Music Conductors and Conducting
Raymond Holden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0190


Fundamental to any discussion concerning this literature is Richard Wagner’s highly influential article Über das Dirigieren (Leipzig: Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1869). This was read, discussed, and emulated by subsequent generations of performing musicians and continues to provoke fierce debate even in the early 21st century. Consequently, a string of similar treatises was written by leading figures that included Bruno Walter, Sir Adrian Boult, Erich Leinsdorf, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. As such treatises tended to deal with interpretation rather than technique, it was also apparent that manuals explaining and describing the physical gestures used by conductors were equally necessary. One of the earliest and most important examples of these was Hector Berlioz’s Le chef d’orchestre: Théorie de son art (1856), arguably the basis for the French conducting school. This book was one of the first in a long series of such manuals that has culminated in Christopher Seamen’s recent Inside Conducting (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2013). Autobiographies and memoirs of conductors have also been influential and never cease to enthrall professionals and amateurs alike. For many, they provide an insider’s view of a world that often seems fascinating and mysterious. It was probably inevitable, then, that a market also emerged for biographies and group biographies of conductors during the late 19th century. While readers of these often believe they are afforded another chance to peek behind the scenes, the reality is somewhat different. With very few exceptions, these books are written by nonprofessional musicians whose knowledge is often that of an interested amateur. This means, of course, that the true bases of the conductor’s art—the interpretative and technical imperatives that are fundamental to any reading of a great musical masterwork—are regularly pushed aside in favor of biographical tittle-tattle. Then there are histories of orchestras and opera houses. As conductors are mute without the help of players and singers, it is self-evident that any history of these institutions is also, at least in part, a history of conducting. Finally, there are discographies and chronicles of performances. Often viewed as the province of musical taxonomists, these documents can be fascinating insights into programming, orchestral and operatic logistics, performance trends, and performance spaces. Given all of this, it is no wonder that readers find the literature on conductors and conducting something of a maze. This article will endeavor to help lead the reader through that maze.

Conducting Technique and Performance Style

Opinions and advice about conducting technique and performance style are as wide and as varied as the musicians giving them. The act of conducting itself relies heavily on the relationship between performer and maestro and to describe the essence of that relationship in writing is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, both Berlioz 1917 and Wagner 1869 attempted to pass on their approaches to the craft with suggestions about the physical gestures needed to obtain a particular effect and the means of unlocking the true content of a symphonic score. While it is relatively simple to describe and to illustrate beating patterns used by conductors diagrammatically, the process of conducting as a whole is considerably trickier. As Boult 1963 makes clear, how a conductor inspires, cajoles, educates, and motivates his musicians is a very personal act and by its very nature defies definition. But what does emerge from the literature found in this section is a set of insights honed from experiences at the musical coal-face. That said, the authors of these texts, such as Erich Leinsdorf (Leinsdorf 1997), never intended their information to be an easy musical fix or to be adopted uncritically. As is apparent from Furtwängler 1991, their overriding intentions were to document key elements of their performance style and to allow professionals and amateurs to inform their approaches to the great musical masterworks. Often their descriptions are detailed and require of the reader a good professional understanding of the performance process. In Harnoncourt 1989, for example, it is assumed that the reader will understand how tempo operates within musical micro- and macro-structures and how it can be used to clarify and to organize a work’s internal and external architectures, while in Walter 1961, a sound professional knowledge of conducting technique and repertoire is expected. These do not make for easy reading but, if analyzed forensically, they do provide a fascinating glimpse into the various performance traditions that underpin the history of conducting.

  • Berlioz, Hector. The Conductor: The Theory of His Art. Translated by John Broadhouse. London: William Reeves, 1917.

    Berlioz’s Le chef d’orchestre: Théorie de son art was one of the first manuals to outline conducting technique and to discuss the practical role of the conductor. Many of the suggestions for beating patterns given would be unacceptable today and would prove confusing for modern players. But Berlioz’s hands-on suggestions are useful, particularly for those intending to interpret his works.

  • Boult, Adrian. Thoughts on Conducting. London: Phoenix House, 1963.

    Boult’s approach is insightful and balanced. His advice to aspiring conductors is always finely nuanced and his appraisal of his colleagues’ methods is a good guide to their working practices. When read with his My Own Trumpet (London: Hamilton, 1973) and Boult on Music (London: Toccata, 1983), a clear picture of his life, times, and performance style emerges.

  • Furtwängler, Wilhelm. Furtwängler on Music: Essays and Addresses. Translated and edited by Ronald Taylor. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1991.

    Furtwängler’s writings tend to explore the underlying philosophical, cultural, and sociological content that underpin the masterworks that he performed rather than the practical imperatives necessary to interpret them. His thoughts on Bach, Beethoven, and Bruckner are particularly intuitive. This book should be read in conjunction with Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Notebooks, 1924–54 (London: Quartet, 1995).

  • Harnoncourt, Nikolaus. The Musical Dialogue: Thoughts on Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart. Translated by Mary O’Neill. London: Christopher Helm, 1989.

    Harnoncourt’s controversial approach to the performance of 17th- and 18th-century music is set out vividly in this small yet comprehensive book. The writing style is always practical, lucid, and forensic. When read with his Mozart Dialoge: Gedanken zur Gegenwart der Musik (Kassel, Germany, and New York: Bärenreiter, 2009), the impact of this unique musical iconoclast is revealed. German title: Der musikalische Dialog: Gedanken zu Monteverdi, Bach und Mozart.

  • Klemperer, Otto. Klemperer on Music: Shavings from a Musician’s Workbench. Edited by Martin Andersen. London: Toccata, 1986.

    Klemperer was a man of few words. But the few that he used got straight to the point. The essays and articles date from 1906 to 1971. They allow unique access to Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, and Klemperer’s thoughts on prewar Berlin are given from an insider’s perspective. This book should be read with Conversations with Klemperer (Otto Klemperer and Peter Hayworth [London: Faber and Faber, 1985]).

  • Leinsdorf, Erich. On Music. Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1997.

    Leinsdorf writes with authority. He tackles some of the burning issues facing performance at the end of the 20th century and never shies away from controversy. As he was equally at home in the concert hall, the opera pit, and the recording studio, his arguments should not be ignored by any aspiring conductor.

  • Seaman, Christopher. Inside Conducting. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2013.

    The problem for any author of a handbook on conducting is how to establish its target audience. This is a very well-written and highly readable book that suffers from that problem. For conductors, the material discussed is self-evident while, for interested amateurs, it is of little practical use. That said, it does describe the role of the conductor admirably and with great clarity.

  • Wagner, Richard. Über das Dirigieren. Leipzig: Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1869.

    Of all the citations found in this article, Wagner’s essay can truly claim to be seminal. Along with his “Zum Vortrage der neunten Symphonie von Beethoven” 1873, “Über das Dirigieren” was the basis for the Central European conducting school. His thoughts on tempo modification influenced the interpretations of countless conductors and are still considered important today. This is essential reading for anyone interested in performance practice and performance history. Available online.

  • Walter, Bruno. Of Music and Music-Making. Translated by Paul Hamburger. London: Faber & Faber, 1961.

    Walter pulls no punches in this book. He makes very clear that which is acceptable and that which is unacceptable musically. He leads students effortlessly through some of the thorny issues that the profession presents. This is essential reading for any aspiring executant artist and looks at the role of a conductor practically, interpretatively, ethically, spiritually, and culturally.

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