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Sultans of the Stick

One of the longest milliseconds I ever lived through came before the beginning of the Dies irae from Mozart’s Requiem. The members of the Stanford Chorus crowded onto the risers at the back of the stage of Dinkelspiel auditorium, their music open, their lungs filled. Down in front of the singers, the string players of the orchestra held their bows at the ready, the wind players puckered up. I was seated at an organ in the corner of the stage with my back to the audience, craning my head forward and concentrating on the image in a rearview mirror placed just above my music. A conductor in full battle gear—white tie and tails, the whole bit—held a baton above his head, having just raised it in a short stroke—the upbeat. Or at least that’s what he would have called it.

Then the conductor brought his hand past the top of his head, the white stick accelerating at roughly the rate of a free-falling object. Watching the baton trace a straight line downward was like being pulled through some heavily warped space—an extraordinary relativistic effect, brought on by the nervous anticipation that precedes any first note, especially one in which a hundred and a half people are supposed to begin exactly together. Seen from the frame of reference of the audience, I’m sure the baton seemed to be moving in a fluid, rather quick motion. But for those of us on stage—at least for me—the progress of the thin white stick as it moved past the conductor’s shoulders, past each ruffle of his white shirt was glacial.
By the time the stick reached his cummerbund there was still no music. An apocalyptic moment this, when the conductor makes that first grand gesture only to be greeted by silence, as if God goes to create the world from the void and nothing happens. Watching such powerlessness is a truly terrifying experience; all the musicians are unsure why no one has begun to play or sing, yet too petrified to break the silence on their own, perhaps already having passed the proverbial moment of truth.

At what appeared to be the last conceivable point of the conductor’s downstroke, reflex overrode my fear and I grabbed the opening chord on the keyboard. An indivisible instant later the orchestra and choir came in, and a performance of the Dies irae began. It was a surreal experience that left me unsure whether I had simply imagined an elaborate crisis, compressed into part of a single second. 

After the concert a fellow graduate student, who had taught the choir their parts, came up to me and said, “Thanks for that first chord of the Dies irae. You saved the conductor’s life.” On the way out of the auditorium I passed the conductor, who glared at me as if to say, “You came in early.”

My uncertainty as to where a conductor’s first beat actually begins is by no means uncommon. The famously vague motions of the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler demanded, as one musician put it, that the members of his orchestras wait to begin “until they can absolutely wait no longer.” Uninitiated players flummoxed by Furtwängler’s meandering baton were given various other suggestions about when to come in, among them counting to seventeen from the moment he raised his arms or beginning when his stick reached the third button of his waistcoat. That Furtwängler was a life-long foe of musical precision, choosing instead to concentrate on the “spiritual” dimension of the music. This attitude provided the aesthetic justification for his notorious vagueness, but I’d guess that it didn’t make the decision of when to begin any less harrowing for the musicians.

It is beginning that is the crucial musical act, demanding the most resolve, whether from an orchestra or a soloist. It is a sort of moment of conception—if you’ll forgive the highly suspect organic metaphor—in which the subsequent life and character of the piece is in large part determined. The question of Nature versus Nurture as it might relate to musical performance can be fairly confidently answered: it is almost impossible to overcome a bad start in music. When the conductor’s motions are only indirectly related to the actual beginning of a piece—as revealed in the suggestions for figuring out Furtwängler’s downbeat—then the musical relevance of all his subsequent gesticulating are tainted by suspicion.

Anecdotes abound to prove that the conductor is superfluous; one famous story related by the German philosopher Theodor Adorno in his classic essay “Conductor and Orchestra,” tells of the mad son of a wealthy German family who thought he was a great conductor. The family hired a leading orchestra to play Beethoven’s Fifth while the young man waved his arms. The resulting performance was as good as any of the orchestra’s usual renditions of the piece. Adorno himself puts it bluntly: “Among musicians it is hardly in dispute that the public prestige of conductors far exceeds the contributions which most of them make to the reproduction of music.” Adorno wrote the essay in the early 1960s but it is hardly dated; there are few institutions so conservative as major symphony orchestras. A few decades later Daniel Barenboim, one of a handful of international conducting stars, demonstrated a self-knowledge rare in his profession, when he acknowledged that “orchestral conducting as a full-time occupation is an invention—a sociological not an artistic one—of the 20th century.”

In the late 1980s I had a couple of friends in the San Francisco Orchestra when Herbert Blomstedt was credited with winning the group an international reputation. My friends claimed Blomstedt was incompetent (they were also sure he was hard of hearing, and in serious need of a hearing aid) and had virtually nothing to do with the musical result produced by the orchestra. Both friends were so dissatisfied with the quality of music making that they resigned their lucrative, secure positions and returned to New York to freelance. Such complaints are commonplace among orchestral players since, as Adorno theorized, they resent the conductor’s domination of them all the more because they cannot do without him.

For the conductor is without question necessary, as the failed experiments with conductorless orchestras in the first years of the Russian Revolution attest, though the effectiveness of these ensembles was later diminished by Stalin’s purges. As much as I am loathe to admit it, democracy is not always the best policy when it comes to making music; when dealing with the massed forces of a symphony orchestra there probably needs to be a leader, who can mold the interpretation, since there are various questions that always arise and it is often difficult, not to say impossible, to resolve them amicably.

Questions of interpretation are resolved in rehearsal, when the conductor, if he is to be successful, must quickly—as often there is very little time—impress his will on sometimes intransigent players.

Perhaps the most important matters of interpretation concern tempo, one of the most basic and easily identifiable characteristics of any performance, and one that returns us to questions of beginnings. Felix Mendelssohn, one of the first musicians to build a good part of his career as a conductor, would often lead the orchestra at the start of the piece and then simply stop conducting. It is not surprising that the anti-Semite Richard Wagner, the first truly histrionic conductor and one to whom many of the present day stars can trace their origins through direct protégé-master lineage, reviled Mendelssohn for the “elegance” of his style. Mendelssohn’s must have been a modest approach very different from the hyper-Romantic antics of most conductors since him. Laying out after setting the tempo is a self-effacing move that might have some short-lived appeal nowadays as a gimmick, but would never provide the energy necessary to fuel the kind of star whose image will sell the orchestra’s recordings and fill the subscription seats.

Faced with the uncertain opening downbeats of a number of conductors, I’ve often wondered why it is customary to give only a short upbeat (the preparation) and then a single downward stroke (upbeat); although the parameters of the tempo have been decided in rehearsal this quick motion still seems to me to be a very sketchy way to deal with so decisive a moment as the beginning of a piece. Why not beat a whole measure for free, before the orchestra comes in, a practice common in earlier epochs of European “classical” music and one used by jazz musicians today? The answer, I think, is that it would undermine the conductor’s claim to omnipotence. In one motion, so like Zeus throwing his lightning bolt, the conductor conjures a musical world with the thrill of his hands. To see him beating time before the sound begins would show that his (and occasionally her) hands create no sounds themselves, and that the damning impotence of silence forever lurks a split second away.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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