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Selectors' choice: Oboe

6 years ago

With the new Oboe syllabus presenting a treasure trove of repertoire, we asked syllabus selector Josephine Lively and syllabus moderator Kathryn Gunn to choose and comment on some of their favourite pieces from the lists.

Grade 1 – Kathryn Gunn

List A
Susato: Les Grands Douleurs

Plumping on pieces that would be fun at Grade 1, I’ll go first with the Susato (from Sounds Classical for Oboe, used at Grades 1 to 5). The music reminds me of my early days as a musician when every so often I was allowed to join the adults for a fabulous play-through of large consort early music – with crumhorns, sackbuts, recorders, viols, tabors and lutes. Try to find a recording in this style. It’s a joyous cacophony of sound that immediately places the music in its original Renaissance setting, conjuring up images of courtly dances in stately, elegant surroundings. The strong thematic material here is reassuring to emerging musicians and there are opportunities to discuss points such as ensemble with the piano, early double-reed instruments, hints of hemiolas (bars 25 to 27) and the lilt of triple time.

List C
Dave Gale: The Ending’s Well

At the other end of the spectrum, JazzFX for Oboe (set at Grades 1 to 4) provides this infectious jazzy piece – boisterous and dynamic. It’s a delight for oboists to be let loose in this style which is immediately engaging for the vast majority of young learners. The feel of swing rhythms, the importance of rests and different jazz articulations can be explained to adept pupils, with the most able and inquisitive grasping the difference between the heavier (tenuto-marked), longer-tongued notes that contrast with the staccato marks and later final accents.

Grade 2 – Josephine Lively

List B
Keith Bartlett: Cairo Carnival

In this charming piece strong rhythmic figures and clever use of minor harmony conjure up a picture of a bustling Egyptian scene complete with camels and snake charmers, which will be instantly appealing to young players. Although it’s one of the longer pieces, material is repeated and there are plenty of rests in which to breathe. The piece comes from Just for Fun! for Oboe which contains pieces set at Grades 2 to 4 and comes with a useful accompaniment CD for practice.

List C
James Rae: Shot or Javelin

The source for these pieces is James Rae’s Olympic-inspired volume, Track and Field for Oboe. This clever book depicts a different athletic event in each study. It’s offered as a List C choice from Grade 2 to Grade 7. For Grade 2 the choice is between Shot, with long-note crescendos evoking the preparation of the shot, and Javelin, where imaginative changes in rhythm and articulation suggest the javelin’s curved flight through the air. Both require a strong sense of rhythm with good control over dynamics and articulation. However, the imaginative musical depictions will encourage the player to overcome any challenges.

Grade 3 – Kathryn Gunn

List B
Brahms: Poco Allegretto

Returning to Sounds Classical for Oboe, how lovely to see this attractive melody from the Third Symphony becoming available to young players in such a grown-up fashion. This is an orchestral excerpt that they will encounter again in years to come, although a little different in the original (C minor and 3/8), or that may well be heard on the radio. The charming triple-time lilt, sustained lyrical line and quintuplets give ample room to discuss rhythm (also some duplets against triplets in the accompaniment). Other useful elements for discussion include: mood, intonation, shape and tone, and how to take the lead in a Romantic solo melody.

List B
Duncan Reid: The Inebriated Swan

With its irresistible title, this piece clamours for attention and comes from Duncan and Paul’s Shopping List for Oboe (also used at Grade 2). It delivers the promised comedy with a cheeky approach (and apologies) to Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake oboe solo. What an opportunity for pupils to listen to the original and acquaint themselves with such a classic, and then to enjoy the sense of humour here. Anyone worrying about explaining ‘inebriation’ could point out that the swan may be feeling bloated after drinking too much lake water! The chromatic scale, some forked Fs, top-register intonation, a sprinkling of accidentals, syncopations and dynamics can all be discussed. Plus a certain early-stage lack of sophistication in tone may be forgiven more easily here, perhaps in the way that a honky-tonk piano sets off a certain style of ragtime!

Grade 4 – Josephine Lively

List B
Marco Pütz: The Dreamer

This is the first of Two Pictures for oboe and piano, with the second – the quirky and characterful The Little Rascal – offered at Grade 5. They both make excellent short concert pieces. The Dreamer is a beautifully lyrical, sustained piece with haunting harmonies in the accompaniment. It will encourage pupils to develop a sense of phrase shape and direction with which to ‘sing’ the wonderful melody. The piece requires good stamina and embouchure control, but phrases are not overlong with time to breathe between each one.

