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    ARIA Popular Classical Music

Conductors Become Super-Stars

This is the second of a four part article series discussing the role of conductors.  While best read in sequence, you’re welcome to skip at any time to the other three parts – The Evolution of Conducting, Are Conductors Today as Good as They Used to Be, and Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success.

As we saw in the first part of this series, the role of conductor evolved from being a faceless nameless person who would simply (and literally) beat time, to one of the musicians who also attempted to guide his fellow musicians, and by the later parts of the 19th century, was becoming a separate person in a dedicated role.

At first, there was understandably no formal training for conductors.  A conductor was either formerly one of the musicians or possibly a composer.  Initially composers would conduct their own works, but as the role of conductor became more important, they started to conduct other composers’ works too, or would allow a specialist conductor to do all the conducting, while possibly advising that person.

The Changing World in Which Orchestras Perform

Now for an important development.  Originally, orchestras served the town or city or region they were located within, and weren’t well known outside that region.

But two things caused that to change, greatly expanding an orchestra’s coverage.  The first was the appearance of steam-powered train services, making it easier to travel longer distances quickly.  A person traveling in a horse drawn carriage would typically travel no more than perhaps 25 – 50 miles a day and would only do so during daylight hours.  By the start of the 20th century, trains were traveling that far every hour, and if a person wished to, they could take a sleeper train that would allow them to travel all day and all night.

Faster trains, traveling at speeds up to 100mph (160 km/hr), followed, and then, in the 1920s air travel and automobile travel both became practical too.

The point here is that in the span of less than 50 years, the distance a person could comfortably travel in a single day grew more than ten-fold.  An orchestra that was 100 miles away changed from being a four day tiring journey to an easy half day of comfortable travel.  The result?  Orchestras started to compete with each other.

The second development, in two different parts, gave orchestras an even greater reach, and also occurred in the early years of the 20th century.  The start of public radio broadcasting, and then the development of 78 rpm records gave the public two new ways to hear far-away orchestras.

The artistic world in, for example, 1930, bore no resemblance at all to the artistic world of 1830, or even of the artistic world of 1900.  New developments posed simultaneously as opportunities and threats.  The chance to grow one’s audience was great, but in return, competitors appeared in each orchestra’s home territory too.  Orchestras found themselves needing to aggressively compete not just for their live and local audiences, but also for broadcasting and recording contracts, too.

Conductors Gave Orchestras an Easily Promoted Difference/Advantage

An easy way for a largely “faceless” and “anonymous” group of 50 – 100 musicians in an otherwise generic orchestra was to promote their conductor as a reason for people to listen to their concerts.  Of course, orchestras also promoted themselves, but the conductors were the most public face of the orchestras they conducted.

Soloists were also very important, but soloists had fewer ties to any specific orchestras and so were viewed in a different light.

Conductors and orchestras formed long-lasting alliances, with conductors often working primarily for only one orchestra for multiple decades.  These partnerships were not always easy for either the conductor or the orchestra they worked for, or for the other two groups involved – the administrators and the public.  There were sometimes power-struggles between these four groups to determine who would get to choose the music that was played, when, where and how it was played, and all other aspects of an orchestra’s professional life.

Conductors Become More Important than Their Orchestras

Conductors started seeking the title of “Music Director” or “Artistic Director” and wanted to be the ultimate and only person who could decide all these things.  Sometimes conductors ruled as “benevolent dictators” and the association between them and the orchestra was positive and mutually beneficial, but on other occasions there were ongoing tensions between all involved groups.

The previous article in this four part series explained the musical reasons that made conductors increasingly important.  Now these new commercial reasons gave conductors even more prominence and importance – an orchestra’s prominence depended not only on their own “brand” but also on that of their conductor.

As a result, conductors viewed themselves as the most important element in the orchestras they conducted.  They claimed that they alone could transform an orchestra and improve its performance quality, and they also claimed that it was their presence on the podium that was the most important factor in whether the public would attend concerts or not, and the deciding factor in getting contracts with broadcasting companies and recording studios.  They may have even been substantially correct in those claims.

Conductors were indeed very much the movie stars of their time.  Just as people superficially evaluate a movie today by who is starring in it, without giving much thought for other actors, the underlying story, the quality of the filming, the sound, editing, or much else at all (how many cinematographers can you name, for example) so too would audiences – plus also radio networks and recording companies – choose the orchestras in large part based on their conductors.  In truth, it became a cheap and easy way for all these groups to promote an orchestra – by focusing on the conductor, a concept that has flowed through to Hollywood and modern movies, where the “star power” of the lead actors is deemed to be the most important factor in a movie’s success.

The positive side of that relationship is that some good orchestras truly did become great, and also very financially successful too, due to their symbiotic relationships with their long-term conductors.

The star power of a conductor was, of course, dependent on having a good orchestra to be partnered with, so it was somewhat a co-dependent and mutually beneficial relationship.  Conductors were motivated to work to improve their orchestras, and the perception of orchestras “being as good as their conductors” even assumed a reasonable degree of reality.

In a manner somewhat like how Scotch whisky went from a generic product known for the bottling companies who would blend and bottle it rather than the distilleries who made it, and with the creation of “Single Malt” whiskies, became seen as a range of individual and desirable whiskies, so too did orchestras change from being seen as generic groups of musicians who created concerts that were all similar to each other, and now started to be seen as having individual characteristics as a result of the conductors who were their leaders.  Some orchestras became known for their lush string sound, others for their bold brass, use of vibrato, and so on.

This particularly delighted the recording studios – no longer would a listener simply buy one generic version of each piece of music.  Now they could be encouraged to buy two or three “different” versions, even if the differences were as subtle as the differences between a range of Single Malt Speyside whiskies.

The Second Golden Age of Classical Music

What could possibly go wrong with this?  For some decades – the exact start and end of which being hard to clearly identify – it was a great formula for everyone involved, including the music loving public, who found themselves enjoying easier access than ever before to better quality performances than ever before, whether via records (33 rpm records replaced 78 rpm records from the early 1950s, followed shortly thereafter by stereo sound) or better radio broadcasts (at about the same time that 33 rpm records were replacing 78 rpm records, FM radio was replacing AM and then also adding stereo), or by attending concerts in person (at the same time, ie after WW2, when air travel truly became practical, safe, and affordable, and cars and the roads they drove on also were massively improved).

This was a second golden age of music – the first being back when the music we now think generically of as “classical” music was being composed.  This second golden age, while a very positive experience, was of a type totally unthought of and unthinkable about, 100 years previously.  It probably lasted for at least 50 years, from about the end of WW1 (say, 1920) until some point in the 1960s – 1980s or thereabouts.  The exact end of that golden age will perhaps only become apparent when we have a clearer hindsight-based perspective on relatively recent developments.  (In our opinion, new technologies like iPods and streaming actually harmed rather than helped classical music.  That’s a subject for another article series in the future!)

Conductors Become Dictators

Unfortunately, as the aphorism states, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We’ve already touched on how conductors became increasingly important, and we’ve hinted that this dominance over their orchestras wasn’t always without some concern and criticism.  Conductors became unanswerable to anyone, and the “cult of the conductor” caused some conductors to develop ever-more over-inflated egos and personalities.  Conductors insisted that they alone could choose the music they performed, and how they performed it, no matter whether anyone wanted to listen to it or not.

Please Keep Reading….

So, what went wrong, and why/how?  Please now click on to the third of our four part series, Are Conductors Today as Good as They Used to Be.

This is the second of a four part article series discussing the role of conductors.  While best read in sequence, you’re welcome to skip at any time to the other three parts – The Evolution of Conducting, Are Conductors Today as Good as They Used to Be, and Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success.