Sir Harrison Birtwistle ... An Interrupted Endless (1991-1994)

"I hope to have highlighted a few examples of works, and composers, that I would encourage oboists out there to learn, and perform..."


James Turnbull details the treasures he discovered during his visit to the the British Music Collection

A Treasure Chest of Oboe Music

Back in June 2016 I set off to visit the British Music Collection, with the aim of discovering as much as I could about the oboe repertoire kept there. With just one day to search the treasure troves of the collection, I made my way through a total of 266 scores from the boxes of oboe music housed in Heritage Quay, Huddersfield. This article follows from my introductory article from January 2016  (

There are a few initial impressions that I found very interesting in my search. My main misconception was that I was expecting to find a very large proportion of the works to be full of extended techniques and unbelievably challenging. In fact, I was very wrong about this, as I was struck by the diverse nature of the Collection. There were a number of very approachable works by composers known the world over, as well as some incredible compositions by people I had never heard of.

As I tried to somehow bring order to my findings, I went through the scores, trying wherever available to note the year of composition down, as well as give each piece a difficulty scoring. This second aspect is purely subjective, but I went on the basis of the following system, which I based on the UK instrumental grades system:

Easy = Grades 1-5

Moderate = Grade 6-7

Difficult = Grade 8 or harder

Very Difficult = compositions that were noticeably complex in what was required of the performer

As you can see from the graph below, the bulk of the repertoire was either moderate or difficult to play. However, the repertoire that was least represented was the type that I had previously expected to be most represented.

The graph below also shows some intriguing findings. It is important to note that of 266 works I studied, 37 were undated. One can see a clear rise towards the 1980s that tails off as we enter the new millennium. My personal experience of oboe repertoire is that there are dozens of excellent new works being written in the UK each year, so I was surprised to see so little of it represented in the collection. This made me wonder if some of the works that traditionally would end up in the collection, have remained as electronic scores held by composers, but not submitted to the collection. Another possibility is that composers and publishers will leave their manuscripts in the collection at a later date. So we could see a sharp rise in the 20 items written between 2000 and 2016, left in the collection in the coming few years.

The next aspect I noticed about the collection as a whole was the number of times that a particular oboist was clearly responsible for commissioning, or inspiring, a work by a composer. Names such as Nicholas Daniel, Melinda Maxwell, Janet Craxton, Leon Goossens, Evelyn Rothwell (Barbirolli). Virginia Shaw, George Caird and Robin Canter appeared frequently. As an oboist, I feel particularly indebted to those who have done so much to continue building a new repertoire for us to perform. Two oboists mentioned, Robin Canter and Evelyn Rothwell, added a very interesting twist to the selection of scores. The works written for Robin always made use of many members of the oboe family. For example Round-o by George Messervy, was written for one oboist to perform Baroque Oboe, Cor Anglais, Oboe d’Amore, Bombarde and Oboe with piano. The same can be said for Cantering on Firm Ground by Malcolm J Singer. Evelyn Rothwell appeared to similarly inspire an entirely different repertoire of oboe and harpsichord pieces such as Three Bagatelles by Elizabeth Maconchy, Gordon Jacob’s Sonatina and Michael Head’s Siciliana.

For those oboists interested in repertoire featuring extended techniques, I found a number of really interesting works by Joe Cutler, Simon Bainbridge, Harrison Birtwistle, James Erber, John Lambert and David Lancaster. Variations for Oboe and Piano (1989) by Joe Cutler was an example of a composition that was of clearly high quality and one I cannot wait to perform; it was a work that will take some time to learn, but is clearly an excellent addition to the repertoire. Music for Mel and Nora, by Simon Bainbridge, was a composition I found in the collection and one, I must admit, that I’ve previously known. This has also been made into a version for oboe and strings called Concertante in Moto Perpetuo. It requires glissandi, microtones, double and triple tonguing and is relentless in its energetic drive (hence the name of the oboe and strings version). It is remarkable and a very exciting piece, both to perform and listen to.

Whilst perusing the scores, I found a number of interesting works such as Hidden Arias by Paul Mealor. I had never come across the work before, but it was fantastic. I felt that Paul had clearly understood the possibilities of the instrument well. He included multiphonics, alternative fingerings and flutter tonguing, and did so in such a way that oboists who previously have not tried these techniques, might well find it a good introduction. This is yet another example of excellent oboe repertoire which I would not have known about without the help of Sound and Music and the British Music Collection!

In my search I also discovered a wonderful work for oboe and piano by Dario Marianelli. This was a special edition produced by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1993. Marianelli’s Fantasia for Oboe and Piano was another exciting discovery that I look forward to performing soon. Those of you who recognise his name, may have heard Dario’s music in numerous soundtracks, such as for the film Atonement. There were also a couple of works by Anthony Burgess that caught my eye. Most will have heard of him for his novel Clockwork Orange, but Anthony Burgess’ Cor Anglais Concertino was an example of numerous works for Cor Anglais in the Collection that I found particularly engaging.

Other works that caught my eye were that of Stephen Dodgson. His Suite in C minor is in the Collection and is another example of his fantastic writing for the oboe. He has numerous other works featuring the Oboe and Cor Anglais, which I would highly recommend. Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina was another discovery that I found very appealing, with clear Boulanger/Hindemith influences that might balance an oboe recital programme particularly well. I adore Joseph Horovitz’s Oboe Quartet and Oboe Concerto and his Sonatina is a work that I highly recommend as well. 

Following On by Tim Ewers was fascinating, as it was developed purely from the opening four notes of the Poulenc Sonata. Given the popularity of Poulenc’s Sonata in recital programming, I hope this is a work that will be performed more regularly - as it was particularly interesting. I was also very interested to find a second Sonata for Oboe and Piano by Arnold Cooke. I had previously known of his Oboe Sonata for Léon Goossens, but this one was written for Evelyn Rothwell.

It is challenging to pour an entire day’s work in to one article, but I hope to have highlighted a few examples of works and composers that I would encourage oboists out there to learn, and perform with, more regularity. I would highly recommend this excellent collection of music and should anyone reading this wish to contact me to ask more questions about my findings, please do so via my website:


Described by The Independent as “a worthy champion” of contemporary oboe music, James has dedicated much of his performing life to promoting and extending the oboe repertoire. James has performed frequently throughout the UK and Europe including a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall in 2010. He has broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and appeared as a soloist in numerous UK festivals including Oxford, Leicester, Cambridge, Thaxted, Ryedale, Machynlleth, Swaledale and, King’s Lynn. James has released solo recordings for Champs Hill Records, Quartz Music and the ABRSM, as well as featuring on a disc of Thea Musgrave’s works for Harmonia Mundi USA. Gramophone Magazine described his debut recital disc, Fierce Tears, as a “notable debut” and it was selected as the Editor’s Choice Recording by Classical Music Magazine.

James is deeply committed to expanding the oboe repertoire. He worked closely with Michael Berkeley, John Casken, Jonathan Dove, John Woolrich, Thea Musgrave and Tansy Davies on their compositions for oboe. Composers including Patrick Hawes, Thomas Hewitt Jones and Norbert Froehlich have also written for him. James has a keen interest in researching lost repertoire and bringing to new audiences works which have been rarely performed. In 2011 he worked closely with Christopher Hogwood on preparation for a new edition of Thomas Attwood Walmisley’s Sonatinas for oboe and piano.

In 2015, James started the New Oboe Music Project which aims to promote existing new music for the oboe and encourage more composers to write for the instrument. More about this can be found at

A Treasure Chest of Oboe Music by James Turnbull