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Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures. The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble.
Conductors act as guides to the orchestras and/or choirs they conduct. They choose the works to be performed and study their scores to which they may make certain adjustments, work out their interpretation, and relay their ideas to the performers. They may also attend to such organizational matters such as scheduling rehearsals.
The principal conductor of an orchestra or opera company is sometimes referred to as a music director or chief conductor, or by the German words Kapellmeister or Dirigent. Conductors of choirs or choruses are sometimes referred to as choral director, chorus master, or choirmaster, particularly for choirs associated with an orchestra. Conductors of military bands and other bands may hold the title of bandmaster, or drum major. Respected senior conductors are sometimes referred to by the Italian word, maestro ("master" as in "one who has mastered the art").
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An early form of conducting is cheironomy, the use of hand gestures to indicate melodic shape. This has been practiced at least as far back as the Middle Ages. In the Christian church, the person giving these symbols held a staff to signify his role, and it seems that as music became more rhythmically involved, the staff was moved up and down to indicate the beat, acting as an early form of baton.
In the 17th century, other devices to indicate the passing of time came into use. Rolled up sheets of paper, smaller sticks and unadorned hands are all shown in pictures from this period. The large staff was responsible for the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who injured his foot with one while conducting a Te Deum for the King's recovery from illness. The wound became gangrenous and Lully refused amputation, whereupon the gangrene spread to his leg and he died two months later.
In instrumental music, a member of the ensemble usually acted as the conductor. This was sometimes the concertmaster, who could use his bow as a baton, or a lutenist who would move the neck of his instrument in time with the beat. It was common to conduct from the harpsichord in pieces that had a basso continuo part. In opera performances, there were sometimes two conductors – the keyboard player was in charge of the singers, and the principal violinist or leader was in charge of the orchestra.
By the early 19th century, it became the norm to have a dedicated conductor, who did not also play an instrument during the performance. The size of the usual orchestra expanded during this period, and the use of a baton became more common, as it was easier to see than bare hands or rolled-up paper. Among the earliest notable conductors were Louis Spohr, Carl Maria von Weber, Louis Antoine Jullien and Felix Mendelssohn, all of whom were also composers. Mendelssohn is claimed to have been the first conductor to utilize a wooden baton to keep time, a practice still generally in use today. Among prominent conductors who did not or do not use a baton are Pierre Boulez, Kurt Masur, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Leopold Stokowski.[unreliable source?]
The composers Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner attained greatness as conductors, and they wrote two of the earliest essays dedicated to the subject. Berlioz is considered the first virtuoso conductor. Wagner was largely responsible for shaping the conductor's role as one who imposes his own view of a piece onto the performance rather than one who is just responsible for ensuring entries are made at the right time and that there is a unified beat. Predecessors who focused on conducting include François Habeneck, who founded the Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire in 1828, though Berlioz was later to be alarmed at Habeneck's loose standards of rehearsal.
Wagner's one-time champion Hans von Bülow (1830–1894) was particularly celebrated as a conductor, although he also maintained his initial career as a pianist, an instrument on which he was regarded as among the greatest performers (he was a prized piano student of Franz Liszt, whose daughter Cosima he married – although she was to abandon him for Wagner. Liszt was a major figure in the history of conducting, who attained remarkable performances).
Bülow raised the technical standards of conducting to an unprecedented level through such innovations as separate, detailed rehearsals of different sections of the orchestra ("sectional rehearsal"). In his posts as head of (sequentially) the Bavarian State Opera, Meiningen Court Orchestra, and Berlin Philharmonic he brought a level of nuance and subtlety to orchestral performance previously heard only in solo instrumental playing, and in doing so made a profound impression on young artists like Richard Strauss, who at the age of 20 served as his assistant, and Felix Weingartner, who came to disapprove of his interpretations but was deeply impressed by his orchestral standards.
The next generation of conductors brought technical standards to new levels; perhaps most notable was the Hungarian-born Arthur Nikisch (1855–1922), who succeeded Bülow as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1895. He had previously served as head of the Leipzig Opera, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and was to serve as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Nikisch premiered important works by Anton Bruckner and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who greatly admired his work; Johannes Brahms, after hearing him conduct his Fourth Symphony, said it was "quite exemplary, it's impossible to hear it any better."
Nikisch took the London Symphony Orchestra on tour through the United States in April of 1912, the first American tour by a European orchestra. He also made one of the earliest recordings of a complete symphony: the Beethoven Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic in November of 1913. Nikisch was also the first conductor to have his art captured on film – alas, silently. The film confirms reports that he made particularly mesmerizing use of eye contact and expression to communicate with an orchestra; such later conductors as Fritz Reiner stated that this aspect of his technique had a strong influence on their own.
