A musical ensemble featuring the oboe, a double-reed wind instrument, is known as an oboe quartet. There are always four players in the group. Oboe quartet compositions, like other early instrumental orchestrations, were intended as intimate chamber music for entertainment, but modern players typically perform them formally on stage or in the studio.
The most common orchestration for an oboe quartet includes the oboe, the primary soloist, and three supporting string players. The violin, viola, and cello are commonly used string players. The soprano or upper treble pitches in the violin, the alto or middle and lower treble pitches in the alto, tenor and bass pitches in the cello can all be covered this way. A second violin player may occasionally replace the viola player, depending on the range required for each part. Composers can fill the supporting parts with instruments other than strings, but this adds to the challenge of maintaining a cohesive, well-blended sound without distracting from the soloist.
Oboe quartets did not become popular until the baroque period, which lasted roughly from 1650 to 1750. Prior to this time, the shawm was the primary double-reed instrument, which had an endcap over the reed and was so loud that it could only be played outside. The endcap was removed from the shawm, allowing the player to place his lips directly on the reed for a quieter sound suitable for indoor use. This early version of the oboe originated in France, specifically in King Louis XIV’s court.
Following its development in France, the oboe quickly became a popular instrument throughout Europe. The Italians, in particular, brought the instrument from the court to the commonplace of chamber music. Composers demanded more of the instrument and made it more virtuosic as Italians and musicians from other countries put their own stamp on it and its technique. The oboe quartet was born as a result of this, which allowed small groups to support the instrument and show it off for the first time.
Although many composers have written oboe quartets, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, is perhaps the most important example from both the baroque and classical periods. This piece is praised oboists for its delicate, singing, and playful style, as well as the intricate weaving of all players’ parts. More contemporary composers, such as Benjamin Britten, have experimented with technique, harmony, and overall imagery in oboe quartet composition. The oboe quartet, however, is a less common compositional choice when compared to other orchestrations.