The bass oboe or baritone oboe is a double reed instrument in the woodwind family. It is about twice the size of a regular (alto) oboe and sounds an octave lower; it has a deep, full tone somewhat akin to that of its higher-pitched cousin, the English horn. The bass oboe is notated in the treble clef, sounding one octave lower than written. Its lowest note is B2 (in scientific pitch notation), one octave and a semitone below middle C, although an extension may be inserted between the lower joint and bell of the instrument in order to produce a low B♭2. The instrument's bocal or crook first curves away from and then toward the player (unlike the bocal/crook of the English horn and oboe d'amore), and looks rather like a flattened metal question mark. The bass oboe uses its own double reed, similar to but larger than that of the English horn.
The instrument is known popularly as the "bass oboe" in the English language and "hautbois baryton" (baritone oboe) in French. The bass designation is in resonance with that of the bass flute in the flute family and the bass clarinet in that family: an instrument pitched an octave below the principal instrument of its genre.
Early bass oboes were modeled after bassoons, with a boot joint and bocal (such as Triebert's instruments, which still had a bulb bell) and some holes drilled obliquely, later an enlarged English horn design was adopted. The concept of the bass oboe as an enlarged English horn survived, and the hautbois baryton, redesigned by François Lorée, was introduced in 1889.
Some confusion exists between the bass oboe and the Heckelphone, a double reed instrument of similar register introduced by the firm of Wilhelm Heckel in 1904, and which is distinguished from standard members of the oboe family by its wider bore, different fingering system (on older instruments), and larger bell. As a result it is not always clear in English orchestral works of the early 20th century which of the two instruments is intended when the composer requests "bass oboe".
The instrument has been manufactured sporadically by various companies, including F. Lorée, Marigaux, Rigoutat, Fossati, and others. It is usually a "special order" instrument, and its purchase price normally exceeds that of a top-of-the-line English horn. Another similar instrument, the Lupophon, has been developed by Guntram Wolf, who describes it as "the new bass oboe".
- In the Great Museum of our Memory, for Bass Oboe by Brian Cherney
- The East Coast Concerto for Bass Oboe and Orchestra by Gavin Bryars
One of the most notable uses of the bass oboe is in Gustav Holst's "The Planets", where the instrument is used to great effect and provides a tone of which no other instrument is capable. Notable solo lines include some faint parts during "Mars", during the bitonal runs in the woodwind in "Mercury", numerous exposed lines in the quieter moments of "Saturn" (probably the best example of a solo in the whole work), and in the 5th and 6th bars of the bassoon's soli after the opening notes of "Uranus". The bass oboe is also prominently featured in the First Interlude of Sir Michael Tippett's Triple Concerto. There is also a very substantial solo in the second movement of Thomas Ades' "Asyla".
The bass oboe has not as yet come into its own as a solo instrument; only a single solo bass oboe concerto has been written to date (The East Coast, by English composer Gavin Bryars, composed in 1994). The work was written for the Canadian performer Lawrence Cherney, who uses a bass oboe manufactured by F. Lorée.
Robert Moran's Survivor From Darmstadt, for nine amplified bass oboes, was commissioned by oboist Nora Post and premiered in 1984. At least one sonata for bass oboe and piano, by Simon Zaleski, has been written.
- Baritone oboe page from Rigoutat site
- Bass oboe page from F. Lorée site
- Guntram Wolf web site with lupophon information
- Bass oboe audio files (Christopher Raphael)