(Fr. direction d'orchestre; Ger. Dirigiren; It.direzzione d'orchestra)
Modern conducting combines at least three functions:
- The conductor beats time with his or her hands or with a baton in performance;
- The conductor makes interpretive decisions about musical works and implements these decisions in rehearsal and performance;
- The conductor participates in the administration of the musical ensemble.
The word conducting acquired its present meaning in the 19th century, as the practice developed in its modern form. Conducting is largely limited to the tradition of Western art music, although other traditions have adopted the practice (e.g. Turkish art music, big band jazz).
The history of musical direction may conveniently be divided into three overlapping phases: the singer-timebeater (15th–16th century); the instrumentalist-leader (17th–18th century); the baton conductor (19th–20th century).
By the first decade of the 18th century the batteur de mesure had become established as a distinct function at the Opéra. Around 1760 his position was merged with that of the maître de musique, suggesting that he had acquired other responsibilities. J.-J. Rousseau described in 1758 how the batteur marked the beat, not with vertical movements in the fashion of singer time-beaters, but with a downbeat followed by ‘various movements of the hand to the right and to the left’.
Although audible time-beating declined, the authority of the maître seems to have grown at the Opéra during the last part of the 18th century. The maître stood at the stage apron, facing the singers, with his back to the orchestra, beating time and directing with a short, sturdy baton. His activities were called ‘directing’ (diriger) or ‘conducting’ (conduire), and he himself became known as the ‘chef d'orchestre’.J.-B. Rey, first batteur, then maître at the Opéra from 1780 until 1810, began his regime by instituting a system of auditions and, when his authority was challenged in 1800, succeeded in having the first violinist dismissed (Charlton, 1993). According to one of his supporters, Rey was the ‘motor of the whole musical action’, taking responsibility not only for rhythm and tempo but also for the character of the music, for phrasing and for the coordination of singers, chorus, dancers and orchestra. By the beginning of the 19th century the chef d'orchestre at the Opéra looked and acted in many respects like a modern conductor.
The need for a central figure visually in charge of the ensemble became widely accepted with the difficulty of the Romantics music. The codification of visual signals as the sole systematic means of guiding a performance quickly followed. The evolution of the art of conducting from auditory directives, including clapping, tapping (although tapping the stand at the start lingered on through the century), foot-stamping and shouting, and most of all playing along, coincided with the decline in amateur participation in public performance and the rise in spectator expectations.
Throughout the 19th and the early 20th centuries, conducting technique and training remained linked to opera, because of the scale, the number of variables and the demands of the theatrical that frequently worked against coherence on the musical side. The conductor took on the role of a leading stage personality and became the focus of adulation, criticism and applause.
The gradual separation of conducting from composing gave rise to a crisis of confidence within music criticism and the public about conducting; it mystified the skills and technique of the conductor while shifting the focus of attention to mannerisms, style, appearance and issues of interpretation.
A conductor was expected to possess an aura, defined by Davison as ‘that special, perhaps magnetic, power of holding together and swaying numbers of men’.
Conducting as an autonomous craft entered a new phase with Berlioz and Wagner. In 1856, Berlioz wrote the first important modern treatise on baton conducting, Le chef d'orchestre: théorie de son art. He made a clear distinction between time-giving and the real art of the conductor, interpretation. After Berlioz, the most influential reconceptualization of the role of the conductor was Wagner's. In his 1869 tract Über das Dirigieren he derided most of his predecessors.
Conductors exerted profound influence on 19th-century urban musical culture, as in the cases of Liszt in WeimarTheodore Thomas in New York and Chicago, Hans Richter in Vienna, Edouard Colonne in Paris, Hans von Bülow in Hamburg and Berlin and later Henry Wood in London. Early 20th-century treatises on conducting stress economy of gesture, close analysis of the score, and control of the baton sufficient to indicate inner beats and subdivisions.
The demand to see celebrity conductors on the podiums of the great metropolitan orchestras resulted in a legendary cadre: Adrian Boult, John Barbirolli, Thomas Beecham and Malcolm Sargent in England; Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Busch, Franz Schalk, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss and Erich Kleiber in German-speaking Europe; Václav Talich in the Czech lands; Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet in France and Switzerland; Victor de Sabata in Italy. With the advent of travelling conductors, the monopoly of power traditionally wielded by conductors over individual orchestras and concert programming began to weaken.
At the end of the 20th century stick technique and podium manner had become more standardized than at any point in the history of conducting. Working from a reliable text, and often after examination of other source materials, a conductor may study the score through harmonic and rhythmic analysis, possibly at the keyboard. A conductor must make informed choices about blend and balance, line and partwriting, bowing and articulation, dynamic, shade and colour. These choices will derive from personal judgment after close score study, will be marked and entered in the players’ parts and will inevitably be adjusted in the process of rehearsal, especially if they come into conflict with orchestral traditions, accepted wisdom and the reality of creating sound; dynamic markings, for example, are relative and become meaningful only in relation to the sound produced by the particular orchestra.
In both the symphony hall and the opera house, high costs place a severe limitation on rehearsal time. Rehearsal strategies vary widely. Many conductors will play a work from beginning to end and then return to correct deficiencies. Some will begin correcting errors and phrasing from the start. Many will call out errors as the work is in progress and some will stop and demand changes at every instance. At the second rehearsal, highly skilled conductors often work from a list of problems revealed at the first; in the process, they may select significant sections from within the music, the solution of whose problems will then apply broadly across the work and in that process establish a model, so conserving time and creating musical coherence.
The modern baton, a white length of wood or plastic, serves to clarify and magnify the gestures of the hand; its use is entirely optional, largely traditional and frequently serves primarily to mesmerize the audience which has come to expect it. The baton has no inherent musical properties.
The beat and the preparatory intake of breath establish tempo, character, style and power. The impact of that preparatory event is crucial; widely employed in opera, the breath of preparation assists singers and wind players especially to prepare entry and quality of sound, and it is usually audible. The basic movements of the stick are vertical and lateral; where there is only one beat or two beats to the bar it is vertical only. The way in which this is done varies according to whether the music is slow or fast, legato or staccato, and so on. Where there is only one beat in a bar the bounce must be considerable in order to reach the point at which the next beat begins.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Garabet Avessian
Page created at: 11-06-2015