Archive for March 23rd, 2017

The Cult of the Maestro

After Wagner took conducting to new heights, baton waving was accompanied by tantrums, assaults and bitter rivalry. Michael Tanner discovers why some time keepers turned into dictators.

Conducting, now the most glamorous of all musical occupations, only got going in the form we now know it comparatively recently. All that most people have heard about its early history is that the French composer of opera ballets Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-87) died from gangrene after accidentally stabbing his foot with the cane that he was using to keep time with. More recent stars of the podium, such as Klemperer and Solti, have sustained injuries from emphatic gesturing within a confined space, but no more mortalities have been recorded; in some cases I wish they had.

In fact, until the middle of the nineteenth century the function of the conductor was to keep the players in the orchestra together, and if he could, he would conduct from the keyboard, or the first violin would give the lead. The whole notion of the conductor as a person collaborating with the composer to recreate a work originated with Wagner. While he was in charge of musical life in Dresden, during the 1840s, he raised the standards of orchestral playing to previously undreamt of heights. More importantly, he began to develop the concept of the inspired interpretation of a work, which, as a great composer himself, he was in a unique position to do. With Beethoven as his idol, he set to work on performing the nine symphonies in such a way that they could be felt to embody a whole view of life. The climax of this activity was a performance of the Ninth Symphony on Palm Sunday 1846. previously judged as unplayable and lunatic, it became a symbol of creative endeavour mixed with hope and joy. As an artistic struggle to achieve a masterpiece it reflected and served as an incentive for suffering humanity to achieve its potential.

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