Conductors of the generations after Nikisch often left extensive recorded evidence of their arts. Two particularly influential and widely recorded figures are often treated, somewhat inaccurately, as interpretive antipodes. They were the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) and the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954). Toscanini played in orchestras under Giuseppe Verdi and made his debut conducting Aida in 1886, filling in at the last minute for an indisposed conductor. He is to this day regarded by such authorities as James Levine as the greatest of all Verdi conductors. But Toscanini's repertory was wide, and it was in his interpretations of the German symphonists Beethoven and Brahms that he was particularly renowned and influential, favoring stricter and faster tempi than a conductor like Bülow or, before him, Wagner. Still, his style shows more inflection than his reputation may suggest, and he was particularly gifted at revealing detail and getting orchestras to play in a singing manner.
Furtwängler, whom many regard as the greatest interpreter of Wagner (although Toscanini was also admired in this composer) and Bruckner, conducted Beethoven and Brahms with a good deal of inflection of tempo – but generally in a manner that revealed the structure and direction of the music particularly clearly. He was an accomplished composer as well as performer, and a disciple of the theorist Heinrich Schenker, who emphasized concern for underlying long-range harmonic tensions and resolutions in a piece, a strength of Furtwängler's conducting. Along with his interest in the large scale, Furtwängler also shaped the details of the piece in a particularly compelling and expressive manner.
The two men had very different techniques: Toscanini's was Italianate, with a long, large baton and clear beats (often not using his left hand); Furtwängler beat time with less apparent precision, because he wanted a more rounded sound (although it is a myth that his technique was vague; many musicians have attested that he was easy to follow in his own way). In any event, their examples illustrate a larger point about conducting technique in the first half of the 20th century: it was not standardized. Great and influential conductors of the middle 20th century like Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977), Otto Klemperer (1885–1973), Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989) and Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) – incidentally, the first American conductor to attain greatness and international fame – had widely varied techniques.
Karajan and Bernstein formed another apparent antipode in the 1960s–80s, Karajan as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic (1955–89) and Bernstein as, for part of that period, music director of the New York Philharmonic (1957–69), and later frequent guest conductor in Europe. Karajan's technique was highly controlled, and eventually he conducted with his eyes often closed; Bernstein's technique was demonstrative, with highly expressive facial gestures and hand and body movements. Karajan could conduct for hours without moving his feet, while Bernstein was known at times to leap into the air at a great climax. As the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan cultivated warm, blended beauty of tone, which has sometimes been criticized as too uniformly applied; by contrast, in Bernstein's only appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1979 – in the Mahler's Symphony No. 9 – he tried to get the orchestra to produce an "ugly" tone in a certain passage in which he believed it suited the expressive meaning of the music (the first horn player refused, and finally agreed to let an understudy play instead of himself). Both Karajan and Bernstein made extensive use of advances in media to convey their art, but in tellingly different ways. Bernstein hosted major prime-time national television series to educate and reach out to children and the public at large about classical music; Karajan made a series of films late in his life, but in them, he did not talk. Both made numerous recordings, but their attitudes toward recording differed: Karajan frequently made new studio recordings to take advantage of advances in recording technique, which fascinated him – he played a role in setting the specifications of the compact disc – but Bernstein, in his post-New York days, came to insist on (for the most part) live concert recordings, believing that music-making did not come to life in a studio without an audience.
In the last third of the 20th century, conducting technique – particularly with the right hand and the baton – became increasingly standardized. Conductors like Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam until the end of World War II had had extensive rehearsal time to mold orchestras very precisely, and thus could have idiosyncratic techniques; modern conductors, who spend less time with any given orchestra, must get results with much less rehearsal. A more standardized technique allows communication to be much more rapid. Nonetheless, conductors' techniques still show a great deal of variety, particularly with the use of the left hand, facial and eye expression, and body language.
Through the 20th century, the ranks of major conductors were overwhelmingly white, male and European; but going into the 21st century, that is changing, and conductors are coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Women were almost unheard of in the ranks of leading orchestral conductors through most of the 19th and 20th centuries – there are accounts of orchestras refusing to play for them – but today, artists like Marin Alsop and Simone Young have decisively broken the gender barrier, to the point that gender neutrality is conceivable in the field and musicians increasingly regard gender as a non-issue. Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007 – the first woman ever appointed to head a major US orchestra – and also of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in 2012. Young scored similar firsts when she became head of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmoniker Hamburg in 2005; she is also the first woman conductor to record the Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner. And while Mexico has produced several major international conductors, Alondra de la Parra has become the first Mexican-born female to attain distinction in the profession. Similarly, Asian origin has become unremarkable, because of the international successes of conductors from the Far East such as Seiji Ozawa, who was the Boston Symphony Orchestra's music director from 1973 until 2002 after holding similar posts in San Francisco and Toronto, and Myung-Whun Chung, who has held major posts in Germany and France and now is bringing the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra to international attention. There is still under-representation of artists of black origin in the conducting profession, but there have been notable exceptions, such as Henry Lewis, Dean Dixon, James DePreist, Paul Freeman, and Michael Morgan.
