Most of us are familiar with the figure of the conductor – standing on a podium, back to the audience, waving what looks very much like a magic wand at the musicians arrayed before them. But for the uninitiated what they’re actually doing out there, and why they’re even needed, can seem like a mystery.
At the most basic level, the conductor is there to ensure the orchestra plays in time together and starts and finishes at the same time. But the full picture is much more complicated than this. The conductor directs the entire musical performance, bringing together many elements to shape both music and musicians. It’s the job of the conductor to interpret the music and to communicate this interpretation to the players and the audience.
Great timing is essential, of course. An orchestra might comprise upwards of 60 musicians, all of whom have their own part to play. Each player has their own musical score in front of them, but can’t see that of any of the other musicians. In addition to this are the singers, both the soloists and chorus. All of these people need to know when to start and finish, when to come in and what tempo to stick to. Even the best musicians in the world would produce nothing but a cacophony if they all just started playing when they felt like it.
This is where the conductor comes in. They direct the musicians using hand gestures or a baton, letting each section or soloist know when they should come in and when they should stop. The conductor also keeps time, ensuring the musicians don’t slow down or speed up. Research into clapping has shown that group clapping, while remaining synchronous, gets faster over time, and this effect is more marked in larger groups. It’s the conductor’s job, then, to fight against this group tendency and keep the orchestra to the right tempo.
This might be described as the basic responsibility of the role, but there’s more to it than that. The conductor must interpret the written score, creating their own vision of how it should sound, and then communicate this to the musicians. The conductor has to translate the mood of the piece for both orchestra and audience, making the right musical choices to bring the performance to life.
Lots of different elements combine to create the feeling of a piece: tone, pitch and duration of the notes, tempo, the loudness or softness of the music overall and of the separate instruments within that. Quick, high-pitched music might communicate danger – think of those famous repeated short, sharp ‘stabbing’ notes from the film Psycho, for example. They ramp up the fear and the viewer knows that something is very wrong in this scene.
All of this is a matter of interpretation. These are the expressive elements of music – based on the personal response of the performer. It is the conductor’s job to decipher these elements and communicate that understanding of the music to the orchestra. In this way the music becomes a coherent whole rather than disparate pieces played by individual musicians.
Dynamics determine how loudly or quietly the music is played. They are an important element in conveying a piece’s mood. The conductor will use a combination of hand gestures to control the loudness of each section – telling the strings to play more loudly, reminding the winds to gradually get quieter or turning the percussion down a bit.
Dynamics are highly relative. Some instruments are louder than others, so if a piece calls for the strings to play the melody, the conductor will need to guide the much-louder brass section to play at a level that allows the strings to be heard.
Different conductors’ use of dynamics can greatly change the same piece of music, in turn changing the audience’s response to it. This is particularly significant when conducting operas, as the music should reflect the action on stage.
Phrasing determines how a musical passage will sound, much like how we phrase a spoken sentence can change its meaning or emotion. The conductor controls the phrasing, maybe adding to the tension by prolonging a single note or conveying humour with a series of light, quick notes.
The conductor will use a combination of hand gestures, facial expressions and the baton – as well as spoken instructions in rehearsals – to communicate to the musicians what is expected of them. There are some common gestures – the conductor raising their hands to indicate that the piece is about to begin is a familiar sight to concert-goers, for example. The beat is typically indicated with the right hand.
However, most conductors have their own style, developing repertories of gestures that are specific to them. As such, the relationship between conductor and orchestra is very important and they have to have a deep understanding of each other.
Not all conductors use a baton, some might use something very different from the traditional short thin stick. In the early days of classical music, a large staff was used to beat out time. But one of these was responsible for the death of composer and instrumentalist Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1687. He managed to stab himself in the foot with one when conducting a performance of the Christian hymn Te Deum. Gangrene set in and Lully refused amputation; he died two months later.
Dame Ethyl Smyth famously used a toothbrush to conduct a performance of her song ‘The March of Women’ while in prison, while Russian conductor Valery Gergiev uses a toothpick.
Antonio Pappano is one of the most well-known conductors working today, as well as being music director of the Royal Opera House. Watch him conduct the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a performance of the Overture from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786).
The conductor leads the orchestra, communicating to each musician what and how to play. In this way they provide a connection between what the audience sees on stage and our sense of what is happening in the music. It’s a role that requires a deep understanding of music and musicians. It is often misunderstood, and yet is completely essential.
Russian conductor and opera company director Valery Gergiev famously uses a toothpick to conduct (Mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons).