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The orchestral conductor - a useless drone? by Arthur Butterworth

Whatever one’s vocation or daily employment it is often a matter of curiosity to wonder what exactly other people do for a living. For example,do you know what a slodger does ? Or what a jobber used to do? Most people have a vague idea about music in general :they know the popular tunes that are commonplace and familiar, but for the most part unless you can claim to have a lively personal interest; have sung in a choir, played in a brass band, or are of that exquisitely elitist kind of person - well brought up and all that - and were taken to proper concerts from an early age, maybe your ideas about professional musicians are a bit vague. By "proper" concerts I mean of course, not just any old music hall rough and tumble with beery sing-songs or maudlin, sentimental ballads (and least of all pop), but chamber music; opera or symphony concerts; that kind of rarefied music posh town-dwelling people go to, very often just because it pays to be seen in fashionable society. However, most normal people, whether they have cultural pretensions or not, like a good, memorable tune even if they could not name its creator - the composer, that is. Mozart? Oh yes, heard of him; and Beethoven too maybe. Bach? - well not quite so sure. Brahms? Some dreary German wasn’t he? Tschaikowsky? - (who? - say that again!) oh yes, now I remember, all those sentimental ballet tunes that little girls love so much, wasn’t he Russian or something? And so it goes on.

Orchestras grew up in the 18th century, more or less. Wealthy aristocrats had their own private little bands (as orchestras were, and still are, colloquially known). The musicians were usually part of the domestic staff: coachmen, grooms, gardeners, footmen, estate workers and so on; but rarely if ever girls and women - the maids and cooks - part of the musical establishment. Such musicians being in domestic employ were virtually slaves to the prince, duke, count, archbishop, baron or whatever, on whose estate or in whose service they were employed. This was almost exclusively in mainland Europe. English aristocrats and the landed gentry generally being interested only in yobbo outdoor things such as hunting, shooting and fishing, or gambling and cards of an evening; they were not known for their intellectual or cultural pursuits as the more refined and cultured Germans were. Orchestras were usually small: a few strings - violins, violas, cellos and the odd double bass; perhaps a tiny ensemble of wind players: flute, oboes, - later a pair of the new-fangled clarinets - a bassoon or two, certainly a couple of horns enlisted from the hunting field, similarly a pair of trumpets and a drummer, or more precisely a timpanist, for he played what we used to call in our rustic way the "kettle drums"; always a pair, never used singly, and in later times sometimes even three; such basic rhythm instruments all handled by one player. So where did the conductor come in all this ?

Well, he didn’t. Those early symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven managed quite well without this present-day prima donna. How?…Orchestras were led by the principal violinist (hence the present-day residual term "leader") but he had to share the responsibility with the keyboard player who took it upon himself to direct the singers and to lord it over the instrumentalists too. It can’t have been a happy state of affairs; rather like having two women in a kitchen - it never works. However, as the 19th century wore on, things began to get complicated: composers wrote more complex music; concerts were no longer just for private entertainment or a duke or his aristocratic circle; public performances became more widespread; opera houses and concert halls got bigger, catering for a more popular appeal (hence the Henry Wood Proms of today). To ensure control of an even bigger group of performers someone else was needed; not just a mere fiddle player, who now and then stopped playing so he could waggle his bow in the air to try to keep all the others in time together, but some other more elevated personage whose sole function would be to beat time and bring everybody else to heel, and not just rush ahead - or drag behind. So came into being the "conductor". Who was the first of this remarkable breed? A bit difficult to say. Some say it was the now unknown composer, Spohr, others that it was really Mendelssohn (he of "Wedding March" fame). Whoever it was has a lot to answer for. Since the mid 19th century concerts have almost invariably had a conductor, although some small, elite ensemble manage effectively without this musical parasite who so often gets in the way of the musicians who actually make the sounds. So what does he really do? (apart from earning VAST fees for deigning to appear at the concert). Originally little more than a musical traffic policeman before the invention of traffic lights: making sure that the various intertwining lines of music do not collide. What now? This should still be the basic job but many conductors, professional and amateur alike could not conduct a bus, (not even an empty one). His function still needs to be essentially to keep the pulse - the beat - going; to signal start and stop. But there is more to it than that. He is supposed to be the composer’s interpreter, to mould the way the music is performed; shaping its phrasing in the same way a good actor can express the printed word of the playwright. There are even some celebrated names among the conducting fraternity - even British - (can YOU think of half a dozen well-known names ?) Oh! they did and still do exist, though amongst professional and even good amateur players even such distinguished personages are more often than not to be criticised. Conductors are on a par with sergeant-majors, headmasters, major-generals, foremen, chief executives, trade union bosses, field-marshals, cabinet ministers, admirals, presidents, chancellors, prime ministers; and nowadays hospital matrons (for there is a growing number of women conductors - so you can imagine what that must be like) One has to be as wary of a conductor as one would of a banana republic head of state, for he or she can be fussy, temperamental, often emotionally disturbed, capricious, immensely self-confident, totally infallible, and above all liking the sound of his or her own voice. This is understandable, for coming to think of it they utter not a sound at the public performance; they leave that to the real musicians: the players (or the singers in opera or choral works). The conductor merely indicates what others should or should not do; thus he can never play or sing a wrong note, although he can cause chaos beyond belief if his technique with the baton goes astray - like an air-traffic controller calling in two planes to land at the same time. He is perhaps like a cox in the Oxford & Cambridge boat race: exhorting the crews to exert themselves beyond endurance, yet doing nothing very much himself other than shouting himself hoarse, which conductors do at rehearsal, making up for the enforced silence at the public performance. Perhaps the boat race has something to commend it: for when the race is over they throw the the cox in the river. What a good idea! - we could learn something from that.

Arthur Butterworth



 


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