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I RECENTLY MENTIONED my preference for a conductor’s hair style. But, of course, which conductor? Sir Simon Rattle comes to mind. By contrast, I respect Sir Georg Solti for his marvelous Ring Cycle

On the larger matter of conductors’ conducting style, Nicolas Spice recently wrote about “Theirs and No One Else’s” in London Review of Books, March 16, 2023. Here are some tidbits gleaned from this LRB article.

Before beginning, let me recall a story from my youth: Cleveland Public Schools had elaborate career guidance for its prospective high school graduates. This involved, among other things, a battery of tests followed by a career counselor.  

“Which instrument do you play?” she asked brightly. “Uh, none,” I replied.  “Odd,” she said, “because these tests show your best career is to be a symphony conductor.” 

“Let Me Tell You How We Got in This Fix. Nicholas Spice reviews two books on the subject, including one by no less than composer Richard Wagner. 

Richard Wagner’s Essays on Conducting: A New Translation with Critical Commentary, by Chris Walton, University of Rochester Press, 2021.

As much as I enjoy Wagner’s operas, I also fear Wagner’s essays would be akin to one of those Ring Cycle arias where the guy sings, roughly, “Let me tell you how we got in this fix” and then delivers a non-stop 30 minutes of description. 

Anyway, Spice observes, “Orchestral ensembles of varying sizes came and went, and it wasn’t until the last three decades of the 18th century that anything resembling the modern orchestra settled into a standard. Meanwhile, music for these early orchestras was almost invariably conducted from within the ranks of the players, either by the concert master (first violin) or by the Kapellmeister (from the keyboard.)”

“The origin of conductors’ music,” Spice continues, “is usually attributed to Beethoven.… Wagner’s essay ‘About Conducting’ was published in nine short instalments in 1869-70, more than sixty years after the first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, by which time the conductor, as a musician without an instrument, directing the music from the front of the orchestra, had become a familiar figure in the concert halls of Europe.”

Recitation, Not Interpretation. “It’s interesting, Spice says, “that Wagner does not use the German word Deutung [interpretation] for what the conductor does when he rehearses and performs musical works, but Vortrag – recitation.”

Then Came Recordings. Spice notes, “Recording technology changed the very nature of music’s being in the world. The fact that musical performances could be rescued from ephemerality, lifted out of the river of time and retained for unlimited future reference, gave rise to the modern concept of interpretation.”

And What About Opera? Spice observes, “The contrast with opera is highly instructive. Compared to a concert hall, an opera house is a haven of sanity. Opera absorbed the intensities of Romanticism without being pulled off its centre, for the simple reason that opera was theatre. However extreme the turbulence of mind and feeling in operatic music, it was always conducted away into the ground of fiction.”

A scene from Das Rheingold. A monochrome photograph taken by Joseph Hoffman, 1876. Image from PBS Great Performances.

For instance, it’s the difference of knowing the Ring Cycle happenings, however absurd, versus probing “the grief, love, and exaltation” of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

A Conductor’s Job Today.  “It is not easy to be a really good conductor, let alone a great one,” Spice says. “As a conductor new to a top orchestra, you start from a position of deficit. Despite the power vested in you, you are the only professional whose necessity is always in question. The orchestra knows that even in the most elaborate works it can achieve 90 per cent of what is required without you.”

Robert Schumann, 1810–1856, German composer, pianist, and influential music critic of the Romantic era. Portrait by Josef Kriehuber, 1839.

A Composer’s View. Spice recounts, “It was in vain, however, that Schumann insisted that all the conductor needed to do was start the music and then stop it again. As Walton convincingly shows, the music and conducting of effect was to win the day.” 

A pity I never learned music. Schumann’s coif ain’t bad either. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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