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.

In 1869 Wagner published his book on conducting and in the following years essays on performance. The impact was immense. Wagner stressed the sovereign importance of the tempo of a movement, and of the phrasing which dictated it. He proposed, without success, the establishment of a conservatoire for training conductors in Munich. His closest disciples, several of whom gave the premieres of Wagner’s own later works, did establish a tradition of interpretation not only of his works, but of what was becoming the orchestral canon – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, above all. Hans von Bülow, the first husband of Wagner’s second wife Cosima, not only provided new standards of orchestral playing by terrifying the musicians – he was the first conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic – but also carried on the master’s example, giving elaborate accounts in purple prose of the meaning of the works he performed.

However, Wagner and his followers didn’t have it all their own way. There had been important conductors, such as Mendelssohn, who saw it as their task to serve the music they conducted in a humbler spirit than Wagner did. They too were concerned with balance, tempo, phrasing, but they thought that the music should speak for itself, that the notion of giving a highly individual reading of a work was impertinent. Though Wagner’s propaganda was highly effective, this strain of self-effacement lived on, even when its protagonists – Toscanini being the most celebrated – were characters of extreme ruthlessness and magnetism. And so from the later nineteenth century onwards there have been warring factions, each claiming they were doing their best for the great masterpieces of the past and the present, but in contrary ways. (The usual terminology has been subjective for the school that descends from Wagner. Objective for its alternative, but those terms are best avoided.)

The greatest conductors of the beginning of this century were Gustav Mahler, taking the Vienna State Opera to exalted peaks of perfection and conducting along broadly Wagnerian lines, and Artur Nikisch, Bülow’s successor, as head of the Berlin Philharmonic, who had played under Wagner and was a friend and passionate advocate of Bruckner. There are some records of Nikisch, none of Mahler, but the conditions under which Nikisch made his recordings, and the extremely poor quality of their sound, doesn’t enable us to form a judgement of him. We learn more from his disciple Wilhelm Furtwängler, who followed him as chief of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1928. While Furtwängler loathed recording, and made only a few records before World War II, many ‘live’ performances have been published and we can judge how he coped with the central items in his repertoire, which was heavily German-orientated. He seems to have been an interpretative reincarnation of Wagner, with his extremes of tempo, his long singing lines from the strings, his building of sonorities from the bass upwards, and above all his ignoring of the barline. What he concentrated on was the melody, not the four-in-a-bar, with a stress on the first beat. There is a unique sense of the music as a stream of glowing lava, and of a capacity to perceive works as a whole to such a degree that he could afford to linger over details and constantly modify tempos without impairing the structure; on the contrary, works yield up their architectural secrets under him as under no other.

Arturo Toscanini, born in 1857 – 19 years before Furtwängler and his arch rival – came from no tradition at all. A prodigiously gifted natural musician, he took over the baton at no notice for a performance of Aida when he was 19 – his first piece of conducting – and his early career was mainly as a conductor of Italian opera. Italy has never gone in for symphony orchestras, and when he conducted concerts Toscanini mainly employed opera orchestras, with an evident influence on his style. His reputation for precision, clarity and texture, lack of indulgence in tempo changes, his insistence that music had no significance outside itself and his terrifying tantrums, in which he sometimes assaulted members of the orchestra, all contributed to an amazing reputation. During his lifetime – he died in 1957 – this reputation had no comparison, but a lot of competition. It was the great age of the conductor, with the astonishing constellation of stars in Berlin. ‘We all hated one another,’ Otto Klemperer, one of the most famous, declared late in life. Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam, Serge Koussevitzky in Boston and many more great conductors were active simultaneously, hugely different in their styles and of course in their repertoires. It was, for complex but specifiable reasons, the golden age of the conductor, rather as the late eighteenth and nineteenth century were the golden ages of the symphonists. No doubt a great deal of it is to do with the time relation between the great works they were performing and the time they were performing them. One thing is clear, there is no point in looking for a renaissance of that period, roughly 1900 to 1960.

The top 10 conductors of the Golden Age
Karl Muck (1859-1940) is famous for his Wagner performances. He was a stalwart of the Bayreuth Festival from 1901-30; also conductor of the Berlin Opera, where he led 103 operas; and made the Boston Symphony Orchestra into America’s greatest. Famed for his strict style and lucidity of textures.

Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) was a disciple of Wagner, but like Muck adopted a classical style, and attacked other conductors for pulling tempos around. He had a huge repertoire, much of it recorded, and he sounds remarkably modern in the vigour and straightforwardness of his approach. As with many of the great conductors, he had aspiration as a composer.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) had paralleled careers as conductor and composer, beginning as assistant to Hans von Bülow. A passionate lover of Mozart and Wagner, he made recordings of orchestral works and excerpts, and also extensive ones of his own works. He achieved impressive results with minimum exertion.

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) had in many ways the biggest career in conducting history. The first Italian to achieve an international reputation in German and French music, he conducted at Bayreuth and Salzburg, and spent the last great period in the United States, where his reputation was prodigious. There is a huge number of recordings from 1925 to 1954.

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra for 50 years, being dismissed in 1945 for alleged Nazi sympathies. He played the orchestra like a virtuoso playing one instrument, and was famous for extraordinary tempo fluctuations and huge expressiveness – he was a very great Bach conductor.

Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) is most famous as the conductor of the first performance of The Rite of Spring, one of the biggest scandals in theatrical history; he also conducted its fiftieth anniversary in 1964. A man of very wide tastes and abilities, he is most renowned for his interpretations of French music.

Bruno Walter (1876-1962 was born a Prussian, but identified with Vienna: his smiling, soft exterior concealed ruthless ambition. He had a reputation, too, for soft grained interpretations, while being one of the most intense and even violently expressive of conductors, in the tradition of Mahler. His repertoire was vast.

Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), another pupil of Mahler’s, was for a long time a leading advocate of modern music, before becoming in his old age the great conductor of the Austro-German classics. Throughout his life he was dogged by manic depressive illness, with often strong and unexpected results in his music making. Notable above all for the architectural strength of his work.

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) is the most controversial of all conductors, whose reputation has increased enormously in the last 30 years. Simultaneously an intellectual and extremely passionate, he spent his life as an advocate of the spiritual value of the great German classics. His recordings of Wagner are widely regarded as the most comprehensively great.

Erich Kleiber (1890-1956) combined perfectionism with fieriness to produce some of the most satisfying performances both of the classics and the modern repertoire. He gave the premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925 and remained the champion of a highly selective range of composers. Father of Carlos Kleiber.

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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