Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crazy Conductors

The role of the conductor is unique insofar as the position may in fact garner as much attention as it deserves. (Is that the snicker of chamber musicians I hear?) This may seem an outlandish claim given the rock star status conductors have had for some time. The position has certainly come a long way from the generations of anonymous conductors throughout the Christian churches in the Middle Ages, through the era of the Kapellmeister, who was often required to compose music for the services, into the era of the composer-conductor who conducted his own work, often from the keyboard at which he played, through the rise of the professional conductor which started with the treatises of Berlioz and Wagner who elevated it to an art form itself.

Wagner actually traced origins of the professional conductor to Mendelssohn, the conductor he credited with refining the rough edges of the poor provincial kapellmeister to some degree of elegance. To its improvement, Wagner says, the position gradually attracted the air of elevated culture, though his compliment is sort of back handed:
They differ widely from the helpless epigonae of our old conductors: they are not musicians brought up in the orchestra or at the theater, but respectable pupils of the new-fangled conservatoires. . . they managed to transform the timid modesty of our poor native Capellmeister into a sort of cosmopolitan bon ton. . . [Wagner, On Conducting]
Wagner would in fact criticize them overtly and more severely, alleging they lacked the passion for the task and a sense of what the position called them to do. Most of all they lacked a sense of the power of the art they were bringing to life. This is of course an unsurprising sentiment coming from Wagner and I think to some extent we all take music seriously. We believe it has unique properties to move and transfix, to depress or elate us. That it is a rich medium for expression, abstract but with great power, is not so esoteric an observation. On top of all of this seriousness is the greatness of the music and the towering figures who wrote it. Still atop that is the often grave nature of the material, be they dark operas, raging symphonies, or solemn masses.

Lastly atop that pile of severity  is that music is simply hard to pull off. It requires a lifetime of dedication and study for all performers. For the conductor himself he has to gain access to an orchestra and not just any one but hopefully a competent one and one with the instrumentalists he needs in the quantities he needs. He has to balance the sound amongst the groups, likely having been trained on several instruments himself. He must delve into the original manuscript of the work and perhaps determine the authenticity of a passage (perhaps it is in another hand from the rest), whether or not it is correct as written (did he intend to write these consecutive octaves? should this instrument really be silent here?), what to do about a missing portion (such as a cadenza), how and when to add ornamentation, which make of an instrument to use and whether he must substitute one for another (perhaps he cannot get basset horns and must use a bass clarinet), and at last, the tempo. Discovering these things, but the tempo perhaps most of all, requires a great understanding of the piece, its composer, the instruments it was written for, the form of the piece (rondo, minuet, et cetera) and the performance practice of the day. About the challenge of determining the tempo Wagner wrote:
Sebastian Bach, as a rule, does not indicate tempo at all, which in a truly musical sense is perhaps best. He may have said to himself: whoever does not understand my themes and figures, and does not feel their character and expression, will not be much the wiser for an Italian indication of tempo.
A challenging position indeed. Esteemed too, and rightfully so. It is a bit of paradox, then, and a rather unfortunate one, that one looks as ridiculous as one invariably does when conducting. Perhaps it is because he is not actually doing anything himself, that he is not playing an instrument, (though they often like to imagine that they are "playing" the actual performers) that he looks so odd. Perhaps it is the histrionics needed to convey the emotion. Perhaps it is the gestures and the attempt to translate, however clumsily, the sublime and abstract music into a simple gesture. Maybe it's the dainty baton. Whatever the reason they always look quite ridiculous to me. Whether they're flailing away at a prestissimo, tiptoeing through a dance, or frantically tossing out the entrances of a choral fugue, they're quite the spectacles.

Brilliant spectacles, of course. Rest assured of my respect, though I at times find their gestures as distracting as I do the physical drama of performers. They must be scholars, musicians, artists, and leaders. Still in the spirit of good-natured fun I assembled this collection of some of the greats at perhaps their oddest, perhaps also their greatest, moments. Of course they look odder taken out of context, so let us keep that in mind. Too let us not be thought of as trivializing them but rather let this be some relief, some comitas, from the relentless seriousness of "serious music." Let us remember that while we may soar with the muses at the heights of Parnassos, we sometimes do not. Or at least we don't look it. Remember that the great composers were not just Great Composers, but men who composed great music.

So let us, now and then, recall that Bach was a vigorous man who danced and got into a street scuffle with his bassoonist, that Mozart wrote a canon "Kiss My Ass" and wrote a letter in the mock-hand of his pupil, signing it "Franz Süssmayr, Shithead." Let us remember Haydn's musical fart joke and the humor of Beethoven's variations.

There is a charming moment in Robert Graves' I, Claudius where Augustus Caesar, Emperor of the Roman Empire, who had survived the civil war, wrested control of the faltering republic and defeated Marc Antony at Actium, and grasped together the fraying threads of Roman culture and religion, in his old age tells his wife as they sit in their imperial box at the gladiatorial games, "remember the time I fell out of my chair?"

John Eliot Gardiner
Karl Richter
Leonard Bernstein
Leopold Stokowski

Mariss Jansons
Neville Marriner
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Otto Klemperer
Wilhelm Furtwangler
Wolfgang Sawallisch
Bruno Walter
James Levine
Carlos Kleiber
Herbert von Karajan
Colin Davis
Daniel Barenboim
Georg Solti

Wagner, Richard. On Conducting. Dover. Mineola, NY. 1989.

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