Why do orchestras tune to the oboe?
Well, because it’s tradition, I suppose. But, realistically, in a professional group the pitch standard is likely determined in advance, and the oboist will use an electronic tuner to be sure they are giving precisely the correct pitch, so it could just as well be anyone.
But the principal oboist is almost always the keeper of the A. It seems like there are a lot of theories floating around as to why, none of which make the slightest bit of sense. I found all of these professed as gospel truth in less than five minutes of Googling:
- Because the oboe can’t be tuned. Firstly: hogwash. (True, the oboe doesn’t have a built-in tuning slide. But an oboist can “tune” by switching reeds, and can humor individual notes sharper or flatter on the fly, just like any wind player.) Secondly: if we tune to the principal oboe because it can’t be tuned, then what is the second oboist expected to do? Or the harpist? Or the pianist?
- Because the oboe’s pitch is the most reliable. More reliable than, say, the glockenspiel? Given a high-quality instrument, an excellent reed, a fine oboist, and a 72.0°F room, then yes, the oboe’s pitch ought to be pretty solid. But on a stage full of trained musicians, I can’t see any reason to expect it to be more reliable than anyone else’s.
- Because the oboe can be heard better through the group, because of its volume or tone or something. If that’s the criteria for selecting a tuning instrument, then I suggest that we consider the trumpet, or perhaps the piccolo. The Wikipedia article on the oboe, incidentally, mentions both stability and “penetrating” tone as reasons for oboe tuning, but cites an online article that no longer exists.
- Because the oboe warms up to pitch faster than the other winds. This could be true, but how much longer does it really take to warm a flute or clarinet or trombone up to pitch? Hopefully the other musicians aren’t tuning before their instruments are thoroughly warmed.
An additional theory, reported in New Grove and citing Vogt and Fétis’s 1837 Manuel des compositeurs:
- Because the oboe has a narrow bore, temperature variations have a lesser effect on its pitch. I welcome comments from the scientifically-inclined on this one, or from those who have read Vogt and Fétis in the original, but, if I’m not mistaken, smaller masses are actually more susceptible to temperature change.
There’s a historical explanation of the oboe-tuning phenomenon on the Rockford (IL) Symphony website that is, at face value, about the most reasonable one I’ve seen. However, the supposedly historical background is unsourced, and certain assertions (like concert B-flat being the “natural” tuning note of B-flat instruments?) lead me to believe that the article has not been rigorously researched.
What’s your theory?