How do you describe the sound of an oboe? "Bright and unique", says one writer; "strong" and "easy to pick out" says another. Elsewhere, the sound is described as "beautiful, sweet, haunting" (listen for yourself there and elsewhere and see if you agree). Some of these writers attribute the oboe's "haunting" quality to its descent from "pastoral" instruments such as the shawm, and while I'm as reluctant to subscribe to this sort of romanticized pastoralism as I am to resort to indescribing it as "indescribable", I'm not convinced I can do any better.
However, I do know why the sound of the oboe is particularly magical for me. It goes back to my school Carol Services (which were, essentially, over-produced talent shows for the sort of schoolchildren whom addedentry would probably regard as irredeemably middle-class). I loved the yearly ritual: the term of intense rehearsals finally crowned by four performances (one dress-rehearsal and three 'proper' performances), and for all its pretensions, the school extracted some impressive performances from its pupils. The programme varied from year to year, but there were some staples without which it simply wouldn't have been the Carol Service; and one of these was the performance, on oboe (with piano accompaniment), of Peter Cornelius's beautiful carol "Three Kings From Persian Lands Afar", with the oboe playing the solo melody and the piano acting as the accompanying chorale. For those few minutes the entire school and congregation was spellbound, holding its breath while some young bespectacled oboeist seemed to shine in the halo of the spotlight. I fell in love with each one of those oboeists for the duration of their solo, hanging on the yearning sound produced by their every breath, barely daring to breathe until the last memory of their final note had died away.
The CCO's oboeist, a lovely young man called James, laughed at me when I confessed that his solo part in "Gabriel's Oboe" always brought tears to my eyes, and I laughed it off as one does. I don't know to which Gabriel the title refers, but my mind made its usual associative connections. We may have been jostling for space in a room that was bright and heavy with light and heat, over-decorated with enormous glittering baubles and tinsel; but for a few moments, every ear in the room was focused on that single melody -- the sole star visible in a dark sky, a clear annunciation.