Who’s that guy waving the stick?
Ah yes, a common question when first witnesses a conductor in action.
Who indeed? What role does he play in an orchestra?
What is he doing with that stick? And the other hand?
What does a Conductor do?
Conductors evoke individual performances from a collection of instrumentalists which, when taken together, blend into a single unified – and majestic – piece.
How do they do that?
Technically speaking, a conductor’s responsibility is to keep the dynamics, time, and tone of the ensemble appropriate for the music.
Using his right hand , he will show the beats and the mathematical organization of the beats by using various patterns. His left hand is commonly reserved for dynamics and tone.
For simple compositions, ensembles don’t always need conductors – and indeed, throughout the history of orchestras there have been many successful conductor-less performances! In such cases, it simply falls to one of the lead instrumentalists to ‘keep things together.’
Yet as we progress to more complex pieces, and delve more into the intricacies and subtleties of tempo, dynamics, and tone, the need for an adept conductor to take on such responsibilities with a bird’s eye view becomes clearer.
A conductor will usually rehearse the orchestra extensively before performance. Drawing on a deep understanding of music theory and history, a conductor decides when to create a harsh tone, or when to create a smooth and sonorous sound. They dictate how loud ‘loud’ actually is and decide how fast ‘fast’ actually is.
What’s the stick about?
We all recognize the almighty tool of the conductor – the stick.
The ‘stick’ that a conductor wields is more properly known as a ‘baton.’ Batons have been used since Ancient Greek times – and probably before that as well!
The more musicians you have (and modern orchestras often have upwards of 100), the harder it is to stay synchronized together, so conductors began to use sticks to beat the time.
Quite simply – using a stick exaggerates the motion, and makes it easier for musicians to see and follow!
For a time, it was popular to use a full-on staff instead of (comparatively tiny) stick. Yes, staff as in what you imagine cool old wizards carrying. During rehearsal, or even during performances, conductors would literally beat the floor next to them with a staff.
In the 18th century, this practice led to the self-inflicted wound which killed one of the fathers of ballet, the great composer/conductor Jean Baptiste Lully. Poor Lully impaled his own foot while beating the time with his staff, and refused to have the injured foot amputated, because ballet was his pride and joy. The injury grew gangrenous, and thus was the end of Lully.
Big roles, big egos.
If this conductor stuff sounds a little grandiose – one man bending the will of a hundred artists, dictating their creative expression to fit with his whim or baton-flick – you’d be correct. Conducting has hosted some of the most disagreeable, self-aggrandizing, and pompous personalities in the history of classical music. And in the world of classical music, that’s saying a lot.
On the other hand, conductors are often thought of as the wise mentor of the orchestra, seeming to know all there is to know about different instruments, particular pieces of music – life itself, in some cases. There have been many conductors who step into the loving, supportive father-figure side of the role.
If conductors can fall into a spectrum of dictatorial to nurturing, the two bookends may well be Arturo Toscanini and Claudio Abaddo .
Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was known for his perfectionism, photographic memory, and attention to detail. Though a short man, he reportedly stood at least 12 feet tall when angry. Once, when the entire orchestra entered too early during one radio performance, Toscanini refused to take a bow at the end of the piece and later called the french horn players into his dressing room to explain to them that they had ruined his life.
Claudio Abaddo (1933- )was the long-time conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic – one of the premier orchestras in the world. Abaddo is known and loved for avoiding conflict, pleasantly dealing with his musicians, and the dance-like movements of his left hand.
Whether ‘Father Dear’ or ‘Fearsome Dictator,’ the conductor serves as illustrious figurehead of an orchestra: someone that the audience can love, the musicians can respect, and someone who can be a guiding light in the fate of the orchestra.
Where’s the conductor leading us?
The 20th century has seen some changes in the role of the conductor. He’s less illustrious nowadays – and occasionally not just a ‘he’ anymore! More diverse ensembles than the standard orchestra enjoy conductors – jazz conductors, rock conductors, and more. And these days, outside of matriculated academia, conductors rarely enjoy single-orchestra the thrones they once held. Rather, they more often than not make their careers as traveling ‘guest’ conductors.
Orchestras around the United States have been in increasingly dire straits. Subscriptions are dropping, and groups are finding fewer inroads with young audiences.
Will this prove to be a period of rejuvenation for the orchestra? Will popular young conductors like Gustavo Dudamel prove a reviving and invigorating force?
The 20th century saw the orchestra adopted globally, and the musical practices and instruments standardizing across the world.
What will the 21st century hold?