The oboes in the photo above are what you might see onstage in Bach Magnificat or Handel Messiah, but there are many other types of oboes used in Baroque music.. In Part II of the Christmas Oratorio Bach employs a quartet of two oboes d’amore and two oboes da caccia to depict the heavenly choir of angels that appeared to the shepherds as they abided in the fields. He featured these rich-sounding instruments in a great deal of his sacred music, including Passions and in many cantatas; and wrote at least one concerto for oboe d’amore.
The oboe d’amore (“love oboe” in Italian) is a mezzo-soprano instrument tuned a minor third lower than the regular Baroque oboe, and is distinguished by a cupped bell similar to today’s English horn. Its sound can be plaintive, lyrical, or rustic-sounding; Bach used it frequently in obbligato arias, either as a solo or in pairs. The instrument appears liberally in the other Christmas Oratorio cantatas, and an oboe d’amore obbligato was featured in the “Quia respexit” movement of the Magnificat in our October concert.
The even more exotic-looking oboe da caccia (“hunting oboe”) was the alto member of Bach’s oboe family, tuned a perfect fifth lower than the standard oboe. Its leather-covered body is curved to allow the player to reach the finger-holes more easily, and its flared brass bell, similar to that of a hunting horn, probably accounts for its name. The material and shape of the bell gives the caccia some acoustic similarities to an alto saxophone and a silvery, unearthly sound. Bach used this sound with great spiritual effect; for example, in addition to playing angels in his Christmas Oratorio, a single caccia represents the brightly shining morning star in one of his cantatas, and a pair of them attends the crucifixion of Jesus in both the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion.