5. What is the purpose of a conductor?

The role of the conductor we know today is something relatively new because this role was not possible until the availability of full scores, which were first published in the early 19th century. Before that music was just published in individual parts in part books. So if you were a Tenor, for example, and were going to perform the Madrigals of Gesualdo you would have in your hands only the Tenor part and your understanding of the music could only come from hearing the other parts in rehearsal. This was also the case in the earlier manuscript music of the Roman Church, as for example those huge manuscript pages divided into individual parts, Superius, Altus, Tenor, etc., often without even measure bars. Those early Church singers were more or less full time singers and we may imagine them spending long rehearsals just to be able to hear how to stay together.

It follows that today some audience members attending a concert may assume that the primary role of the conductor is just to keep large numbers of musicians together and no doubt some members of the audience consider this an amazing accomplishment. I recall once sitting on an airplane with a man who was the manager of a small bank with some fifteen employees and he spoke of his astonishment that conductors could get a very large group of people to do even the most minute things together, commenting “I can never get my people to do anything together!”

Well, I think that most musicians today would agree that keeping people together is not the real purpose of a conductor. Nevertheless, today virtually all books intended for students in the study of conducting contain very large sections illustrating the visual arm patterns representing meter and carry the implication that you must use these patterns to keep people together or the music will fall apart. My experience has proven to me that musicians, even very young musicians, if they are awake are quite capable of counting to four without these visual patterns.

And again, from the audience perspective, the role of the conductor in affecting dynamics must also be impressive. If the listener hears the ensemble suddenly playing very loudly and at the same time the conductor leaps up in the air, the listener may credit the effect to the conductor. But actually, regarding dynamics, the conductor has no affect at all on the sound of the ensemble unless he makes some gesture before the moment the dynamics take place. Otherwise, if his motion correspond in time with what is heard, then the conductor is just dancing to the music.

Another thing the audience member often sees is a conductor who spends a great deal of his time “cueing,” by which we mean giving a gesture to indicate the entrance of some portion of the ensemble. There is one American School of Conducting where this is greatly emphasized, I presume as visual proof that the conductor really knows the score well. However, the result of the conductor constantly looking all over the ensemble cuing various entrances may only remind the audience of policemen directing traffic. From a musical perspective all this activity will tend to emphasize the eye instead of the ear, distracting the listener from following the actual line of the music.

My definition of a conductor is that he is the one who brings to the rehearsal and concert all the things which are not written on paper. For this end, the conductor must first decide whether he is going to present an aesthetic concert or an entertainment concert, a subject I discussed in the first of these essays. The written history of music is almost entirely devoted to aesthetic music and almost never discusses entertainment music. Therefore one will find in this literature very strong objections to the goal of entertaining the public. Wagner, for example, wrote,

“It is impossible for anything to be truly good, if it is chosen in advance for presentation to the public.”

And Robert Schuman,

“Do not help spread bad compositions, but help to suppress them with all your force!”

I might add that my experience suggests that it is impossible to make a bad composition sound good, as sometimes one hears from a conductor who thinks that with his skill and musicianship he will be able to make a composition sound better than it is. However, the reverse is the case, for the very result of rehearsal will be to clarify and define those musical elements which make the music bad. Therefore in rehearsal the sound of the music goes from bad to worse!

The true value of a conductor lies in his role in communicating the essence of the music to the musicians before him. And here may I repeat my definition of a conductor: the one who brings to the rehearsal and concert all the things not on paper. What is on paper is only the grammar of music and no matter how many hours the conductor spends studying this grammar, it will not reveal the true essence of music itself. It follows that his kind of study is very frustrating. The great German poet, Heinrich Heine, wrote, “Nothing is more futile than theorizing about music.” And the great composer, Tchaikovsky, wrote, “I do not even understand how to analyze Music.”

And why does this kind of the study of the grammar of music fail serve performance?

Francois Couperin:

“Just as there is a difference between grammar and public speaking, there is an infinitely greater one between music theory and the art of fine performance.”

Johann Matheson, 1739:

“No matter how one defines music theory, no real conception with the passions of the soul can ever be drawn from this.”

This definition by Matheson reminds us of an observation by the great conductor, Bruno Walter on the goal of score study: “To discover the soul of a composition, not the body of a composition.” The soul of a composition is what Wagner called the melos, the unifying thread, the quintessence of the spirit of the artwork. Earlier, Marpurg in 1749 called this “the distilled essence of emotion.”

This essence of emotion is what the conductor brings to the rehearsal and must communicate to the players. It is the real goal of score study and the beginning point and key is what Francesco Geminiani, a great Baroque singer, wrote of in 1749, “You must first be inspired yourself.” I pause to point out that this is the most important standard in the conductor’s choice of repertoire. If the conductor is not inspired, how can he inspire his players? This is the point the great conductor, Antal Dorati, had in mind when he wrote,

“If you don’t feel it completely, then you cannot convey it. You cannot “act” music. This will always leave the audience cold. They know immediately if the feelings are not true.”

Leaving the audience cold is a concerned also mentioned by the great conductor, Georg Solti,

“What the audience remembers is not the performance itself, but whether the performance touched them.”

The greatest aid for the conductor in acquiring this essence of Music, in addition of course to his own musical background and study, is memorization of the score. This also helps greatly in his communication with the players because every time he looks down at the score this emotional link is instantly lost. One can observe this in any rehearsal of any conductor — when he looks down at the score, his face instantly becomes blank.

Memorization also helps the conductor acquire the real goal of store study – assimilation.

Leonard Bernstein:

“After intense study I become the composer.”

Carlo Maia Giulini:

“Like a great actor on the stage, the conductor becomes himself the composer.”

Regarding the importance of assimilation, the great Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan, used to relate a story which he claimed was told him by a Buddhist priest who had studied in the Far East. The priest was unsuccessfully trying to teach a student how to concentrate on meditation and so finally he asked the student, “What is the dearest thing to you?” The student answered it was a buffalo back on his farm. So the priest told the student he was going to lock him in a nearby small room and he wanted the student to concentrate solely on the buffalo. The priest did this and turned to talk with other people and after a time forgot he had locked this student in the small room so he called to the student, “Are you alright in there?” adding that he could come out now. The student answered, “I have been trying to get out but I cannot get my antlers through the small opening in the door!”

In closing, let me warn the young conductor that when he walks into the rehearsal room there will be not one, but three different forms of the score present. One will be the score lying on the conductor’s desk, but he must not conduct that one, not only because there is no music on the page but also because even printed scores may have mistakes. Another form of the score in the rehearsal room is the one he hears, but certainly with students that version may include wrong notes, etc., so he must not conduct that version. He will hear the mistakes and can correct them later when the music stops. The third version of the score in the rehearsal room is the one in his head, the product of his study and contemplation. That is the only one he must conduct.