I’m aware this post is a bit on the long side, (I hope you’ll stick with me), mainly because the subject matter is quite in-depth. I opted for a slightly meatier article as I didn’t want to just pay lip service to a profession that requires huge amounts of skill and dedication.
Certain conductors are just as famous and revered in their own right as the soloists and orchestras they wave their batons at; with reputations alone that can fill a concert hall. Here are the cream of the crop listed by surname, both past and present, across the alphabet:
Abbado, Alsop, Barbirolli, Barenboim, Beecham, Berlioz, Bernstein, Böhm, Boulez, Boult, Britten, Bülow, Celibidache, Chailly, Davis, Dudamel, Elliot-Gardner, Eschenbach, Furtwängler, Gergiev, Giulini, Hogwood, Haitink, Jansons, Järvi, Karajan, Kleiber, Klemeperer, Levine, Liszt, Maazel, Marriner, Masur, Mendelssohn, Muti, Nikisch, Norrington, Oramo, Ormandy, Ozawa, Pappano, Previn, Rattle, Rostropovich, Salonen, Sargent, Sinopoli, Solti, Stokowski, Szell, Tennstedt, Tilson-Thomas, Toscanini, Wagner… I could go on forever!
Classical music fans tend to have their preferences. For some it’s their interpretation of a particular work, and for others, nothing less than hero worship. Leopold Stokowski was known for his innovative orchestral arrangements; and his enduring performance in Fantasia for Disney, which brought classical music to a whole decade of youngsters and continues to do so to this day.
Documentary – Stokowski at 88:
Leonard Bernstein’s talks on music educated a swathe of music lovers into understanding the master composers, along with his legendary teaching abilities.
Daniel Barenboim and his close friend, the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, jointly created the ground-breaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999. WEDO is a youth orchestra made up of musicians from the Midde East, namely Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, being based in Seville. They are an example to us all through their unity and their music. I saw them perform Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies at the Royal Albert Hall for the 2012 BBC Proms. It was magical!
In Barenboim’s own words:
“The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago – …create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”
Herbert von Karajan, principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 35 years, was just epic in every sense of the word… But not loved by all: Save us from the resurrection of that old devil
Composer/conductor Jean-Baptise Lully (1632 – 1687) goes down in history as the only conductor to be mortally wounded in the pursuit of his craft. Death by baton occurred when Lully staked himself in the foot with his long conducting staff during a performance of his Te Deum to mark Louis XIV’s recovery from surgery. The wound became infected, but Lully refused amputation and died of gangrene two months later.
They all had, and have, their special attributes, their individual quirks, that players and listeners either love or loathe. But regardless of their personalities (which do in part help to cement their reputations), it’s their innate skill to understand the music and bring out the best in their ensembles and orchestras that fascinates us as much as their ferocious expressions when a beat was missed or a note played out of tune.
Documentary – The Art of Conducting – Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era:
Over the years they have been sent up as bumbling idiots presiding over a rabble of musicians… Rowan Atkinson conducting Beethoven never fails to amuse!
In the third chapter of my novel, The Virtuoso, I briefly explore the role of the conductor from the protagonist’s view point (after all, she is married to one!) In my story he is a little unhinged, so I’m making un-reserved apologies now to all conductors: I’m not saying you are all egomaniacs like the character Howard Miller, who is derived solely from my imagination!
Throughout the evening Isabelle observed Howard intently. She had never really seen him in action before, as their schedules hadn’t been conducive to joint collaborations. It was one of the few times his normally furrowed face was free of lines, and just animated. He waved the baton rhythmically, first low by his waist when the music came to a quiet section, and then as the tension built and it came to a crescendo he was more forcible; also using his left arm, raising it, and sometimes shaking it slightly to indicate to the strings that he wanted more volume or intensity. It was certainly a skill that she greatly admired. No matter how good the individual players in an orchestra were, the resulting experience of the audience was also impacted largely by the role of the conductor. He was the sculptor shaping and carving the flow of time and the form of the music, living and breathing the notes with his orchestra. But it was a skill that involved so much more than beating out time. Part of his job was to embody the character of the music, as well as to deeply understand the tempo and phraseology of the work, and how the abilities and ranges of his musicians and their instruments could express the essence of the music in each moment.
