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Conductor Post

An Early History of Conducting

Person conducting

When did conducting start?

Not to be obtuse, but rather, to be comprehensive, every time a musician (even a solo musician) takes responsibility for a performance: choosing the tempo, the style of interpretation, the manner of articulation and hundreds of other musical details, that musician is “conducting” the music. A solo pianist, when sitting at the piano, “conducts” the piano by bringing certain musical lines more (or less) into focus, by deciding the degree and type of lament in a musical phrase, and so on.

But for our purposes, we are more likely thinking of conducting in terms of one person who is not “playing” and is “leading” multiple musicians in a performance so that the result is a cohesive musical experience.

In smaller ensembles, it is interesting and perhaps (to non-musicians) even surprising that individual musicians communicate through their body language (having rehearsed the work multiple times together) what that cohesive musical experience will be. This always happens within a string quartet, a woodwind octet, a brass quintet, or a madrigal choir, to name a few. There is no conductor. These smaller groups “think” and “feel” as though one “person” is performing. They have communicated both in rehearsals and during performances well enough to each other that they sense the “group direction” and do not need to be “led” by an extra person.

Frankly, “conducting” has its beginnings several hundred years ago when ensembles started to get large enough that they either could not hear each other or see each other well enough to stay together. The answer was for one musician to “stomp” on the floor so all could hear (and feel) where the “beat” was and therefore play together. This evolved into someone using a stick – like a walking stick – to bang on the floor so that everyone heard and felt the beat and could play together. (I can’t imagine the noise that would make, interfering with the sound of the instruments!) 

You may know the famous story of the first conductor fatality: Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). He was a famous composer and, while stomping his walking stick to keep everyone together, he inadvertently hit is foot, contracted gangrene and died.

The next evolution in conducting was for the concertmaster (the principle violinist) to wave his/her bow in the air from time to time when it was needed to start, end, or somehow keep the musicians together.

The following innovation was an offshoot of the violin bow. Composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is credited with being the first “conductor” to stand in front of an ensemble, not playing, branding a small stick in his hand (a shorter form of the violin bow) to indicate to the large ensemble when to start, how fast to play and when to stop.

Since then, batons of all shapes and sizes (remember the super-long batons that persons like Lawrence Welk used?) have been used by conductors.  Recently, I used a “wand” from the Harry Potter collection of wands while conducting a suite from a Harry Potter movie. To my amazement, a young child “named” the very wand (they are NOT all alike!!!) that I was using! At another concert, a former violinist offered me his “light saber” to conduct a suite of Star Wars music! I had to make sure not to hit any of the musicians in the front row!

One of my favorite memories was as a child. My cousin, slightly older than I, played in the world-renowned Cudahy “Lake Band”. This band, led by a most talented and disciplined conductor by the name of Harold Lorenz (1928-1989), took the band all over the country, winning many prizes. I attended some of the band’s indoor concerts. At one point during one concert, the house lights and stage lights all were turned off while the musicians and conductor were still on stage. The conductor had the band memorize the entire piece they were to play (that is unheard of for bands and orchestras). All of a sudden, we saw a small, lit baton appear in the dark which flawlessly led the musicians in the piece they performed. WOW! I was impressed!

I hope this brief review of the origins of the conductor adds to your appreciation of the many delights the symphony orchestra has to offer. In future articles we will explore other topics. Here are some you can look forward to: (not in any order). (And by the way, if you have a topic to request, let me know – mkamenski@saintsebs.org.)  

  • Perfect Pitch
  • Prepping and Rehearsing a Score
  • Room Acoustics
  • Role and Limits of Musical Notation
  • Musical Interpretation
  • Musical Topography (Where do the musicians sit in the room?)
  • Scientific Musical Standards (Hertz (Hz) – frequency, Beats Per Minute (bpm) – tempo, Temperament – musical scales)
  • Methods of Programming Concerts
  • Working with Soloists
  • Unique Orchestras (“period”, select talent, cultural exchange…)

© Copyright 2020 by Michael Kamenski. Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.