The Rise of the British Oboe

Sound and Music

An exploration of 20th and 21st century British oboe repertoire using the British Music Collection as source and inspiration. Curated by James Turnbull

Oboe, From the collection of: Sound and Music
This exhibition is an introduction to British oboe music composed since the turn of the twentieth century. The influence of great oboists such as Léon Goossens has heralded a golden age for oboe compositions with a vast new repertoire being established since the early twentieth century. Much of this is represented in the incredible British Music Collection.
Helen Grime, From the collection of: Sound and Music
Oboe Concerti
Pictured: Helen Grime (1981-) whose Oboe Concerto won a British Composer Award in 2003.

A significant number of excellent British oboe concerti have been composed since 1900. Arguably the most popular in terms of regular performances worldwide is that by Ralph Vaughan Williams who wrote his Oboe Concerto in 1944. Like so many works including the Britten Phantasy Quartet this composition was inspired by the oboist, Léon Goossens.

Other notable British oboe concerti from the early to mid-twentieth century included those by Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, Arnold Cooke, Eugene Goossens (Léon’s brother) and Gordon Jacob (who wrote two Oboe Concerti).

In recent years, oboe concerti by James MacMillan, Peter Maxwell Davies, Helen Grime, Michael Berkeley, John Casken, Judith Bingham, David Matthews, Richard Rodney Bennett, Wilfred Josephs and John Woolrich have continued this tradition. These are sure to become significant additions to the oboe repertoire following numerous performances and critical accolades. There are also signs of a new body of work for cor anglais being fostered such as James MacMillan’s The World’s Ransoming written for Christine Pendrill and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Benjamin Britten, From the collection of: Sound and Music
Oboe Chamber Music
Pictured: Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

Throughout the past century, the oboe quartet and oboe quintet have proved to be particularly popular instrumentations for composers to write for.

For many, the rise of the oboe quartet began with Benjamin Britten’s second opus, the Phantasy Quartet (1933).

A few years later, Gordon Jacob wrote his Oboe Quartet (1938).

The period from 1922 to 1936 also saw the rise of the oboe quintet (oboe plus string quartet) with Arnold Bax (1922), Arthur Bliss (1927), Elizabeth Maconchy (1932) and Gerald Finzi (1936) all write stunning compositions for this combination.

Janet Craxton and London Oboe Quartet, From the collection of: Sound and Music

A substantial proportion of the oboe quartet repertoire that followed in the 1960s and 1970s was inspired by Janet Craxton and the London Oboe Quartet. Craxton commissioned a whole new body of chamber music including oboe quartets by Lennox Berkeley (1967), Nicola LeFanu (1968), Richard Stoker (1970), Elisabeth Lutyens (1971), Elizabeth Maconchy (1972) and Francis Routh (1977). See

Leaping forward to the late twentieth century and even more recently, composers such as Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews, Helen Grime, Michael Berkeley, and Charlotte Bray are continuing to breathe new life in to the combination of oboe and string trio/quartet.

Aside from oboe quintets and quartets, there other substantial contributions to the oboe chamber music repertoire. Two excellent examples are the Vaughan Williams Ten Blake Songs for oboe and tenor and James MacMillan’s Intercession for three oboes.

Thea Musgrave, From the collection of: Sound and Music
Solo and Duo compositions
Pictured: Thea Musgrave (1928-)

This is in many way the hardest facet of the British oboe and cor anglais repertoire to curate. To mention just a handful of composers and their works would involve neglecting many incredible compositions that deserve prominence.

One aspect to mention is a selection of composers who wrote numerous times for the oboe or cor anglais. Such examples include Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Gordon Jacob, William Alwyn, Lennox Berkeley, Stephen Dodgson, Robert Saxton, Michael Berkeley, and Rob Keeley.

A large body of music for solo oboe and solo cor anglais without piano also now exists. Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid have become a crucial cornerstone of the solo oboe repertoire.

There are also growing numbers of compositions for oboe and tape such as Thea Musgrave’s Niobe. Further contributions to the solo oboe and cor anglais repertoire include music by Edwin Roxburgh, Paul Patterson, David Knotts, Gordon Jacob, Paul Reade, Mark Simpson, Tansy Davies, John Casken, Judith Bingham, Kim Ashton, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Peter Maxwell Davies.

Evelyn Rothwell, From the collection of: Sound and Music
Pictured: Evelyn Rothwell (1911-2008) also known as Evelyn Barbirolli.

During the twentieth century a number of oboists significantly propelled the repertoire forwards and their influence can be seen in the number of compositions dedicated to each performer. The first half of the 1900s saw figures such as Léon Goossens inspire a number of significant works found in the British Music Collection. Prime examples would be the Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto, Alwyn’s Suite for Oboe and Harp and York Bowen’s Oboe Sonata which were all dedicated to the wonderful playing of Goossens.

A notable contribution to the oboe repertoire dedicated to Evelyn Rothwell was Edmund Rubbra’s Oboe Sonata Op. 100. Evelyn Rothwell also commissioned a significant number of works for oboe and harpsichord including Three Bagatelles by Elizabeth Maconchy, Gordon Jacob’s Sonatina and Michael Head’s Siciliana.

Janet Craxton, From the collection of: Sound and Music

The remarkable impact of Janet Craxton on the oboe repertoire has already been mentioned. Despite her early passing, Craxton left behind an immense collection of new music for oboe that she had commissioned and championed. Michael Berkeley’s Oboe Concerto was premiered by Janet and he dedicated his Fierce Tears I in memory of her in 1983.

Following this, Nicholas Daniel has pioneered a whole new body of oboe works. Amongst many other examples, James MacMillan composed his Oboe Concerto for Daniel. In particular Nicholas Daniel has championed the works of Thea Musgrave, John Tavener, John Woolrich and Michael Berkeley as well as working with hundreds of other composers to increase the oboe repertoire's scope in the twenty first century.

Within the British Music Collection there are a number of exceptional examples of oboe repertoire inspired by oboists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Melinda Maxwell is a remarkable exponent of the instrument and has worked closely with numerous composers such as Harrison Birtwistle and Simon Bainbridge. Melinda Maxwell has also written several stunning works for the oboe too such as Pibroch. Most recently she has explored aspects of jazz and improvisation with the instrument.

Christopher Redgate has also cultivated an entire new repertoire for the oboe. Redgate has developed an entirely new version of the oboe with Howarth of London. In particular Redgate has focussed on extending the microtonal and multiphonic possibilities of the oboe as well as extending the upper range.

Kim Ashton, From the collection of: Sound and Music
New Voices
In the past 10-15 years a plethora of ‘new voices’ have emerged in the UK. For further listening and information of new works for the oboe, visit Composers such as Kim Ashton (pictured; and an alumnus of Sound and Music New Voices 2014), Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade, James Wiliamson, Edmund Jolliffe, Thomas Hyde, and Emily Doolittle are excellent examples of composers who have recently added to the repertoire. Every month they are joined by engaging composers seeking new paths for the instrument.
oboe, From the collection of: Sound and Music
Where next?
The future looks remarkably bright for the oboe and cor anglais. With many composers exploring a wide variety of styles and approaches to composing new oboe music it is exciting to see what the next decade will bring. Composers have pushed the oboe further and further in recent decades but it is important to note that they have often been commissioned or inspired by performers who have extended the possibilities of the instrument and dedicated their lives to building a new repertoire for future generations. 
Curated by James Turnbull
Credits: Story

Curator - James Turnbull

Thanks to Angharad Cooper and Sound and Music as well as the staff at Heritage Quay who look after the British Music Collection.

The exhibition featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions and curator, who have supplied the content.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.