Why do orchestras tune to Violin's "A"?
Earlier, the bright, rather penetrating sound of the oboe was easy to hear, and its pitch was more stable than gut strings, so it was natural to rely on it for tuning.
But why is it that the Violin now takes up that role?
And why is it an A note only?
The violin doesn't take up that role in any orchestra I'm aware of, except for string orchestras.
If there are only strings, the orchestra tunes to "A". The reason we tune
A separate "Bb" for the woodwind and brass is not uncommon in my area.
Suppose for philharmonic orchestras, who then takes up this major role of tuning? Is it the oboe then?
It's still the oboe. All the concertmaster does is signal the oboist to begin.
The oboe has very little intonation leeway through "embouchure", so we rely on its A.
Historically concertmasters have been sort of leaders* (lower case) of orchestras, get paid a good bit (2nd only to conductors except in the rarest cases), walk in next to last, and if they are already standing - why shouldn't they stand to signal that it is time for this conventional final tuning (that should not be necessary).
Here in the UK we tend to use "Leader" instead of "Concert Master". I'm trying to re-educate myself ;)
I've seen "leader" used on occasion in the US, but only in orchestras that play without a conductor. Perhaps Americans take a more conductor-centric view of the orchestra?
No discussion of tuning to the oboe would be complete without Sir Thomas Beecham's famous quip when the oboe's A was wandering all over the place: "Ladies and gentlemen, take your pick."
@Andrew - only in the US do you hear the conductor called "Maestro"!
Hmm, that's true. I get the sense American orchestras are often more formal than their European counterparts. You can see it in concert attire too. My impression is that American orchestras' dress codes seem to be universally either white tie or black tie, while business attire is not uncommon in Europe.
Andrew Victor's point is a good one historically. Back in the Baroque era, there was no conductor, and the concertmaster lead the orchestra from his chair. Joshua Bell leads Academy of St. Martin in the Fields that way, i.e., as concertmaster rather than conductor. I think Orchestra of St. Lukes operates that way also.
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