The announcement of the death of British conductor Sir Colin Davis last month carried with it a reminder of the longevity of many outstanding princes of the podium. Sir Colin was 85 when he died; before him, Otto Klemperer was 88, Sir Georg Solti 84 and Herbert von Karajan 81. Those still appearing in performance include Bernard Haitink (84) and Lorin Maazel (83).

Looking back over Colin Davis’ career saw a change in his directing style that developed from abrasive firebrand to something much more statesmanlike. The profession itself has similarly seen radical changes over the centuries, as conductors turned from being mere timekeepers to interpretative gurus.

adrian-boultThe baton gradually became one of the trappings of office, although many of today’s conductors, such as Pierre Boulez (aged 88), prefer to dispense with it altogether. In contrast, Sir Adrian Boult‘s extension of the arm had an unusually long reach that mirrored his life (he died aged 93).

Back in 1687, the French-naturalised favourite of King Louis XIV’s musical patronage was the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully. He was keeping time for a performance of his Te Deum (Naxos 8.554397) by moving a pointed staff up and down in the air when he misjudged, impaled his foot and suffered the inevitable demise once gangrene had set in. Rolled up pieces of paper were an alternative and less dangerous means of communication.

In instrumental ensembles, it fell to the concertmaster to indicate the beat with his bow; or the harpsichordist would take the role if that instrument was being used. Soloists in classical concertos would serve the dual role of performer-director, a practice that is often revived for modern-day performances and requires some nifty exchanges between waving the hands in the air and over the keys.

Beethoven seems to have abandoned the practice around the time of his Third Piano Concerto, while symphonic pieces adopted a stand-alone Berliozdirector in the early part of the 19th century. Thereafter, conductors gradually began to attract reputations for their skills in both direction and interpretation; these included the composers Berlioz and Wagner. From the following generation, a less happy reputation concerns Mahler‘s autocratic direction of his orchestral musicians at the Vienna Court Opera that developed into the sourest of relationships.
arturo-toscanini-batonThereafter, the advent of the recording industry established a more tangible pantheon of conductor giants, starting with Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922), with whom Brahms had been most impressed. Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) and Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) followed him into the recording hall of fame, establishing international reputations with their respective strengths. The Naxos Music Library enables us to compare and contrast all these men’s approaches to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and his Egmont overture: Nikisch (SYMP1087-88) exhibiting a flexibility not found in the insistent recording by Toscanini (IDIS297-98) and a less urgent Furtwängler (Naxos 8.111003).

The music world had to wait a long time before women conductors were accepted into the inner sanctum. Today, however, their presence is well established and admired in many countries, not least the United States. JoAnn Falletta and Marin Alsop are two such pioneers who have recorded extensively for the Naxos label.

This year, Alsop received the accolade of being invited to direct the BBC’s legendary Last Night of the Proms on September 7, which will include threemarin-alsop-baton pieces by fellow American Leonard Bernstein. As a foretaste of Alsop’s facility with his music, you can try out her recording of his Mass (Naxos 8.559622-23). Falletta, too, has recorded a number of discs in the American Classics Series, including one of music by George Gershwin (Naxos American Classics 8.559705). Hearing it in tandem with Toscanini’s recordings of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris (Documents 290850) makes one rue having had to wait for so long for women to have their say on the rostrum.

As regards the daily paths trodden by conductors, detailing both the ups and downs of life outside the immediate spotlight, another American Naxos artist, Leonard Slatkin, has given a fascinating account of his own musical journey in Conducting Business. Published by Amadeus Press and subtitled Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro, the book takes the wraps off both his own life and the music industry, as well as providing pointers for anyone aspiring to follow in his footsteps.

thomas-beecham-batonLet’s give the final word today, however, to the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, remembered by many as much for his wicked aphorisms as for his many recordings, from the self-mocking:

“The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.”;

to the self-deprecating:

“There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.”;

to the self-evident:

“Great music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and leaves the memory with difficulty. Magical music never leaves the memory.”