & Co., 1994)

Music
Castiglioni, N., Alef (Mainz: Ars Viva Verlag, 1965)
Finnissy, M., Pavasiya (Unpublished: 1979)
Redgate, R., Ausgangspunkte (Paris: Lemoine 1987)
Redgate, R., Quintet (United Music Publishers n.d)
Roxburgh, E., Eclissi (London: United Music Publishers Ltd, 1976)
Wolpe, S., Suite im Hexachord (New York: Josef Marx, n.d.)
Zimmermann, B., Concerto (Mainz: Schott Music, n.d.)

Discography
Castiglioni, N., Nicolo Castiglioni Wind Music. Alef: 1992, Omar Zoboli, CD: Divox, B003H01ZJ0
Finnissy, M., Oboe Plus: Berio and Beyond. Pavasiya: 2006, Christopher Redgate, CD Oboe Classics, CC2015
Redgate, R., Oboe Plus: Berio and Beyond. Ausgangspunkte: 2006, Christopher Redgate, Oboe Classics, CC2015
Redgate, R. Greatest Hits of All Time. Quintet: 2009, Christopher Redgate, Kreutzer Quartet, Metier, msv28513
Roxburgh, E., Edwin Roxburgh Oboe Music. Eclissi: 2008, Christopher Redgate, Ensemble Exposé, Metier, msv28508
Wolpe, S., Stefan Wolpe. Suite im Hexachord: 1994, Speculum Musicae, Bridge, B000003GJ1

————
This Article was written as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts held at the Royal Academy of Music, London England