A retrospective on the early works of the British Music Collection by James Turnbull

Phantasy quartet (Op.2) for oboe,violin,viola,cello

Whenever seeking out new repertoire I am always intrigued by the way the oboe repertoire has grown exponentially in the past century. Having benefited from a number of prolific composers in the Baroque era, the oboe’s influence as a solo instrument waned during the late Classical and Romantic periods. Many have attributed this to the establishment of the clarinet as an exponent of Romantic repertoire amongst other reasons. I do believe, however, that we are now living in 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.

In a forthcoming series of articles, I will be highlighting some more specific examples of works in the Collection but in the meantime I’d like to give an idea of statistics involved. The British Music Collection currently includes approximately 60,000 items, of which 344 feature the oboe, cor anglais, oboe d’amore or bass oboe. Within this we have 92 for oboe solo, 189 for oboe and piano, 140 for oboe plus one of instrument (excluding piano) and approximately 10 oboe concerti.

During the Twentieth Century a number of oboists have significantly propelled the repertoire forwards and their influence can be seen in the number of pieces dedicated to each performer. The first half of the 1900s saw figures such as Léon Goossens, Evelyn Rothwell and Sylvia Spencer inspire 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYC-6A_dgbs 

One notable contribution to the oboe repertoire dedicated to Evelyn Rothwell was Edmund Rubbra’s Oboe Sonata Op. 100. Upon meeting Evelyn in 2005 I asked her what she felt the greatest composition from her lifetime had been and she referred to this sonata as being the most special work for her.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwWsl8kXwE8 

One very substantial exponent of oboe repertoire is Benjamin Britten. In many ways his output reflects the way in which relationships between performers and composers can drive a repertoire forwards. He was inspired to write Phantasy Quartet for Léon Goossens while at the Royal College of Music. He added Two Insect Pieces for Sylvia Spencer and wrote Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for Joy Boughton in the years that followed. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dUu3zEcZPg 

Later in the twentieth century another major inspirational force emerged in the playing of Janet Craxton. Sadly Janet passed away unexpectedly in her fifties but had already made a major impact on the repertoire. In particular, her work with the London Oboe Quartet resulted in some tremendous additions to the repertoire. Janet championed the oboe repertoire and inspired an entire generation of oboists and composers. More about Janet’s life and work can be found here: http://www.craxtonmemorialtrust.org.uk/html/jcraxton.htm

Works in the collection that have been premiered by or dedicated to Janet include Elizabeth Maconchy’s Quartet and Elisabeth Lutyen’s Driving out Death and are wonderful additions to the repertoire that have not always been performed outside the UK as often as might be ideal.

Click here to listen to sample of Maconchy’s Quartet (http://www.oboeclassics.com/aJCM.mp3)

Janet’s impact on the oboe repertoire is also seen in the works of Michael Berkeley. One of the most wonderful and amazing additions to the repertoire is the Oboe Concerto by Michael Berkeley that Janet premiered in 1977. In memory of Janet, Michael later wrote Fierce Tears I inspired by the Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. 

This article brings us up to the mid-1980s and highlights just a small selection of the incredible compositions for oboe featured in the British Music Collection. My next article will be surveying some of the oboe repertoire featured in the collection from the past 30 years and bring us up to the present day.

If you would like to hear more samples of the repertoire mentioned above, a Spotify Playlist can be found here: http://open.spotify.com/user/jwillturn/playlist/4SWg3oMLgNNlBcc5QhJfvW 

The Rise of The Oboe by James Turnbull