MUSIC : Conductor’s Role Has Changed With Music

A recent lawsuit between a local conductor and some orchestra members has raised questions as to the role of a conductor: just what it is that a conductor does, and how important is a conductor in the way an ensemble makes a piece of music sound? This story launches an occasional series that will attempt to address these and other questions about the art of conducting.

Hard as it is to imagine now, music in the Western world didn’t always have or need a conductor as we now know the beast.

During the Renaissance, a church choir director simply indicated when the singers should come in, letting them interpret the lines as he used his hands to beat time.

Bach, Mozart and Haydn managed quite well by directing their compositions from the harpsichord or fortepiano, or allowing the first violinist to start the music and keep it going. Their ensembles were small enough for the players to hear what everyone else was doing, thus the musicians could make minute adjustments as they went along.


Opera, of course, always involved more elaborate forces. To coordinate singers and players, the Paris Opera during the 17th and 18th centuries came up with the novel idea of putting the conductor on stage where he beat time--loudly--on a table.

Later, they moved him into an orchestra pit, but he still kept time by pounding the floor with a staff. Doing so, French composer Jean Baptiste Lully struck his foot one day, the foot became inflamed, gangrene developed and spread rapidly and Lully died in agony.

Conducting from the keyboard persisted in some European quarters until the 1870s. But increasingly, the first violinist (concertmaster) came to direct the musicians. Even when there was a nominal conductor, up until the time of Mendelssohn and Wagner it was the concertmaster who usually led rehearsals.

This divided responsibility led to conflicts, as the conductor attempted more and more to assert himself--not always successfully--as sole authority.


It was one thing for music of the baroque and early classical periods, which pretty much could run itself once started. But greater oversight became necessary with larger ensembles, different compositional structures, changing tempos and more intricate foregrounding and backgrounding of thematic events.

No longer could the musicians hear each other, nor could they grasp the whole from their comparatively smaller parts. Someone had to know the score.

To provide the oversight, conductors took to using their hands, rolls of paper, violin bows and, finally, batons.

Until the middle of the 19th Century, they usually wore white gloves, even if this made turning pages more difficult. Some also used elaborate bejeweled batons (one conductor had a special baton he used only for the music of Beethoven) and some sat in chairs while they directed. All the musicians, except the cellists, however, had to stand when they played.


In those days, conductors did not feel that they had to be active the whole time they were on the podium, however. Weber and Mendelssohn often would put down their batons after starting and let the orchestra continue on its own. They felt that they should beat time only when passages got especially difficult or the musicians seemed to be getting into trouble.

Like Weber and Mendelssohn, the first conductors were also composers. But that didn’t mean necessarily great performances.

Beethoven, often transported by his own music, would crouch down out of sight during pianissimo passages and add his own shouts on top of fortissimos. He would have memory lapses and lose his place. Players had to learn to disregard him.

Beethoven’s symphonies remained problematic for many years. French conductor Francois-Antoine Habeneck, who founded the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1828, rehearsed the “Eroica” for almost 1 1/2 years before he felt confident enough to lead it publicly.


Similarly, he rehearsed the Ninth Symphony for three seasons, but when he conducted it in 1831, the audience was so puzzled that for the next six years he would dare lead it only one movement at a time.

Wagner may have been the first person to face the orchestra. Earlier, the conductor faced the audience or, if he were conducting an opera, faced the stage. In either case, the orchestra was behind him. In choral works, he might place himself between the choir and the orchestra behind, with the orchestra again behind him.

Composer Ludwig Spohr probably was the first conductor to use a baton in England. At least, he left a vivid account of how he induced shock among the musicians and board of directors of the London Philharmonic when produce a baton to conduct in 1820. The increased precision of the orchestra’s playing won the day there, but it took a while for the baton to become more universal. Some conductors to this day refuse to use one.

Hans von Bulow, who lived from 1830 to 1894, was a disciple of Wagner, an advocate of Brahms and is considered the first major conductor who was not a composer. He inaugurated the modern age in which conducting is a separate pursuit.


Bulow believed in memorizing scores--an idea that earlier had been regarded as an insult to the composer--and insisted that his orchestra members play from memory, too. They often did. Later conductors also have felt impelled to conduct from memory.

For convenience sake, it’s easy to line up subsequent conductors according to two schools of thought that developed from the contrasting approaches taken by Mendelssohn and Wagner. The first, derived from Mendelssohn, advocated careful adherence to the score and perhaps is best personified in the 20th Century by Toscanini. The second, Wagner’s method, treated the score only as a blueprint for the spontaneous recreation of a work. Wagner’s conducting was characterized by fluctuations in tempos and dynamics and by conducting in large phrases rather by bars. Furtwangler and Bernstein typified this style in our century.

Common to both approaches, from the 19th and to the early 20th centuries, however, was the conductor’s willingness to rewrite parts, change or add instruments, make cuts and otherwise edit scores in order to “improve” the work or bring it up to date in terms of available instruments.

Strict adherence to the printed score is a comparatively recent development, characteristic of the ascension in our age of the literalist school of conducting, especially in early or baroque music.


But since we also have entered the age of the conductor as superstar, in which we talk about Szell’s Beethoven or Karajan’s Beethoven, the struggle between the two schools may not be as resolved as we think.

* Next: Great conductors comment on their craft.