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Home > Music Interest > Music Stories

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Orchestras

What does an orchestra conductor really do?
Can an orchestra not perform without one?

We will answer these and other questions as we look at the role of the conductor.

According to an essay by one conductor, the most frequently asked question is 'Why doesn't the conductor face the audience?' The role of the conductor is in fact not well understood. As the only person with his back to the audience, the conductor is a grandiose figure who is bathed in the spotlight, but his complex work requires a high degree of musical skill, as well as an ability to extract what he desires out of the group of artists he leads - his orchestra.

When were conductors first used?

Formal conductors were not used until the Baroque Period (around the mid-18th century). Since ensembles at this time were quite small, musical compositions were fairly simple, and no major tempo changes occurred during a particular piece, groups could perform without a leader, using only the movement of the lead violinist's bow as a guide.

Over time, however, as ensembles grew larger, music became more complicated, and the number of performers expanded, the need for a common musical standard became increasingly necessary. This was how the role of the conductor came to be established.

Born in 1732, Franz Joseph Haydn spent most of his life as the musical director for the court nobility in Hungary, but also worked as a composer, conductor and administrative director for a small orchestra of less than 20 musicians. Mendelssohn and Wagner, who arrived on the musical scene in the 19th century, were the best conductors and orchestra trainers of their time.

All of these figures spent only part of their time as conductors, however. The first person to become a professional conductor was a German who studied under Wagner, Hans von Bulow. He saw the conductor as more than just a tool for setting the tempo and sending signals to the orchestra, and established the role of the conductor as a central figure in the performance by virtue of his interpretation of the music. This established the conductor as a 'performer' who plucked the strings of his own instrument - his orchestra.

How does on become a conductor?

There are no examinations or eligibility qualifications for becoming a conductor, and a person may become a conductor without graduating from the conducting department of a music school or studying in any kind of conductor's training program. However, becoming the conductor of a famous orchestra requires a great deal more than what is needed merely to join an orchestra.
Japan's eldest contemporary conductor, Takashi Asahina, when he was young, asked to become an apprentice of a famous German conductor. Upon being told, 'Try writing out the entire second violin part for Beethoven's Seventh Symphony,' the young Asahina correctly wrote the entire part, with only one omission.

There are many domestic and international conducting competitions. These naturally examine a conductor's technique and musical interpretation while he conducts an orchestra through a prepared piece of music, but they also involve a sight-reading element. For this, the score of a complex piece of music prepared for the competition is given to the conductor on site. The conductor then has to sit in a room and memorize the piece before coming out and leading the orchestra through the piece by memory. Not only does the conductor have to make his arm and hand motions properly, and signal all the entrances of each instrument, he has to point out intentional mistakes made by the orchestra members on the spot. 'Second trombone, that should have been an F-sharp, not an F,' for example.

The minimal capabilities a conductor must have are:

  1. The ability to memorize an entire score.
  2. A good ear for distinguishing correct notes amidst the music of the entire orchestra.
  3. The ability to lead a group of professionalmusicians.

Of the conductors that meet these requirements, those with better musical insight and a higher level of charisma will succeed.

Will the same piece of music be performed differently when directed by different conductors?

Because the work of the conductor, as mentioned above, is to use his orchestra as his instrument for expressing his image of the ideal performance of a particular piece of music, the same piece of music will be performed differently depending on the conductor directing it.

There may be differences in tempo, for example. The triple-time musical dance of Ravel's Bolero, whose rhythm and melody is repeated, is usually thought of as a 15-minute piece. However, different CDs show that the performance time can differ greatly depending on the interpretation of the conductor.

The recording performed by the All-American Youth Orchestra conducted by Leppold Stokowski lasts 12 minutes and 3 seconds, while the recording by the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Sergiu Celibidache lasts 18 minutes and 11 seconds. A difference in speed where one version is 1.5 times longer than another is an extreme example, but very slight tempo changes can be used in classical music to change the way the piece is expressed. The possibilities for changing the musical expression through subtle tempo adjustments throughout the performance are endless. Setting the tempo is only one way in which the personality of the conductor is reflected in an orchestra's performance.

Leppold Stokowski (1882-1977)

Stokowski molded the Philadelphia Orchestra into one of the finest orchestras in the world. He started to be active in conducting orchestras in Europe in the 1950s. Called the 'musical magician,' he was also labeled the 'unorthodox conductor' by virtue of his showmanship and intensely individualistic musical interpretations.

Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996)

Born in Romania, Celibidache studied in Berlin and conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1945-1952. He later performed concerts throughout the world, but because of his refusal to commercialize his art and due to his dissatisfaction with recording technologies, he left behind very few recordings. Because of his charisma, however, pirated versions of his music are constantly appearing. After his death, his family consented to recordings of his concerts being released in live CD format.

Conductors Fashion

Orchestras originally began as court ensembles. Because they performed primarily at ceremonial or official events, they were required to dress in formal attire. For men, this meant morning coats during the day and tailcoats in the evening. Standards have been relaxed somewhat, with contemporary musicians wearing black suits during the day and tuxedos in the evening, but the conductor usually wears formal attire.

Conducting is extremely demanding work, requiring the conductor to move his arms several tens of thousands of times during a single concert. He will often perspire, so he has to wear a tailcoat that is formal, but that breathes well and allows him to move easily. Also, since the audience is most often looking at his back, the conductor must wear a tailcoat that looks good from the back. The most famous conductors have their own tailors and stylists who support them by taking care of the most minute details of their appearance.

Franz Joesph Haydn
(1732 - 1809)
Franz Joesph Haydn (1732 - 1809)
Wagner, Richard 
Wagner, Richard (1813-1883)
Felix Mendelssohn 
(1809 - 1847)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)
Hans von Bülow 
(1830- 1894)
Hans von Bülow (1830- 1894)
Takashi Asahina 
(1908 - )
Takashi Asahina (1908 - )
Leppold Stokowski 
(1882 - 1977)
Leppold Stokowski (1882 - 1977)
Sergiu Celibidache 
(1912 - 1996)
Sergiu Celibidache (1912 - 1996)