Baroque 101: “C’est L’anche Qui Donne La Vie!”

By Marco Cera, oboe

Marco Cera, oboe. Photo by Sian Richards
Marco Cera, oboe

As a double-reed player I often get asked questions about my reeds. Why is a reed made out of bamboo? How long does a reed last? Where do you buy them? Why is it called “double reed”? Well, the topic is very complex and it would take a week-long symposium just to scratch the surface. Here I offer some useful information to satisfy your curiosity!

The term “double reed” comes from the fact that there are two pieces of cane vibrating against each other. A single reed consists of one piece of cane that vibrates against a mouthpiece. Double-reed instruments include the oboe and the bassoon; single-reed instruments include the clarinet and saxophone.

The role of the reed on the oboe and bassoon has been compared to that of the bow on the violin. The reed is the tool that produces the sound, and that allows the player to control dynamics, intonation, tone quality, articulation, and expression. In other words, it is the reed that gives life to the music: “C’est l’anche qui donne la vie!”

As you can imagine, delicate and fragile reeds are very crucial tools for oboists and bassoonists, and the struggle to find the perfect reed never ends! The importance of finding a good reed was well known already in the baroque era. In his famous treatise of 1752, Quantz wrote: “As for the tone quality of these two instruments [oboe and bassoon] much depends on the quality of the reed, and specifically, whether it is made of good, well-seasoned cane, whether it has the appropriate diameter that is neither too wide, nor too short, and that it is scraped neither too thinly nor left too thick.”

Musicians as Craftsmen

Most oboists spend a large part of their time making reeds: more than they actually spend playing their instrument! By necessity, oboe and bassoon players are not only musicians, but also craftsmen. Buying a baroque reed in a music store is not a possibility: there are few options available in the market, and they are low quality. There is very little documentation describing reed-making before 1780, which presents another challenge for those players who, like me, are dedicated to the baroque oboe and early reeds. There must have been a rich oral tradition handed down from teacher to student in the baroque era, which is forever lost to us.

Even though the internet offers articles on a scientific approach to reed-making — studies on the physics and engineering of a reed — I find the subject to be very mysterious and controversial. This might explain the curious inclination of oboists to sit for hours discussing reed scrapes, staples dimensions (staples are the metal tubes that hold the reed), diamond stones for knifes sharpening … sometimes even blaming climate change or global warming for the poor quality of the cane they are using!

The Process

The making of a reed starts by choosing the right material. Oboe players have been using a specific species of cane called arundo donax (a plant similar to bamboo) for centuries. Musical sources from the early nineteenth century spoke of the superior qualities of the cane in Frejus, near Marseille. This is the area from which most reed players still get their cane today.

The lengthy and laborious process of making a reed includes gouging, soaking, shaping, tying, scraping, refining … I’m sure it sounds like fun, but I can guarantee that this never-ending task can become quite … boring! (I have met oboe players who tried to teach their wives to make reeds to avoid the job!)

Personally, I like to concentrate my reed-making work during the summer. I spend my summers in Italy and my theory is that the weather, landscape, good food, and social support from reed-geek friends help me to succeed in the often tedious duty.

The worst of it is that most of the reeds an oboist makes turn out to be unusable. Oboe reeds are notoriously unpredictable since they are made from cane, an organic material. A finished reed that starts by emitting a few perfect notes may die abruptly in the middle of a concert. Another reed can last for weeks, survive the dry winter in Toronto, and end the season in triumph!


Students in reed-making class at Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute


Our children’s album, Baroque Adventure : The Quest for Arundo Donax will entice the imagination of young listeners and their parents alike!

 


Hear Marco perform in Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation, Nov 29-Dec 3, 2017 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

 

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