An Ill Wind Nobody Blows Good

Monday, November 01, 2010 - 04:09 PM

No one seems exactly sure who turned that phrase about the oboe, but it does seem to have happened long before my assault on the instrument. When I was in grade school, my father wanted me to play the oboe. As a composer, he knew that good oboists were hard to find, and he was right. Trouble is, my joining the ranks of double reed players turned out to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Having blatted out oboe solos in Haydn's Symphony No. 97 and Handel's Water Music with my high school orchestra, and having done in acres of arundo donax (the special cane that oboe reeds are carved from) served to deepen my appreciation for really good oboists.  The first time I heard Liang Wang as principal oboe of the Cincinnati Symphony, my head snapped around. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. I continue to enjoy his playing in his current job: principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic.

I've always been partial to the Mozart Oboe Quartet, and Liang says it was his uncle (who was also an oboist) doing the solo in Swan Lake that made him want to take up the instrument.

Do you have any favorite oboe moments, or oboists -- or do you come down in the "ill wind" camp?

Hosted by:

Naomi Lewin


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Comments [14]


I started oboe in 6th grade after begging my band director for the privilege. It called to me, from movie scores mostly, as the instrument at the center of the emotional drama in orchestral music. After graduating High School I stopped playing for about two years, deciding to "focus on my major." Of course I changed schools, decided to take up band again, and fell in love with playing again. So now I'm about to graduate with a BA in Biological Anthropology with music as a minor and I'm working on audition repertoire for military bands and grad school auditions. Also, my reed-making callouses have returned. Go figure.

Nov. 15 2010 07:47 PM
Drew Greis from Bergenfield, NJ

I graduated as an oboist from both the Eastman School of Music and SUNY at Stony Brook in the 70's. My hero as an oboist has been and may always remain Harold Gomberg for both his artistry and ability to express himself particularly in the live context where no one can hide. My absolute favorite "Gomberg" moment came in a late 70's performance of Mahler's 5th, under Boulez where in the midst of the full brass section going absolutly supersonic as only the NYP or the Chicago Symphony are capable, suddenly out of the midst of this huge cumulative sound comes Mr. Gomberg with this unbelievable solo that could be fully and beautifully heard! My jaw literally dropped. I never knew that an oboist could be heard above the trumpet section let alone the whole NYP brass on risers. Not only that, but his tone was as always full, huge even and never sounded forced or strained. Remarkable! So much, that it gives me goose bumps still thinking about it today over 30 years later.

Nov. 12 2010 03:55 PM
SGabris from Somewhere in NYC

I started out playing clarinet and when my family moved to Orange County NY and I switched schools, my band teacher was an oboe player who dreamed of having not only a HS marching band but a symphonic band as well. Since he had too many clarinets, he asked me if I wanted to play the Oboe. That was the beginning of my long love affair with the instrument (and not to mention my tackle box of Bambu cigarette papers for drying out wet pads my feather bore cleaner and the reed making supplies (sandpaper, knives, red string, etc.). I still have my first Oboe and still play occasionally. If I win the lottery, I want to get a Lore!

Nov. 12 2010 02:36 PM
Alan Van Poznak, MD from Tenafly, NJ

Bruno Labate, less than five feet tall, was the superb oboist of the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Toscanini. Bruno's feet would not reach the ground when he sat in the orchestra chair, so they made a box for him to support his feet while playing. Fearless, he got into an argument with Toscanini. "Stand up when I talk to you!" shouted Toscanini. Labate answered, "I AM standing up!"

Nov. 04 2010 08:41 PM
Alan Van Poznak,MD from Tenafly, NJ

From my long-gone childhood, I recall a book
by Lawrence (or Laurence) McKinney, entitled "People of Note." There were many humorous poems about instruments, and he
described the oboe as "an ill woodwind which
no one blows good."

Nov. 04 2010 08:20 PM

@Kevin Hale and Michael Meltzer: Thank you for the delightful do-it-yourself double reed instruments!

@Michael Meltzer: Thank you for the kind words about my father (the composer Frank Lewin).

@Neil Schnall: Thank you for the research -- I looked into the origin of the phrase before posting, and came to the conclusion that no one really knew who coined it (I was once told that it was Mark Twain, but I doubt that the oboe was on his radar screen).

@SOUSABOY: You've probably never tangled with an oboe, or you wouldn't think it was so tame. Just ask Scot Brodie!

@violinhunter: Has the New York Phil. done Tchaikovsky's 4th since Liang Wang got here?

