Historically, orchestras around the world have tuned to slightly different versions of the note A. Thomas Eisner, first violin with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, wonders whether such subtle gradations of pitch really matter


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It’s 1987. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is on tour in Germany and about to start a three-hour rehearsal. Before beginning the piano concerto, the soloist plays the A to the principal oboe, who in turn gives it to the orchestra. The woodwind section emits a collective groan: they’re wondering how they will cope with the much higher pitch of 444Hz – back in London, the orchestra is used to a lower pitch of 440Hz. Some of the older members make comments about how the pitch is much higher ‘on the continent’. Luckily the string sections, especially the violins, seem to take the so-called sharpness in their stride. Fortunately, half an hour later, everyone has accustomed themselves to the new pitch.

A few months later the orchestra is in a freezing church. It’s the height of CD mania, and everyone is recording another Symphonie fantastique. Unfortunately, the heating has broken down. The oboe’s A emerges witheringly flat, and 30 violins are forced to screw their pegs the wrong way, as they tune to what must be surely no more than 437Hz.

Thirty years ago, pitch was a subject that divided the generations. I remember attending an LPO audition; before one of the violinists had even entered the room, a very opinionated senior colleague had already decided that the German auditionee was almost certainly going to play sharp. As it was, the candidate not only played beautifully, but also ensured their violin was tuned to A=440Hz. This was, of course, at a time when most members were home-grown – we didn’t have many violinists with us from Europe.

Fast-forward to 2022. Only three of the LPO’s first violins are British-born. Does anyone even notice or care when the pitch varies? Most of us simply assume our role is simply to tune our fiddles to whatever the oboe plays.

In the UK, A=440Hz is commonly accepted as the norm, something that is rarely discussed or dictated. However, in America, everyone seems to have their own idea as to what is ‘right’ – the Big Five orchestras clearly state in their audition procedures that the expected pitch of applicants should be A=440; reputedly the grand pedagogue Dorothy DeLay had her piano tuned to 443Hz, maintaining that it would make her pupils’ violins sound more brilliant; there is even the case of a US concertmaster insisting that his orchestra tune to precisely 440.5Hz.

Many period ensembles, a modern construct, wrongly assume that all 18th-century music has to be pitched lower in order to be true to the traditions of former times. For many years it was thought that A=415Hz was the level at which composers would have written music, but relatively recently we have discovered that the pitch always varied from place to place, from as low as 395Hz to as high as 465Hz in certain towns.

A tuning fork marked ‘A’ that belonged to Beethoven measures at 455.4Hz

A tuning fork marked ‘A’ that belonged to Beethoven from 1800 measures at 455.4Hz. Back then there was no way of absolutely measuring pitch. It simply could not be measured. Technological advances meant that by the mid-19th century it was easier to prove that pitch was rising.

One reason orchestral pitch in Germany is relatively high today has much to do with Herbert von Karajan. Back in the 1960s, when the recording industry was heavily reliant on natural acoustics, Karajan and Deutsche Grammophon decided that A=444Hz afforded an extra brilliance to the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic – an orchestra that was at the vanguard of German musical life and thus influenced the country’s other orchestras to follow suit.

In 2023, before the concerts in Berlin and London begin, the principal oboes of both orchestras blow their A. There is a slight difference, but ultimately it no longer matters.


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