PURE VIENNESE OBOE
of Wolfgang Küss (1779–1834), Vienna
The sound of the oboe
General description of the instrument
The instrument which I describe here is a very mature model of an oboe made by Wolfgang Küss, which is evidenced by its timbre and characteristics of producing sounds (resulting from the applied bore proportions), as well as by the outward features visible to the naked eye, e.g. the middle c key for the little finger, and not for the ring finger, as it was formerly; the carved thumb rest; the three-dimensional filed profiles of keys (and not cut out of brass sheet as before); and also the round milling of the sound holes under the keys.
This is a remarkable and very important oboe of the Romantic era, an instrument significant from the point of view of not only nineteenth-century Vienna music, but also for the history of oboe in general, particularly the German oboe.
This is an exquisite musical instrument, most probably made between 1825 and 1830, which proves its builder to be one of the most distinguished oboe makers of the 19th century. It was Küss who created the characteristic Viennese oboe with the typical short bell (which was so willingly copied by other makers in Vienna, Prague or Mainz; e.g. Schott, Ludwig & Martinka, Zencker, Horak). Such a solution allowed much more reliable operation of the low B key, without uncomfortable connections of keys between the joints, and provided greater precision in reaming the bore.
What is even more important, Wolfgang Küss significantly improved the construction of the tuning slide by shifting the place of extending the bore between the tuning slide and the upper joint, which caused the oboe to have much better intonation at different positions of the slide.
Schumann — Romance, pearwood
Küss by Filip Frydrysiak, copy made of pearwood (with light reed)
oboe: professor Tytus Wojnowicz
piano: Hanna Kraski
recording: Maciej Zadroga
place: The Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, 2019 Warsaw
Schumann — Romance, boxwood
Küss by Filip Frydrysiak, copy made of boxwood (with light reed)
oboe: professor Tytus Wojnowicz
piano: Hanna Kraski
recording: Maciej Zadroga
place: The Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, 2019 Warsaw
Features of the oboe
The characteristic features of the Viennese Romantic oboe of Wolfgang Küss
Tone colour: deep, rich in aliquots, homogeneous and much more focused sound than any other sound of oboes from the entire first half of the nineteenth century. True romantical tone.
Range: from b to Ab 3
Carved body: hand-carved blocks in the upper joint (in one piece of wood!), hand-carved blocks and the thumb rest in the lower joint (in one piece of wood!), a short bell without holes.
Keys: 13 — b, C, C#, Eb, left Eb, F, left F, F#, G#, B key/lever for left thumb, middle C, octave key.
Tuning slide: the most advanced of all these mechanisms; a combination of wood and metal. The narrowest part of the bore is made inside a very thin brass tube (placed in a wooden, detachable upper part of the upper segment); the mechanism slides into the lower part of the upper joint, which is also lined with brass and works on a telescopic basis (the same way as the trombone slide). The upper part of that very thin pipe is cylindrical outwardly, but conical inside, since it constitutes the bore of the oboe.
Pitch: from 442Hz to 430 Hz (thanks to the tuning slide). Possibility of precise tuning to other instruments.
Reed/mouthpiece: very well working together with modern reeds!
A very important element of Küss’s oboe is the tuning slide (one of the elements which are the most difficult to make) and its special construction. The original of this copy with the maximally slid-in tuning part plays at the pitch c. 442 Hz ‑445 Hz (obviously, it depends on the applied mouthpiece; the hardness of the reed, and its length); thanks to pulling the tuning slide out you can even obtain the 430 Hz tuning and, what is interesting, you can preserve quite a good intonation! It is due to the fact that the retractable tuning upper part is in fact a part of the bore and, additionally, it is divided in a very advantageous place from the acoustic point of view. Moreover, inside the wooden body of the upper – tuning – part of the upper joint there is a very thin telescopic brass tube (which is cylindrical outwardly and conical inside; compatible with the bore), which can be slid in and out of the lower part of the upper joint, lined with brass. Apart from the sophisticated music function, this solution has one more important quality: in its most sensitive, narrowest part, the bore is resistant to any changes caused by moisture, because it is made of metal, but thin enough that it does not affect the sound adversely. Such a solution is brilliant both musically and technically, and even much better than many modern attempts to stabilize the upper part of the bore of modern oboes (resins, plastics, etc.).
Wolfgang Küss — the outstanding oboe maker
Unfortunately, very few instruments made by Küss (oboes, clarinets, bassoons) have survived. Wolfgang Küss enjoyed such a reputation in his times that many nineteenth — century makers (both from Vienna and from outside Vienna) tried to copy his instruments, with varying degree of success. Frequently, the copies were excellently made from outside, but the proportions of the bore differed greatly from Küss’s instruments. It was Küss himself that warned against such ‘fakes’ in the Vienna press of the time and informed that his instruments were always provided with his signature mark.
It is well-known that the music of as late as the second half of the 19th century was still successfully played on Küss’s oboes; which is not surprising, taking into account the sound, possibilities and quality of the oboes made by this builder.
Naturally, the oboes by Küss which have survived come from different periods of his activity and obviously differ much from each other, which clearly shows that improving both the sound and the construction of the oboe was a priority for this eminent maker. An overview of his oboes shows what direction he followed and how he developed the idea of the 13-key oboe, initiated by the instruments of Koch/ Sellner.
These instruments were the first oboes of the so-called Viennese type, different from all the others at that time, and Wolfgang Küss’s modernisations gave splendid sound to them (the bore of the oboe I describe is formed by a dozen or so of conical profiles, completely different than in any other oboes of those days!). It is obvious that the oboes of Koch / Sellner, as well as of Küss, were the most revolutionary in comparison with their contemporary ones and by that they obviously had the greatest impact both on the oboes made since 1825 in Vienna and outside it and on the late nineteenth-century Viennese/German oboe, because all the later nineteenth-century evolutions of the German type oboe were possible thanks to those very first brilliant Viennese builders.