It was a delicate eco-system she mused: the conductor could have all the mechanics and knowledge at his disposal but without the attribute of being able to physically communicate his feelings evoked by the music to his players, through his meaningful actions of the baton, his arms, his hands, his fingers, eyes and the gestures of his personality, and have them respond accordingly, it would not elevate them all as group to an exalted performance. Most conductors were also proficient or virtuosic on an instrument themselves. These were the attributes that were needed to be a really great conductor.
She had been impressed to learn that Howard could listen to a score as he looked at it, hearing the printed notes in his head before a single note had been played. She knew he was fastidious about preparation and could anticipate where his musicians might make mistakes during a performance. He had quoted Leonard Bernstein to her on one occasion. ‘Isabelle, conducting is like breathing; the preparation is the inhalation, and the music sounds as exhalation. I have to always be a breath ahead of them.’
What was it that set apart the big names from the ones who didn’t quite make it on to the world stage? The likes of Karajan, Barenboim and Bernstein who had achieved their iconic status had an intangible magic about their relationships with their respective orchestras. She wasn’t sure if Howard shared their passion, he seemed to exhibit more of a cold ambition.
Respect on both sides was essential, but it had to be more than that. It had to be total commitment. Love for the music created an energy that brought it to life for the audience.
Interestingly, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (named after the eponymous London church where they are based) was created by Sir Neville Marriner in 1959 as a small string ensemble that would perform minus a conductor, but has since evolved to a larger group now with a conductor.
Mendelssohn founded the first tradition of modern conducting based on the concept of precision by using a baton about 150 years ago.
Big Think gives us food for thought:
Maestro we need you!
- Co-ordination especially larger orchestras
- Understanding complex music
- Preparation & Interpretation
- Perception of the inner meanings of music
- Powers of communication & inspiration
- Knowledge of the cultural background of the composer & context of the work
- Balance, dynamics, style & tempo
- Sculptor of time, not just the beats but the form, the whole phraseology of the work
- Intangibles – Conductor & orchestra bound together in the moment, creating a physical response in the listener.
London Symphony Orchestra conducting masterclass:
I love this eloquent extract from Leonard Bernstein as he describes a conductor’s role in his book, The Joy of Music:
“But the conductor must not only make his orchestra play; he must make them want to play. He must exalt them, lift them, start their adrenalin pouring, either through cajoling or demanding or raging. But however he does it, he must make the orchestra love the music as he loves it. It is not so much imposing his will on them like a dictator; it is more like projecting his feelings around him so that they reach the last man in the second violin section. And when this happens – when one hundred men share his feelings, exactly, simultaneously, responding as one to the rise and fall of the music, to each point of arrival and departure, to each little inner pulse- then there is a human identity of feeling that has no equal elsewhere. It is the closest thing I know to love itself. On the current of love the conductor can communicate at the deepest levels with his players, and ultimately with his audience. He may shout and rant and curse and insult his players at rehearsal- as some of our greatest conductors are famous for doing – but if there is this love, the conductor and his orchestra will remain knit together through it all and function as one.
Well, there is our ideal conductor. And perhaps the chief requirement of all is that he be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience; that all his efforts, however strenuous or glamorous, be made in the service of the composer’s meaning- the music itself, which, after all, is the whole reason for the conductor’s existence.”
In some cases the composer himself is the conductor. Nothing new there. But – when his composition skills outweigh his conducting skills and he can’t hear, that’s a brave undertaking indeed!
In conclusion, I am reminded of the words of the soprano Wilhemine Schroder-Devrient in 1822, recalling her experiences of singing the role of Leonore in a revived production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, with dear Ludwig himself conducting:
“At that time the Master’s physical ear was already deaf to all tone. With confusion written on his face, with more than earthly enthusiasm in his eye, swinging his baton to and fro with violent motions, he stood in the midst of the playing musicians and did not hear a single note! When he thought they should play piano, he almost crept under the conductor’s desk, and when he wanted a forte, he leaped high into the air with the strangest gestures, uttering the weirdest sounds. With each succeeding number we grew more intimidated, and I felt as though I were gazing at one of Hoffman’s fantastic figures which had popped up before me. It was unavoidable that the deaf Master should throw singers and orchestra into the greatest confusion and put them entirely off beat until none knew where they were at. Of all this, Beethoven was entirely unconscious, and thus with the utmost difficulty we concluded a rehearsal with which he seemed altogether content, for he laid down his baton with a happy smile.”
The image this passage conveys always brings a smile to my face.