Nov. 03 2010 06:19 PM

Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony has an oboe solo in the second movement that nobody seems to play just right. It's annoying.

Nov. 03 2010 10:20 AM
Kevin Hale from Leeds, MA

We were making plastic straw oboes (well, I was at least) in public school Island in the 70's. I should have realized paper straws were easier, but then it's all about the reed-cutting. (I cut quills as part of my work, a not un-related skill)
But my favorite double-reeded instrument, in season, is made from a squash stalk. Spaghetti, acorn, pumpkin, whatever. Much easier to craft than a drinking straw oboe and, along with the blade-of-grass-between-thumbs-single-reed-harmonica, the original "green" disposable reed instrument.

Nov. 03 2010 10:00 AM
Michael Meltzer

Ms. Lewin:
Noting that you said your father was a composer, I did a little checking. A few years back, I sang in one of your father's choral compositions with Dessoff under Kent Tritle, and want you to know that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a lilting and charming piece, which everyone in the chorus had a good feeling about.
My sincerest condolences on his loss.
It is a small world, I type this message on a computer that I bought from your sister.

Nov. 03 2010 12:43 AM
Scott Brodie from New York, NY


Sorry to hear the oboe didn't work out for you.

I took up the oboe in sixth grade at the urging of my clarinet teacher, and have kept at it for more than 40 years. There have been plenty of ghastly sounds along the way, but when you turn a beautiful or haunting phrase, or share a wonderful musical moment with your chamber group, it all seems worthwhile. Few hobbies allow you to create a wonderful moment out of thin air.

Scott E. Brodie

Nov. 02 2010 10:26 PM
Neil Schnall

Further to my previous entry, I've found the following at
An ill wind
A negative effect.

The use of ill wind is most commonly in the phrase 'it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good'. This is first recorded in John Heywood's A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, 1546:

"An yll wynde that blowth no man to good, men say."

Its listing there as proverbial demonstrates an earlier derivation.

That meaning, which is still understood today, was subverted somewhat later to provide a second meaning. In Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott included:

"Nane were keener against it than the Glasgow folk, wi' their rabblings and their risings, and their mobs, as they ca' them now-a-days. But it's an ill wind blaws naebody gude."

The meaning there is clearly the opposite of the old proverb, i.e. a wind that didn't provide benefit to someone would be a bad and unusual one indeed.

Into the 20th century we find a punning joke on the phrase that has been attributed to many people, notably Sir Thomas Beecham, although I'm unable to authenticate the true source. This calls the notoriously difficult to play French horn - "the wind that nobody blows good".

The little joke was popularized by Danny Kaye's character in the 1947 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, although in that version they unfairly opted for the tuneful oboe, presumably as 'French horn' didn't scan:

And the oboe it is clearly understood
Is an ill wind that no one blows good.

[Note to SOUSABOY: That comment could probably use a comma. ;) ]

Nov. 02 2010 03:30 PM

Oboe was much too TAME an instrument to take up Naomi....TROMBONE would have been a better choice......

Nov. 02 2010 02:55 PM
Neil Schnall

I'm familiar with the phrase from the verse of the song Danny Kaye performed in the 1947 film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty": "Anatole of Paris" (lyrics by Sylvia Fine (Kaye's wife):
[ It all began when I was born a month too soon
My ma was frightened by a runaway saloon
Pa was forced to be a hobo
Because he played the oboe
And the oboe it is clearly understood
Is an ill wind that no one blows good ...]

If it's "clearly understood", there's a good chance the phrase did not originate in the song.

Nov. 02 2010 02:42 PM
Michael Meltzer

In the 1960's in the cafeteria of the old Manhattan School of Music (238 East 105 St.), some of us learned the fine art of crafting and playing an exotic folk instrument called the stroboe. Fashioned from an unused drinking-straw (in those days they were made of a coated paper, not plastic), the initiated would flatten one end, trim off the corners of that end with a nail-clipper to form a double reed, borrow a lit cigarette from a smoker (this was the '60's) and lightly burn fingering-holes at appropriate intervals.
The art-form was said to have originated in the cafeteria at Oberlin, and had been introduced to MSM by a graduate student who had been an Oberlin undergrad. The tones produced, and some of the wonderfully original scales, would generate great admiration from other students trying to eat their lunch, if they weren't doing their theory homework at the time.
Today's straws are plastic, and plastic is usable but doesn't work nearly as well.

Nov. 02 2010 01:24 AM

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