What does a conductor do?

This is one of the most common questions that I have been asked over many years. If anyone else has had difficulty in giving an adequate/eloquent response may I humbly suggest the answer is here - see the link.

If anyone asks in the future you could save this link to pass on - it saves a heck of a lot of explanation.


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  • Lawrence,

    Another part of the problem is that it's not always clear what the composer intended. Depending on what book you read, Andante might be anywhere from 76 to 108. The 5th Symphony (Beethoven) starts out with three eight notes followed by a half note with a hold over it, at Allegro con Brio. Modern versions add a half note at 108. I doubt if there was such a metronome marking in the original. There is debate about whether the opening notes are played like a pickup or downbeat. And how long is the hold? Is there a gap after it? If so, how long? It's marked FF, but just how loud is that? How big an orchestra was this intended for? So many questions and we're only two measures in. 

    It's not that these pieces have been played so many times that they are boring, it's that they are good music and deserve to be heard live. 

    Believe me, I've know many musicians and conductors. Both can be jerks, just like any other segment of the population.

    Seems to me that the only way for an orchestra to know what the composer intended would be to have the composer conduct. Otherwise all bets might be off. 

  • For me, if a compose writes a marking that can be 90 to 120bpm, then it can be played 90 to 120bpm. If a bpm is specified, then that is as defined as clearly as a C or C#.
    Some elements remain open to interpretation, some not.
    Think of your own music. When you internalse it, does it really, truly always sound the same?
  • The real question is, why are we playing Beethoven for the umpteenth time anyway?  There is plenty of modern music, some on this forum, that is better.  When I composed in the style of Beethoven for the purpose of education my pieces were labeled pastiche, and so they were.  Now we hear Beethoven's symphonies, two hundred years old and out of style, with the rationalization that greatness never goes out of style.  But everything goes out of style.  Would you wear knickers, buckle shoes, a tricorn hat, and a powdered wig?  They were all the rage in Beethoven's day.  Would you ride a horse and carriage to the concert?  We put great old masterpieces in museums and honor them because they were the first of their kind, but you can't purchase a reproduction of the Mona Lisa at your local art gallery.  We might view a silent black and white movie for fun in a pizza shop, or dress in a zoot suit for a Halloween party, but the vast majority of our culture is current and up to date.  When will classical music ever get with the program?

  • I agree, there is a lot of great new music out there. But the fact is, Beethoven sells tickets. New music, for the most part, does not. Orchestras can't afford to put on too much new music.

    I specify a bpm for my music because that's how the software works. I believe a 20-30 range might just be too wide. But it's still a ballpark figure. If I specify 80 bpm, how do I know it won't be performed by an orchestra at 84? How do I know it won't speed up or slow down 5 - 8 bpm, or more? And do you know what? I'm fine with that. Yes, I have a vision for how I think the piece should go. But out in the real would, things are different. And they should be. I've had the opportunity to direct some of my own pieces. It's an eye-opener for sure.  

    Lawrence, I remember your Beethoven period. You prefaced each piece as a practice/learning experience, and still got strange comments. As good as they were, they were your take on his style. Someone else's take would be a lot different. Years ago, there was a composer here who wrote in a late Baroque/early Classical style. His music was well thought out, well crafted, and really good. He replicated the form so exactly that, there was hardly an original idea in his pieces. No surprises. I could tell what was going to happen next. 

    So should we throw out Beethoven? Trash the Mona Lisa? I don't think art and music go out of style.

  • Bob,

    Let's consider a football analogy.  How many football coaches write their own play book?  Virtually all of them.  How many composers write their own music?  Well, there's John Williams...John Williams, and don't forget John Williams.  Previously there was Leonard Bernstein, then Gustav Mahler and Hector Berlioz.  Beethoven tried to conduct, but was lousy at it.  Before that there were chamber orchestras where conducting consisted of starting a beat and giving the final cut off.  Even I can do that.   Because composing is so difficult very few conductors compose and thus do not perform their own new work.