Conducting is a means of communicating artistic directions to performers during a performance. Although there are many formal rules on how to conduct correctly, others are subjective, and a wide variety of different conducting styles exist depending upon the training and sophistication of the conductor. The primary responsibilities of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble, and to control the interpretation and pacing of the music. Communication is non-verbal during a performance, however in rehearsal frequent interruptions allow directions as to how the music should be played.
Conducting requires an understanding of the elements of musical expression (tempo, dynamics, articulation) and the ability to communicate them effectively to an ensemble. The ability to communicate nuances of phrasing and expression through gestures is also beneficial. Conducting gestures are preferably prepared beforehand by the conductor while studying the score, but may sometimes be spontaneous.
A distinction is sometimes made between orchestral conducting and choral conducting. Typically, orchestral conductors use a baton more often than choral conductors. The grip of the baton varies from conductor to conductor.
Beat and tempo
The beat of the music is typically indicated with the conductor's right hand, with or without a baton. The hand traces a shape in the air in every bar (measure) depending on the time signature, indicating each beat with a change from downward to upward motion. The images show the most common beat patterns, as seen from the conductor's point of view.
The downbeat indicates the first beat of the bar, and the upbeat indicates the last beat of the bar. The instant at which the beat occurs is called the ictus (plural: ictūs or ictuses), and is usually indicated by a sudden (though not necessarily large) click of the wrist or change in baton direction. In some instances, "ictus" is also used to refer to a horizontal plane in which all the ictuses are physically located, such as the top of a music stand where a baton is tapped at each ictus. The gesture leading up to the ictus is called the "preparation", and the continuous flow of steady beats is called the "takt" (the German word for bar, measure and beat).
If the tempo is slow or slowing, or if the time signature is compound, a conductor will sometimes indicate "subdivisions" of the beats. The conductor can do this by adding a smaller movement in the same direction as the movement for the beat that it belongs to.
Changes to the tempo are indicated by changing the speed of the beat. To carry out and to control a rallentando, a conductor may introduce beat subdivisions.
While some conductors use both hands to indicate the beat, with the left hand mirroring the right, formal education discourages such an approach. The second hand is therefore used for cueing the entrances of individual players or sections, and to aid indications of dynamics, phrasing, expression, and other elements.
Dynamics are indicated in various ways. The dynamic may be communicated by the size of the conducting movements, larger shapes representing louder sounds. Changes in dynamic may be signalled with the hand that is not being used to indicate the beat: an upward motion (usually palm-up) indicates a crescendo; a downward motion (usually palm-down) indicates a diminuendo. Changing the size of conducting movements frequently results in changes in the character of the music depending upon the circumstances.
Dynamics can be fine-tuned using various gestures: showing one's palm to the performers or leaning away from them may demonstrate a decrease in volume. To adjust the overall balance of the various instruments or voices, these signals can be combined or directed toward a particular section or performer.
The indication of entries, when a performer or section should begin playing (perhaps after a long period of silence), is called "cueing". A cue must forecast with certainty the exact moment of the coming ictus, so that all the players or singers affected by the cue can begin playing simultaneously. Cueing is achieved by engaging the players before their entry and executing a clear preparation, often directed toward the specific players. An inhalation, which may or may not be a semi-audible "sniff" from the conductor, is a common element in the cueing technique of many conductors. Mere eye contact or a look in the general direction of the players may be sufficient in many instances, as when more than one section of the ensemble enters at the same time. Larger musical events may warrant the use of a larger or more emphatic cue designed to encourage emotion and energy.
Other musical elements
Articulation may be indicated by the character of the ictus, ranging from short and sharp for staccato, to long and fluid for legato. Many conductors change the tension of the hands: strained muscles and rigid movements may correspond to marcato, while relaxed hands and soft movements may correspond to legato or espressivo.
Phrasing may be indicated by wide overhead arcs or by a smooth hand motion either forwards or side-to-side. A held note is often indicated by a hand held flat with palm up. The end of a note, called a "cutoff" or "release", may be indicated by a circular motion, the closing of the palm, or the pinching of finger and thumb. A release is usually preceded by a preparation and concluded with a complete stillness.
Conductors aim to maintain eye contact with the ensemble as much as possible, encouraging eye contact in return and increasing the dialogue between players/singers and conductor. Facial expressions may also be important to demonstrate the character of the music or to encourage the players.
- Michael Kennedy & Joyce Bourne Kennedy (2007). Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music (Fifth ed.). Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 9780199203833. "Conducting"
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- Wakin, Daniel J. (6 April 2012). "The Maestro's Mojo – Breaking Conductors' Down by Gesture and Body Part". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
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- The New York Times video, including motion capture of Alan Gilbert, as he demonstrates and discusses the role of a conductor, rehearsing Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale.