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    ARIA Popular Classical Music

The Evolution of Conducting

This is the first of a four part 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 Rise of Conductors as Super-Stars, Are Conductors Today As Good As They Used to Be, and Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success.

While classical music spans many hundreds of years of music making, conducting is a relatively recent concept, dating to the early part of the 19th century – a mere 200 years ago, and only much later in the 1800s becoming recognizably as we know it today.

From Literally Beating Time to a Modern-Day Click Track

In part, the evolution of the art of conducting is due to the size of performing groups growing, even though some orchestral-type groups of musicians have been around since the time of Monteverdi (1567-1643), and choirs date back even further.

The concept of having one person “beating time” – to help all the musicians play together and simultaneously – was probably the precursor to conductors, and has been around for a long time.  The time-beating person would simply bang a stick on the floor or against something, making a noise and providing a visual clue for the speed of the music and when the beats were occurring.  (The visual clue is important, helping musicians to anticipate when the next beat will happen.)

The concept of beating time lives on today, particularly in groups of pop musicians, in the form of “click tracks”.

A click track is exactly as its name implies – a series of clicks that musicians privately hear through earpieces, setting the beat and speed of the music they are performing.  The big difference between a click track and beating time?  Only the musicians hear a click track, whereas beating time was often something the audience would hear (and see) as well as the musicians!

From Beating Time to Coordinating Silently

Another approach to helping a group of musicians all play together was to have one of the players designated as the leader of the group, and the other players would follow that person and their performance.  That worked in smaller sized groups and still does – the smaller the group of players, the less likely they are to have a conductor, and indeed, very small groups (trios, quartets, quintets, etc) may not even designate one person as leader, and somehow play in synchronization in some sort of apparent “mind-meld”.  Well, it is actually more a result of careful rehearsing and agreeing on the pace and phrasing of the music beforehand, and the musicians having played with each other many times in the past – don’t think for a minute that a collection of strangers meet for the first time on stage and immediately play a piece of music in perfect synchronization!

As groups – orchestras – got larger, it became harder to see the leader, which meant the leader would either stand up to be better seen and/or perform on a podium.  This obviously is another step on the path to formal conductors.  It is also difficult (not impossible, but difficult) for someone playing a musical instrument to simultaneously give clear visual indications of what he wishes the other performers to do – most instruments require both hands to play, meaning that other than moving some or all of his body or waving the instrument about, there were limits to what a leader could do.

Playing Music Becomes More Complicated

The evolution of conducting isn’t just because of the growth of the number of musicians performing together.  Sure, orchestras continued to grow in the number of players, but also in the number of different instruments within the orchestra.  Not only did the instruments evolve, but so did the actual type of music making – concepts like crescendos, time changes (both sudden and gradual), rhythm changes, and phrasing all started to become more sophisticated and these required further coordination.

Slowly the role of the leader evolved beyond just synchronizing the group of players.  They needed to coordinate not just the speed at which the music was playing, but also how the music was played, the relative loudness of the different instruments, how the phrasing of ever-longer melody lines was to be managed, and assorted other aspects of converting the sheet music into a quality performance.

Co-Ordinating the Group Becomes More Important

This new role in an orchestra sometimes was assumed by a senior musician, and sometimes by a composer.  As composers’ works became more complicated, the composers would sometimes become increasingly involved in overseeing a new work’s first performance, to try and increase the chances of it being well played and successfully received.

The concept of simply beating time with a stick was no longer sufficient.  Plus, it was even dangerous!  One of the first “conductors” (ie time-beaters) was Jean-Baptiste Lully, born in 1632.  He was a musician, a composer, and became a time-beater too.  But, alas, in one performance, he banged his stick not on the floor, but on his foot.  The foot became infected, gangrenous, and caused Lully’s untimely death as a result, aged 55.

As an interesting – and short-lived – anomaly on the path to a greater and greater significance/importance of the conductor, after the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the eventual establishment of their communistic state, it was thought that the idea of a conductor was elitist, non-egalitarian, and contrary to the principles of the new government.  Accordingly a conductorless orchestra was formed in Moscow in 1922 and named Persimfans (formed from the first syllables of the full Russian name, which in English is “First Conductorless Symphony Ensemble”).  The players sat in a circle facing each other.

But this was not a success and plans for additional conductorless orchestras never proceeded.  Although Persimfans was continued for a while due to the appeal in the Soviet Union of its political (rather than musical) concept, eventually the problems of coordination and resulting poor quality music-making outweighed the political appeal and it was disbanded in 1932.

As the 19th century came to an end, the concept of a conductor was more or less universally accepted, and the role shifted from being part of someone’s overall job to a full-time job, all on its own.

Please Keep Reading….

This brings us to the second part of this four part article series, which discusses the rise of conductors as super-stars.

This is the first of a four part 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 Rise of Conductors as Super-Stars, Are Conductors Today As Good As They Used to Be, and Excellence is No Longer the Only Factor in Conductors’ Success.