In The Center of the Semicircle, Part I

In The Center of the Semicircle

By standard dictionary definition, a conductor is an individual who leads an orchestra, choir, or other musical ensemble by visual clues – we think characteristically of a conductor standing at the front of a semi-circle of musicians, posed with his back to their audience, waving his baton majestically or frenetically (one or the other depending on the style of music and the conductor’s personality).

We think in terms of such an image, but the art of conducting precedes the orchestra, or the baton. Historians of ancient music call it “chironomy,” the use of hand gestures as musical cues.

The above illustration is taken from an ancient Egyptian tomb, a mastaba. You see that some of the individuals depicted are playing musical instruments – others are making hand gestures, presumably giving guidance to the performers.

There are seven individuals, four playing musical instruments. Two of them seem to be playing the same instrument, although they’re leaning it in opposite directions. There is also a flute-like object and something held close to the ground that may be a drum. The flute player is the only instrumentalist who doesn’t seem to have his own distinct facing conductor/chironomist.

Professor Hans Hickmann studied several such carvings and sought to derive from them some definite meaning for the hand signals shown. As he deciphers them, the gestures were a musical scale of sort – watching the chironomist was akin to reading notes off a sheet.

Of course the goal of the conductors we know isn’t to tell the musicians what notes to play (or sing) but to give them assistance with the rhythm and to keep a common tempo. Conducting in that sense may have begun in the middle ages, as a choir became a routine part of worship services.


Skipping forward to the 17th century and the Baroque era, we must tell of one famous fatality attributed to overly vigorous conducting. The great French composer/conductor Jean-Baptiste Lully used to keep time in rehearsals not with a baton but with a heavy staff, which he would bang up and down on the floor. One day, conducting a Te Deum in honor of the recent recovery from sickness of his patron, King Louis XIV, Lully struck his toe with the staff and gave himself an abscess. The wound turned gangrenous, and Lully died two and a half months later.

No wonder a small wand waved about horizontally at chest level became the preferred sort of baton!

But the great era of the conductor as a central musical figure came about only after romanticism had paved the way. As an artistic movement, more than any such movement before it, (and much more than some since) romanticism glorified the individual creative genius. The conductor was an obvious expression of this – he was the individual genius who was able to turn a lot of other individual geniuses into a collectivity, getting them to act as one. It was a paradoxical sort of individual expression – and for a romanticist the paradoxical sort is the best kind!

One thinks in this context of Hans von Bulow, Arthur Nikisch, or Johann Strauss II. Let us say a word about each.

The gossip-inviting aspects of Von Bulow’s life tend to overwhelm talk of his musicianship – we remember that he wooed Frank Liszt’s daughter Cosimo, married her, and lost her later to Richard Wagner. But it was von Bulow who conducted the premier of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, in Berlin, in 1857, who became director of the Munich University of Music in 1867, and who produced in a scholarly edition of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas – one that is still available.

Nikisch was a Hungarian conductor who led orchestras to much-praised performances of the works of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Brahms. He became the principal conductor of the Leipzig orchestra in 1879 and the conductor of the Royal Opera in Budapest in 1893. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic from 1895 until his death in 1922. Nikisch seems to be the first conductor of importance of whose performance we have a visual record — film survives.

And it was Johann Strauss who, on a triumphal tour of America in the 1870s, conducted the 1,000 performers of the so-called Monster Concert in Boston.

Modernism and Movies

The 20th century brought with it changes in musical theory and temperament. Perhaps the cult of the individual genius receded a bit and the special role of the conductor in the mind of the musical public might have receded too. Except.

Except that the 20th century also brought new visual mass media. It brought motion pictures as a form of mass entertainment, and in the fullness of time it brought television. Conductors like Stokowski and Bernstein, from the 1930s through the 1960s, were celebrities who came to rival lead actors and baseball players.

It was Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who appeared in the Disney film Fantasia in (1940), where he is seen chatting amiably with Mickey Mouse between the musical selections, and he did the orchestrations for two of those selections. The image used in the movie’s advertising was of a Stokowski-Mickey handshake.

Historian Norman Lebrecht has written of this movie that “Serious music had never been so attractively portrayed” and Lebrecht supposes that “untold youngsters were drawn to Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky by the snippets they heard in Fantasia.”

This was not Stokowski’s first appearance on the silver screen (although it was the first time he shared a screen with an animated mouse). He was familiar to music-goers from The Big Broadcast of 1937 and One Hundred Men and a Girl.

Stokowski once said: “Painters paint pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” It is a marvelous analogy, but it manages to suggest that the musicians of an orchestra are collectively but a brush, and the composer’s music is the paint. The actual painter, in this image, is the conductor: Stokowski himself.

There is much more that must be said. I will devote a separate column here to post-Fantasia developments in conducting.
For now, though, let us simply enjoy the London Symphony Orchestra, which Stokowski at the ripe age of 90 conducted in this performance of Debussy: L’après-midi d’un faune.

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