On Conducting …

The Great Conductors by Harold C Schonberg

I came across this book of my late mother’s this afternoon and thought I’d share it with you. This copy is rather dilapidated, having been liberated (withdrawn and sold) from Cannon Street Library many years ago. She used to go there during her lunchtimes, and brought countless books home that they were clearing out.

Its author, Schonberg was music critic for the New York Times, and he won a Pullitzer Prize in 1971 for his criticism. This book was published in 1967. It follows the development the role of the conductor from mere time-keeper to interpreter, from before Bach and Handel up to Leonard Bernstein and his contemporaries.

Wagner conducting (1863)

The first half essentially follows the composer as conductor of their own music mostly, and the musical world is full of rivalries – the straight-forward Berlioz described Wagner’s conducting thus: ‘Such a style is like dancing on a slack wire, sempre tempo rubato,’ and Wagner said of Berlioz who was conducting a Mozart symphony: ‘I… was amazed to find a conductor who was so energetic in the performance of his own compositions sink into the commonest rut of the vulgar time beater.’

In the chapter on Richard Strauss, a renowned cynic, we find out his tempi got faster and faster as he got older and more bored. Apparently at Bayreuth, he conducted the first act of Parsifal in 1h 35mins – Toscanini took 2h 2mins. Strauss wrote a flippant article that tickled me giving guidance for young conductors – I reproduce it for your amusement below:

‘Ten Golden Rules for the album of a Young Conductor’

  1. Remember you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.
  2. You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.
  3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy music.
  4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.
  5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all they are still too strong.
  6. If you think that the brass is not blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
  7. It is not enought that you yourself should heard every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words they will go to sleep.
  8. Always accompany a singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.
  9. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.*
  10. If you follow these rules carefully you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.

* Today (1948) I should like to amend this as follows: Go twice as slowly (addressed to conductors of Mozart).

As Schonberg says, although tongue in cheek, there is an underlying truth behind most of the above.  Having played violin in many youth orchestras and into my twenties, I always found that the brass section attracted the most exuberantly confident (and good-looking) players!

The chapter on Furtwängler in the 1920s and 1930s was elucidating too. Schonberg writes …

Furtwängler’s beat was a phenomenon unduplicated before or since: a horror, a nightmare, to musicians. On the podium he lost himself. He would gesticulate, shout, sing, make faces, spit, stamp. Or he would close his eyes and make vague motions. … In the Berlin Philharmonic there was a standard joke: Q: How do you know when to come in on the opening bars of the Beethoven Ninth?  A: We walk twice around our chairs, count ten and then start playing. … Musicians had to watch his face rather than his baton. Furtwängler was fully conscious of the difficulties his beat gave musicians. It did not bother him. “Standardised technique creates in turn standardised art,” he would say.

We carry on through Beecham, Stokowski, Szell, Karajan and many others to Bernstein. Schonberg finishes his book by proposing some future candidates for conducting greatness, including Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel (whom my mother adored – he conducted the Philharmonia Chorus in which she sang many times), and Zubin Mehta.

Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

The last to be mentioned is the recently departed Colin Davis, of whom Schonberg says, his ‘conducting is marked by taste, strength and an eclectic approach characteristic of English magicians.’

I couldn’t agree more – Davis for me always achieved such a lovely string sound in particular, (well, I was a fiddle player), and always came across as such a nice man.

I really enjoyed this book, getting really into the personalities of all these great conductors.

P.S. For another interesting quotation on conducting an orchestra see my review of Frank Zappa’s memoir here.

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I inherited my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Great Conductors by Harold C Schonberg – used copies available.

9 thoughts on “On Conducting …

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Sounds fascinating! I like classical music though I am very unmusical in that I couldn’t play an instrument if my life depended on it (basic recorder at school was all I managed). Conductors are fascinating and I came across Mravinsky recently who was closely associated with Shostakovich – there is some wonderful footage of him conducting on YouTuibe!

    • gaskella says:

      You and your Russians! 🙂 This old book was fascinating though – I was going to chuck it out, but couldn’t resist sitting down to read it.

  2. anokatony says:

    Classical music is definitely not my thing, but I really like books by people who know their subject well enough to be humorous about it.

    • gaskella says:

      I know what you mean. The writing in this book is excellent, pulling together all the stories about these great characters and analysing their conducting style.

  3. Thaddeus L. Parks says:

    Schonberg, the New York Times music critic of many years, writes here one from his series of books on music history. He takes a light yet well-informed approach to the conductors up through Bernstein, Maazel, and Mehta. His gentle sense of humor and love for music exude from this sentive work, which explores not only the technique of great conductors, but their lives and personalities as well. A fine light introduction to the history of conducting.

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