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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From "a doubtful privilege" to "the solo in every concert" : the oboist's tuning-A in John Corigliano's "Tuning Game" Cooke, Kristen Susan


In the modern symphony orchestra, it is common practice for the musicians to tune to the principal oboist’s note A– known as the “tuning-A”– at the beginning of a concert. Although tuning the orchestra is widely accepted by orchestral musicians and audiences as an important part of the oboist’s job, there is a lack of academic research on the practice. We do not yet have a clear understanding of why the oboist gives the tuning-A– a practice whose origins Geoffrey Burgess and Bruce Haynes call a “mystery” in their well-researched history of the instrument, The Oboe (2004). Further, because the practical knowledge required to successfully play the A has mainly been passed aurally from oboist to oboist, there is little written documentation of the practice. In this dissertation, I begin to document the oboist’s relationship to the orchestral tuning-A from three different perspectives. In Chapter One, using primary historical sources from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, I trace the emergence of the oboist as the orchestral tuner around 1800 in Paris and the continued debates surrounding the oboe’s suitability for tuning into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Chapter Two, I discuss the findings of my original online survey of practicing principal oboists in Canadian professional orchestras, including evidence that oboists see the tuning-A not only as a practical tool, but as an expressive solo. I also address possible reasons for the oboe’s continued role in modern orchestral tuning, including the instrument’s unique timbre and oboists’ ability to adjust pitch. In Chapter Three, I present my analysis of the first movement of acclaimed American composer John Corigliano’s (1938- ) Oboe Concerto (1975), called “Tuning Game,” which the composer describes as “an extension of the preperformance tuning rite into a virtuosic game.” Using Hepokoski and Darcy’s Sonata Theory (2006) as a starting point, my original analysis shows the ingenuity of Corigliano’s use of the tuning-A as a defining compositional feature of “Tuning Game”—a perspective that no scholar has contributed before. Ultimately, I argue that the oboist’s tuning-A is a musical object with rich aesthetic value.

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