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Music Conductors and Directors


The origins of music conducting remain quite obscure. Some form of timekeeping undoubtedly went on even among primitive musical groups. In early orchestral days, timekeeping was often done orally, with the use of a scroll, or by pounding a long stick on the floor. During the 18th century, a musician often kept time, usually the organist, harpsichordists, or the chief of the first violinists, who came to be called concertmaster in modern times. There were no specialist conductors at this time; the composer generally served as the conductor, and he usually conducted only his own works. The concertmaster role grew increasingly more important, and for a period it was not unusual for him to keep time by stamping his feet even when there was a separate conductor who might also keep time by clapping his hands or tapping a desk. Needless to say, this simultaneous stamping and clapping could be very irritating to musicians and audience alike.

Just when the baton was first used is not known, but mention of using a staff in this manner was made in Greek mythology as early as 709 B.C. It is known that batons were used since the eighth century and became fashionable, as orchestras grew larger, in the late 18th century. By the mid-19th century their usage was a widely accepted practice.

Early in the history of the orchestra, most concert music was performed in conjunction with opera. In 1816, noted French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer used his violin bow to conduct the Paris Opera. In 1824, the Opera employed the services of a specialist conductor, the noted violinist Françoise Antoine Habeneck, who also conducted with a bow, and who, in 1828, became one of the first to establish an orchestra devoted entirely to concert as opposed to opera music. The first Beethoven symphonies heard in Paris were conducted by Habeneck. During these early days of conducting, it was common for the conductor to face the audience rather than the orchestra, a practice that was still common in Russia during the late 19th century.

In 1776, Kapellmeister Johann Reichardt conducted the Berlin Court Opera with a baton, possibly the first to do so. Early in the 19th century, Ludwig Spohr was perhaps the first musician to be recognized purely as a conductor and was another of the early users of the baton rather than the bow or a paper scroll. The baton was at first a rather large and awkward device similar to the instrument used by a drum major. Hector Berlioz used such a baton in his white-gloved hand. Felix Mendelssohn used a scroll or a stick; he was particularly notable for the grandeur of his style. Mendelssohn also regularly cut and reorchestrated the compositions he conducted, a practice that has continued. Some conductors of the period eschewed the baton and used their bare hands. This practice was never widely adopted, although a few great conductors, including Leopold Stokowski, preferred the bare hand method.

Another innovation was the use of the full score by conductors. Before the full score was available, conductors usually read from the first violinist's part. Berlioz was one of the first to employ the full score and was one of the great 19th century composer-conductors who influenced conducting style into the next century. Among the other major influences were Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner. These men assumed full, autocratic command of the orchestra, each insisting on strict obedience from the musicians in carrying out the conductor's interpretation of the music. Each developed his own characteristic style, which brought him widespread adulation. Berlioz had an inspirational effect on the orchestra and, while his physical style was flamboyant, he was rather inflexible in his tempo. Mendelssohn was also strict in his timing, while Wagner took a more flexible approach.

Among the conductors influenced by Wagner were such notable figures as Hans von Bulow, Franz Liszt, and Wilhelm Furtwangler. Mendelssohn's followers included Karl Muck, Felix Weingartner, and Richard Strauss, all distinctive for their minimal baton movement and methodical tempos. Some conductors defied categorization—Gustav Mahler in the late 19th century wielded a tyrannical power over the orchestra and flew into rages that became legendary.

Many different conducting styles emerged in the 20th century, including some that were highly exhibitionistic. One of the extremes of that type was exemplified by Sir Thomas Beecham, the great British conductor. He sometimes raised his arms skyward, imploring the orchestra to reach perfection; at other times he lunged at the horn section to raise its power, occasionally falling off the podium in his exuberance. Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein have also been noted for their dramatic exhibitionism. In the early 1920s in Russia, an attempt was made at forming a conductorless orchestra, undoubtedly an attempt at eliminating the dictatorial rule of the conductor. The experiment died out after a few years, although in the late 1920s conductorless experiments were attempted in New York City and Budapest.

The number of outstanding conductors in the 20th century are too numerous to mention, but one name is perhaps legendary above all others. This would be Arturo Toscanini, originally an opera composer, whose infallible ear, musicianship, comprehensive knowledge of scores, and orchestral control made him virtually the prototype of great 20th century conductors. At rehearsals his famed temper flared as he exhorted his charges to perfectly perform his interpretation of a score. Before the audience he exuded charisma. Toscanini, who conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony from 1928 to 1936 and the NBC Symphony from 1937 to 1954, was perhaps the most influential conductor of the mid-20th century, his main rival being Furtwangler in Germany. Some conductors of the late 20th century, however, remained free of both influences. Perhaps the most notable of these is Sir Georg Solti, who, with large and seemingly awkward movements, inspired his musicians to brilliant heights of musical perfection. Many authorities acknowledge that under his guidance the Chicago Symphony Orchestra became one of the finest musical ensembles of the late 20th century. While many women have taken their places among the great orchestras of the world, few have been able to move into the field of conducting. In the second half of the 20th century and early years of the 21st century, however, there were some breakthroughs, and a number of women conductors, such as Sarah Caldwell, Marin Alsop, and JoAnn Falletta in the United States, have achieved notable recognition.

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