Some evidence that this instrument was so innovative for the period in which it was built is the fact that if you put a reed from any modern oboe, it plays very well with the instrument! That is exceptional for the original oboes of the first half of the 19th century.
In the original instruments, not in their modern, frequently altered, “copies”, the lowest register of the classical and early-Romantic oboes usually requires a very soft reed (just like in the eighteenth-century oboes ); otherwise these sounds “roll” (that is, make a very unpleasant rattling sound “trrrr…” instead of the pure one).
In the oboe by Wolfgang Küss even the lowest sounds of the register never “roll”, even on the hard reed (like in the modern oboes!) It is credited to the proportions of the bore, that is, the application of profiles of numerous cones of which the bore is built.
Although softer reeds, similar to those used in the classical oboes ( Grundmann, Grenser, Floth, etc.) can also be applied to this Romantic oboe, some of the sound possibilities provided by this instrument, that is, the beautiful dark and velvet sound, are then lost.
It is worth mentioning here that there are wide discrepancies and doubts as to determining the actual ancestor of the modern oboe of the German system (the so-called Viennese oboe).
The construction of this oboe…
…irresistibly puts us in mind of the fact that actually no more durable and sophisticated construction for minimising the risk of wood cracking and for stabilising the narrowest part of the oboe bore has been invented to this day.
The oboe is strengthened in the points most susceptible to wood splitting, the connectors of the joints are — as in the classical and baroque oboe – thickened, in order to strengthen the wood.
Although Wolfgang Küss must have known various ways of fastening the keys (metal
saddle ones or on small metal bars), he made reliable little wooden blocks; reliable, since thanks to them no metal interferes into the body of the oboe and, as a result, the risk of the wooden body of the instrument splitting is minimalised almost to zero. On the other hand, however, such a solution certainly involves the necessity of very hard work on the instrument — hand-made carving of the blocks. It is the same with the thumb rest, which is carved by hand and made from one piece of wood of the lower joint; and, in consequence, it is very durable and prevents the risk of wood cracking while metal screws are driven into it, which is often the case with other oboes, also the modern ones.
The oboe by Küss…
…has a rich in aliquots and focused tone colour, strong at the bottom of the range, melodious in the middle register and rather gentle at the top of the range. It is definitely deep than nasal. Generally speaking, it can be said that this oboe has a very even sound throughout its whole range. What is characteristic, is the sound of the high register (from D2 to C3, D3), which is not as pungent as in the modern oboe (nor as nasal as in the classical oboes), thanks to which it can blend beautifully with other instruments in the orchestra). For those who play it, it is a great pleasure to enjoy, so to say, intonation reliability of the instrument, incomparably greater than on any classical oboe (e.g Grundmann, Floth and other.
The sound range of Küss’s oboe is from b to Ab 3. After a short time, it is quite easy to master fingering with the use of its 13 keys. The numerous variants of fingering make it possible to use either that ‘key’ application or the baroque-classical fingerings, which gives great technical possibilities, and also allows for achieving interesting tones of the sound. Obviously, this oboe possesses full possibilities of chromatic play; it has the key for the left Eb, as well as for the left F, and also a change lever for the left thumb for the Bb sound, which is useful for both Bb and the variant of the middle c. Its octave key fulfils its role very well for all the second octave sounds.
The original oboe by Küss
Because of the excellent technical condition of the oboe by Küss and its magnificent sound and intonation, my copies are identical with the original in every detail.
I do not apply any modernizations/adaptations of the bore proportions, finger holes or any other.
I have been a historical oboes maker for over 20 years and it is my mission to build the most faithful copies of these instruments which will bring the original sound of the first really ’Viennese’ oboes closer to a wider audience of music lovers and will make it possible for the oboists to learn the technique of playing and, above all, give them the pleasure of playing one of the most interesting oboes of the Romantic era.
Created by the artist for artists…
All parts of Küss oboes are hand-made, all made personally by me.
Every detail is refined with the oboist’s comfort in mind. For example, the hand-carved thumb rest can be profiled by me individually, taking into account the shape of your thumb.
The wood I use to make the body of Küss oboe is of the highest of highest quality (dried only by natural way), which is mainly due to the extremely long seasoning period — not like in modern oboe factories, a few years — but at least 20 and 30 years. Such wood gives excellent resonance, and also minimizes the risk of oboe’s warping, which would, for example, threaten to block the keys mechanism and tuning-slide.
Every my Küss oboe lies in an oil bath for a period of several months, according to the art of craftsmanship of XIX builders, thanks to which the instruments gain moisture resistance and additional durability.
One of the most important parts of the oboe, which is the bore, requires a lot of specially hand-made reamers, which in the case of Küss oboe must be incomparably more precisely made than tools for other historical oboes from the 18th or 19th century (e.g. Grundmann, Grenser, Floth).
The keys in this romantical Küss oboe are not cut from a brass sheet (as in baroque and classical oboes) but are full-size, forged in solid brass, complicated profiles. Thanks to this manual manufacturing technique, the keys do not bend so easily, which translates into their reliability.
For a lasting effect, the keys in Küss oboe I polish by hand, finally with nephrite stones.
Unlike modern oboe bodies, for the most part manufactured entirely automatically, I do the entire process of making oboes after Küss entirely by hand, because all elements simply cannot be done otherwise.
From the point of view of the art of building oboes, Küss’s oboe is certainly one of the most difficult oboes in history to do.
Due to the lengthy process of manual production of this oboe, I make only a few copies per year.
Wood to choose from:
- Pear wood,
- King Cherry wood,
- Ambrosia Maple wood,
- African Blackwood.