The long reed

For some woodwind instruments, their close cousins sound markedly different. Take the closing bars of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, for example. When the shrill piccolo slices through the texture, there’s no way you would mistake it for the sound of an homogenous flute. And when the bulky contrabassoon enters in Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, it’s a veritable Beast of a sound in contrast to the Beauty that has preceded it; the standard bassoon can’t attain such a growl.

For the oboe, however, its cousin the cor anglais offers a more subtle contrast. The difference in pitch between the two is not great, yet the cor anglais’ construction gives it a plangent sound that composers have long favoured and utilised. Any orchestral work that features it may well have the oboe player on the go from start to finish, relatively unappreciated, whereas a mere 16 bars from the cor anglais will have susceptible listeners swooning, ooh-ing and aah-ing.

The oboe, the slightly bigger oboe d’amore, the even slightly bigger cor anglais, the English horn in translation, the oboe da caccia in history – it’s quite a bunch of variations on a single instrumental theme. So this week’s blog will restrict itself to a presentation of music written for the cor anglais, and hopefully introduce some unfamiliar compositions along the way.

The Classical period is pretty barren territory for the instrument. Take Haydn’s 100-plus symphonies, for example. The cor anglais is used in only one – his Symphony No 22, ’The Philosopher’ – and, adding to the curiosity, the scoring is for not one, but for 2 cor anglais, 2 horns, bassoon and strings. Here’s an extract from the opening movement, which starts with the cor anglais echoing the horns against a modest string accompaniment.


Symphony No 22, ‘The Philosopher’ (8.550724)


A number of Romantic composers, including Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn, didn’t use the cor anglais. A notable exception during that period was Berlioz (1803-1869) who included it as part of the expansion of his orchestral palette. One example of its use is in his Damnation of Faust, which Berlioz termed a Légende dramatique. The plot centres on Faust’s bargain with Méphistophélès, the seduction of Marguerite, her imprisonment for matricide and her salvation, while Faust himself is dragged down to Hell in damnation. These events are vividly captured with all Berlioz’s skill of dramatic orchestral writing. The fifteenth scene, Romance, finds Marguerite suffering the pangs of loss, in the absence of her lover Faust, whose every feature and gesture she had so admired. She is constantly at watch by her window, awaiting Faust’s appearance, and longing for his kisses again. The melancholy sound of the cor anglais underpins the scene.

Romance (8.660116-17)


Let’s get up closer to the instrument now by taking it out of the orchestral ranks and hearing it as a centre-stage soloist. We’ll stay in the first half of the 19th century with music by Donizetti, better known for his operas than for the relatively small amount of instrumental music he wrote, much of which was occasional in nature. This was true of his Concertino for Cor Anglais and Orchestra, written in 1816 for a fellow-student at the Conservatory in Bologna. It was intended for an instrument in G (which is no longer in use) with a range of two octaves and a second, lying a fourth lower than the usual oboe of the time. For modern performance the cor anglais is the most suitable instrument. Here’s part of the opening of the work, which is titled Andante con variazioni.

Andante con variazioni (8.557492)


We move now to the last decade of the 19th century and to music composed by Dvořák during his time in America. Dvořák was deeply influenced by the country and by the ‘Indian’ and ‘Negro’ music he heard, as well as the songs of Stephen Foster. In Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, which he said he had first read in translation thirty years before, he found an expression of American identity that also took its due place in his symphony. He made it clear that all the themes were original, although shaped by the use of particular rhythmic and melodic features of music of the New World.

The slow movement of the Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’, with its famous cor anglais solo, has been associated with the blessing of the cornfields in Longfellow’s poem, or with Hiawatha’s Wooing and his journey home with his bride, while some have found echoes of the burial of Minnehaha in the forest.

Symphony No. 9 (8.570714)


Something to challenge the ear now, in that Richard Dubugnon’s Canonic Verses, written in 1997, are scored for oboe, oboe d’amore and cor anglais: three peas in a pod, but can you differentiate them? And to challenge both the brain and the ear, can you unravel the structure on which the music of Verse II is built, namely two canons where the 3 instruments play at 3 different speeds in straight and inverted motion? Good luck!


Canonic Verse II (8.555778)


Our last three works were composed earlier in the 20th century, the first by Charles Koechlin. A pupil of Gabriel Fauré, Koechlin occupies a position of honour among French composers, highly respected as a teacher and counting among his own pupils Poulenc and Tailleferre, while exercising a strong influence on Milhaud and the younger composers associated with Satie. His pre-eminence as a theorist has led to undue neglect of his music, so we can help to redress that situation with one of his Pieces Op. 179 that were written in 1942: the Adagio à la blanche for cor anglais and strings.

Adagio à la blanche (CD93.026)


The English composer William Alwyn is perhaps best known for his film scores, which number some two hundred. But he also wrote a considerable amount of symphonic music, including concertante works. Alwyn was a collector of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He composed in his studio where these paintings looked down on him and provided the inspiration for his evocative Autumn Legend. It was his personal tribute to Rossetti and the score is prefaced with these words from Rossetti’s poem The Blessed Damozel:

Surely she leaned o’er me – her hair
Fell all about my face…
Nothing: the Autumn fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.

For those who have not heard this piece before, it’s certainly worth listening to it in its entirety.

Autumn Legend (8.570704)


It may be difficult to better the magic of that music, but we can certainly equal it with the slow movement of  Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G that dates from 1931. Originally conceived as a Divertissement for Ravel’s own concert use, it’s relatively lightly scored, although the percussion section includes triangle, drum, cymbals, side drum, gong, wood block and whip. Ravel claimed to have taken the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet as the model for his slow movement. It opens with a beautiful and nostalgic piano solo that becomes interspersed with some delicious woodwind contributions before a significant cor anglais solo sensually intertwines with the piano. To separate any of these sections would be a criminal use of scissors, so here’s that slow movement in full.

Piano Concerto in G (8.573572)


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