List C
Mike Mower: Drifting Off

Drifting Off comes from The Good-Tempered Oboe, a welcome newcomer to the syllabus. The book features on List C at every grade and provides some wonderfully varied solo pieces in a mix of styles. The Grade 4 choice is a tuneful, approachable piece in G minor. Lots of musical detail and an evocative melody make this rewarding both to play and listen to, with especial appeal for the student who would prefer a solo performance piece over the conventional technical studies also offered in this list.

Grade 5 – Kathryn Gunn

List A
Corelli, arr. Barbirolli: Preludio and Allemanda

Set on Grades 4 and 5, this concerto still has a place in my heart as a dedication to one of the ‘grandmothers’ of our present English oboe school – Evelyn Rothwell (Barbirolli). It’s a lively, varied piece that makes you feel you have hit the realms of Baroque playing, but without the tricky technical demands of Bach, Telemann, Handel, Albinoni and Vivaldi at the later grades. Here the oboe can be lyrically legato or dancingly buoyant by turns, with the demands of trills, arpeggio patterns, clarity of articulation, leaps and the potential for further decoration all to be incorporated.

List B
Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man

Taken from Copland for Oboe (used here and at Grade 7), this arrangement of the iconic fanfare demonstrates the oboe’s potential to be as loud, lyrical, clear and soloistic as the original. A very solid sense of pulse and rhythm, reliable counting and attention to articulation markings are all essentials here. There are some forked Fs (to/from D, Eb and low Bb) and some leaps to negotiate accurately without too many mishaps. Pupils will also need good breath control, some power in the forte markings and flexibility – as well as that particular reed that can do it! There is also a rare and enjoyable opportunity to belt out a juicy low Bb – Déploration from the Poulenc Sonata at Grade 8 being one of the others.

Grade 6 – Josephine Lively

List A
Trad. arr. Hart: Annie Laurie

This is from an exciting new collection of pieces for oboe and piano – Star Pieces, Vol. 1 by Paul Hart – which can be found on the lists at Grades 6 to 8. For Grade 6, Annie Laurie is on List A with the tuneful La Scala appearing on List B. The style of Annie Laurie is after Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, with the Scottish folk song Annie Laurie weaving through the music as the chorale theme does in the Bach. It’s joyful, celebratory music, so the performer should aim to give the 12/8 time signature a two-in-a-bar feel to communicate this. It requires good finger co-ordination with well-supported breathing to sustain the flowing legato lines. All the Star Pieces make excellent concert pieces and will be thoroughly enjoyed by students.

Grade 7 – Kathryn Gunn

List A
Cimarosa, arr. Benjamin: Introduzione and Allegro or Introduzione and Allegro giusto

Choosing favourites at this grade is a challenge. But the Cimarosa wins for me because of its mournful, melodic and flexible Neapolitan operatic style and tonguing challenges in turn. The syllabus requires two contrasting movements – the snake-like legato first movement, with glimpses of cadenza material, balanced with the rapid-fire tonguing of either the second or fourth movement. Here the oboe’s nimble, crisp articulated abilities can be developed, although always keeping an eye and an ear on choosing a tempo that sits comfortably within a pupil’s reliable tonguing ability. Either of these movements make for a triumphant ending.

Grade 8 – Josephine Lively

List A Walmisley: Sonatina No. 2 in G

This is the second of two sonatinas issued in a beautifully produced, informative edition from Christopher Hogwood. They are welcome additions to original oboe repertoire from the late Classical/early Romantic period. Walmisley was taught composition by his godfather Thomas Attwood, a pupil of Mozart. This influence can be heard in the sonatinas along with echoes of Schubert and Mendelssohn. They are perfectly written for the oboe and an absolute joy to play. Sonatina No. 2 opens with a recitative section offering scope for an imaginative interpretation, which leads to the main G major Allegro moderato. This all lies readily under the fingers. However, the real challenge is to achieve the flexibility and attention to detail needed to capture the charm and delicacy of this music.

This article was originally featured in the October 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

The new ABRSM Woodwind syllabus is available now at and in booklet form. Recordings of selected pieces from the Oboe syllabus will be available in December as individual audio downloads. The new syllabus takes effect from January 2014.

Kathryn Gunn is an experienced professional oboist, cor anglais player, pianist, accompanist, teacher and writer and an ABRSM diploma, jazz and main panel examiner.

Josephine Lively is an oboist who has played with many British orchestras and who teaches at the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance. She is an ABRSM examiner and tutor for the National Children's Orchestras.

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