My love of the oboe is related partly to immersing myself in Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations on the guanzi, dovetailing with the vocal liturgy of Daoist ritual (my film, and playlist)—as well as in the ear-scouring shawm bands of north China and other double-reed traditions around the world. But it’s also to do with playing Bach Passions and cantatas.
In Bach’s Leipzig, as in 1940s’ Yanggao, the standard of wind playing must have been high. But as usual, accustomed as we are to wallowing in soupy French film music, we may hear such music with ears different from those of Leipzig congregations. For them, the wider soundscape was the civic stadtpfeifer bands. As in China, such wind bands were first used in the army, and later also by courts, playing for ceremonies, processions, weddings and funerals, and so on.
Again like north Chinese ritual specialists, Bach’s oboists had to play several types, each suitable for different keys; and they doubled on other instruments such as violin. Bach’s long-serving oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch must have been a fine player (for John Eliot Gardiner’s ambitious connections with world shawms, see under The ritual calendar).
Not forgetting the oboe and violin concerto, here’s a little playlist (full list here):
Wo zwei und drei versammlet from Cantata 42 Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats:
And the end of the Christmas oratorio, second video from 59.06 (do listen to the following quartet too, and right to the end!).
Quia respexit from the Magnificat:
But alongside such melodic genius, I also love the sustained unison notes of the two oboes in the Suscepit Israel of the Magnificat:
Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say. For more, see under The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons.