Online Class Discussion #3 is open for comments September 18-24. Refer to the grading rubric for requirements on commenting:
- Purchase: https://drjonesmusic.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/class-blog1.pdf
- QCC: https://drjonesmusic.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/class-blog.pdf
One of the most common questions that comes up in a music appreciation class is “Who is that guy waving his arms/stick/wand in time to the music?” That guy (or, more rarely, gal) is called a conductor (and they hold a baton).
The conductor’s job is to coordinate across the entire span of the orchestra (an ensemble that can have anywhere between 20 and 150 musicians), ensuring that the entire group is playing together. This means that whatever the basses on the far side of the stage are doing is happening at the same time and in the same tempo as what the violins on the other side of the stage are doing, and the winds and brass in the middle of the stage:
The conductor is kind of like a football coach.
By this, I don’t mean that the music is somehow an opposing team that the orchestra is trying to defeat (although that sounds entertaining, too). Rather, just like a coach or a movie director, the conductor is leading a group of professionals with many years of training, many years of insight, and much talent and doing so with his overall vision and awareness of everything that’s going on. When many musicians are working together to play a piece of music, there are as many opinions as there are players in the group. Someone has to decide how slow or fast to perform a piece, how loud it should be, and to make sure that all the individual sounds that are coming out of the various instruments blend well together. The conductor’s job is to make artistic decisions and guide the players in front of him by visually demonstrating what he would like them to do.
Conductors are a relatively new phenomenon in classical music, and many musical traditions around the world do not use a conductor. They emerged in Western classical music in the 19th century as orchestras grew in size and as composers began writing increasingly complex and complicated music. As the role and prominence (and ego!) of conductors increased, their out-sized personalities became just as much as part of the musical experience, if not more so at times, as the sounds of the instruments and the composer’s wishes.
Many of the composers we’re studying this semester were also conductors, and they most often conducted their own music: Jean-Baptiste Lully (he died because of an injury caused by conducting!), Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and Whitney George, in addition to Felix Mendelssohn, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein.
A conductor’s job, according to a conductor
Omnibus was a TV program that aired on Sunday afternoons in the US during the 1950s and 1960s. It was funded by the Ford Foundation as an effort to educate Americans culturally. The main speaker throughout this episode is Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), an American composer, conductor, and educator. He hosted several episodes of Omnibus, each about a different musical topic, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, conducting, jazz, and opera. This episode is devoted to the art, practice, and history of conducting.
A musician of many skills
British musician Clemency Burton-Hill’s article for the BBC provides a clearer, more concise explanation of the range of tasks involved in being a modern conductor, not only in rehearsals and on stage during a performance but also in terms of public relations: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20141029-what-do-conductors-actually-do
From an orchestral musician’s perspective
Here is an excellent forum discussion on Reddit on the importance of a conductor by several classical musicians: https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/1iq5vu/eli5_why_is_a_music_conductor_necessary/ (Also note that each participant’s response is thoughtful, well-written, and helpful — this is a really good online discussion!)
Where are all the women?
Throughout this post, I’ve mostly been referring to conductors using masculine pronouns (he, him, his). Word choice matters, and typically, I would talk about any job in the music field by saying something like “his or her job is to listen to the entire ensemble…” However, traditionally only men have assumed the role of conductors. There are many factors that lead to this: gender roles in the 19th century that define a woman’s social role in terms of domesticity, workplace-family balance challenges of the 20th century, and continued sexism against women in supervisory or leadership roles.
We’ll revisit sexism in the classical music world in Online Class Discussion #6 (November 6-12), but for now, here is an article outlining the ways in which some (male) conductors think that women can’t be as effective conductors as men: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/10282490/Men-make-better-conductors-says-Vasily-Petrenko.html
Conductors in the public eye
Conductors used to be superstars, well-known to people outside of the classical music world (like Leonard Bernstein being on TV above), so much so that several popular cartoons could reference them, knowing that their audience would be familiar with not only the conductors but also classical music.
There are many cartoons with classical music-centric plots, but here is Bugs Bunny in Long-Haired Hair (1949), in which he impersonates Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), one of the 20th century’s most prominent conductors:
I hope that the role of the conductor is a bit more demystified for you now, but as with all knowledge, I also hope that knowing a little bit about a topic encourages you to learn more!
Some questions to get the conversation going:
- What was your idea of a conductor previously? Where did that impression come from?
- If you had the choice of being a musician in the orchestra or being the conductor, which one would you choose? Why?
- What did you find most surprising or informative in the orchestral musicians’ Reddit conversation?
- Why does it matter if most conductors are men?
- Does it matter if listeners understand the role of a conductor?