    How many football teams recruit.  Virtually all of them and they constantly innovate new plays into their play book or steal from their opponents.  How many symphonies recruit?  All of them recruit new musicians, but very few recruit composers and new music.  They are content to perform from a 200 year old play book.  I concede that conductors are not jerks.  They are just lazy (jerks).

    Although, David makes the point that not all conductors are of equal talent.  Most of them require hearing a good recording to make a decision about performing a new piece.  Honestly, the old midi recordings weren't much better than trying to plunk out a score on the piano.  If this is true, we should have a plethora of new music given the improvements in sound from DAWs and programs like Note Performer.  I hope this new era in better sound for composers ushers in a new era of new music.  I'm not holding my breath.

  • Thanks, Lawrence.

    I think that the difference between football and concert music is that football is a viable money-making enterprise. Plus football is pretty simple. Two groups of guys face off on each other. Sure, there are plays that they go by. But often, once the ball is snapped, the play is stopped or otherwise falls apart. 

    As for needing a recording to evaluate new music goes. I don't know, I've watched discerning music directors go by what they can tell from a score only. 

    I do wish I shared your optimism abut recordings of new music. 

  • Lots of food for thought here.  I find myself nodding in agreement to the point where I'm going to need a heat bag to soothe my aching neck.  Corny joke aside...

    Virtually every genre of music outside of popular, suffers from a delayed proliferation and public acceptance.  It's simply due to the lack of viable marketing/brand/image building that composers can't harness to their advantage.  And that's because, as Bob pointed out, art music is not a viable money-making enterprise, and so those influencers/promoters that could generate interest and demand for new music, don't invest the energy to do so. 

    In the context of the concert music world, symphonies struggle to exist as classical music is hardly en vogue...this is why they increasingly promote video game concerts, movie soundtrack nights, and for the classical enthusiasts, Beethoven's 5th.  The name on the marquee is all that matters.  And for that name to have recognition, it either has had to have come from 200 years of marketing (ie. long-dead composers) or from mainstream entertainment (ie. video games and films).  

    Why living composers struggle (and yes, I'll speak from my own experience and not put words in others' mouths), is that they can't separate their art from business.  I attended a conference where they interviewed orchestral musicians and asked them how they could increase audiences...the majority said that if they could improve the quality of their performances, more people would come.  This illustrates the bubble musicians live in...audiences couldn't differentiate between the vast majority of professional orchestral performances/interpretations anymore than I could identify the difference between brands of whiskey.  Entertainment is personality/image driven, and classical musicians by and large are among the last to "get with the times".  You need larger than life personas, larger than life performances (which explains the Hans Zimmer epic orchestration which everyone wants to copy today), and hype that convinces the general public that they're witnessing something big.

    As frustrated as I personally am at the constant struggle to capture the attention of conductors, ensembles, etc. to perform music by living composers, I accept the inherent risk associated with trying to keep the house full without the pre-requisite "names" on the program.  That said, I think every orchestra should spend some time incorporating a small selection of new music on their programs (many orchestras do this already).  Even with this, there will always be far more available music than can reasonably be programmed.  Oh, and "new music" obviously has incredibly different connotations.  Modern/academic music has always been in fashion for performers more than for audiences (I know, I spent my life coming from an academic performance background, until I moved away from the "hardcore atonal stuff" as I wanted a chance to survive in music).  At the other end of the spectrum, living composers completely sounding like Mozart (wondering if Bob's reference to a composer that posted here was Wayne Peppercorn?) will always have a hard time being accepted as anything other than a knock off of the original.  So, at the end of this little rant, I don't really know what else to say, other than the struggle has and probably always will exist with each new generation of composers.  Lay the groundwork now for the fame that will come to you in 200 years :)



  • David,

    Your  final sentence is another form of the old adage: ‘the only good composer is a dead composer’.

    C’est la vie, n’est ce pas!


    There’s another adage I’m beginning to grasp also: ‘English humour doesn’t travel well - particularly to the US of A’

  • I think Longfellow said it best about English humor > "when it's good, it's very, very good, when it's bad, it's horrid" - BTW does anyone know what Beethoven is doing right now?

  • I suspect he's now decomposing, Gav...
    ...go on, someone had to say it.
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