Recent controversy that has resulted in a lawsuit between an Orange County conductor and some of his musicians has raised questions about the role of a conductor. Just what is it that a conductor does, and how much of a factor is a conductor in the way an ensemble makes a piece of music sound? This story continues an occasional series that will attempt to address these and other questions about the art of conducting.
"What can one say of a conductor by merely listening to the performance?" composer and conductor Hans Pfitzner once asked. "Almost nothing," he answered himself. "To judge a conductor by his behavior on the podium is the fashionable yet the most unreliable method. It is judging a matter of the ear with the eye instead."
Pfitzner's remarks may surprise anyone looking for insights into how to evaluate a conductor from the very people who make their reputations at the job. But several conductors share his view or even take it further.
"Conducting should never be confused either with dramatic acting, pantomimic presentment or gymnastics," wrote Hermann Scherchen.
Clear enough? Well, consider composer Paul Hindemith's observation: "Conductors who perform their work with musical perfection but neglect the showy part of inciting, soothing, spurring, urging, and whiplashing will lack the real conductor's success."
Then there is Sir John Barbirolli's take on the matter:
"Few people seem to realize that conducting at the performance is the least important part of the business of conducting," Barbirolli wrote. "I am not even referring to the continual rehearsals during the season, but to all the work of annotating parts, editing, the 101 points of technical elucidation of scores which has to go on unceasingly."
For Pfitzner, however, there was more to the problem. He likened the orchestra to a "bewitched piano," in which each key had a mind and a personality of its own. Therefore, he asked, "of what use is listening or even watching, in making a judgment, when the signs are in large part not the result of the conductor's actual concept, but of entirely different exigencies?"
Exigencies, he suggested, that also included limited rehearsal time, human limitations and the spontaneous ideas that can occur during a concert, in addition to the multiple wills of the players.
If we try to find sure-fire guides for judging how well a conductor is doing his job, we're likely to come up short. Scherchen, for instance, believed that that "ideal" of conducting is that "no part of the body except the right arm should move."
If that sounds extreme, remember that Richard Strauss agreed.
"The left hand," Strauss wrote, "has nothing to do with conducting. Its proper place is the waistcoat pocket from which it should only emerge to restrain or to make some minor gesture for which in any case a scarcely perceptible glance would suffice."
But when asked \o7 his \f7 opinion about the role of the left hand in leading an orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwangler replied, "After over 20 years of conducting, I must say that I had never thought of it."
Pablo Casals and Bruno Walter both considered it "a trifling question."
The whole issue might seem trifling, except that budding conductors usually are taught standard gestures, although a slew of controversy has arisen about their use.
"As to the handling of the baton," Walter wrote, "I think it is neither possible nor necessary to impart practical advice. He who has manual talent for conducting will soon wield his baton in a way that can be followed by the orchestra."
Well, what about conducting from memory? That always impresses an audience and surely can be taken as proof of a conductor's mastery of the music, right?
Sorry. Casals called conducting from memory a "useless accomplishment." So did Barbirolli: "It is foolish to imagine that a man knows less about a work because he uses a score," he wrote.
Leopold Stokowski ran hot and cold on the matter. Stokowski liked to use scores, he wrote, when he conducted concertos (they "seem to me like chamber music on a larger scale," he said), but not when he led symphonies ("more impulsive emotional music I like to conduct without score").
In any case, he wrote, "it is all a matter of individual preference and is of little importance."
Bruno Walter felt that the most important things a conductor does could \o7 not \f7 be seen. People often asked him, he said, whether it's "really of any importance who is standing up there wielding his baton? . . . (Because) in the end, it is the orchestral musicians who play, give expression and overcome the technical difficulties."
This opinion, Walter said, is based on the same erroneous assumption "that the most essential task of a conductor is beating time . . . to keep the players together.
"What one does not see," he stressed, "is the transmission of spiritual impulses from the conductor to the executants."