Essentials in Conducting
by Karl Wilson Gehrkens
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[Transcriber's Note: In this e-book, a macron over a character is represented with an equal sign, thus: ē.

The character ' is used to denote musical octaves, e.g., a' denotes A above middle C.]













Copyright MCMXIX By OLIVER DITSON COMPANY International Copyright Secured

To the Memory of


for many years






CHAPTER I—Introduction 1

CHAPTER II—Personal Traits Necessary in Conducting 8

CHAPTER III—The Technique of the Baton 20

CHAPTER IV—Interpretation in Conducting—Introductory 36

CHAPTER V—Interpretation in Conducting—Tempo 46

CHAPTER VI—Interpretation in Conducting—Dynamics 57

CHAPTER VII—Interpretation in Conducting—Timbre, Phrasing, etc. 64

CHAPTER VIII—The Supervisor of Music as Conductor 76

CHAPTER IX—The Community Chorus Conductor 85

CHAPTER X—The Orchestral Conductor 93

CHAPTER XI—Directing the Church Choir 108

CHAPTER XII—The Boy Choir and its Problems 118

CHAPTER XIII—The Conductor as Voice Trainer 131

CHAPTER XIV—The Art of Program Making 140

CHAPTER XV—Conductor and Accompanist 147

CHAPTER XVI—Efficiency in the Rehearsal 152

APPENDIX A—Reference List 164

APPENDIX B—Score of second movement of Haydn's Symphony, No. 3 166



In putting out this little book, the author is well aware of the fact that many musicians feel that conductors, like poets and teachers, are "born and not made"; but his experience in training supervisors of music has led him to feel that, although only the elementary phases of conducting can be taught, such instruction is nevertheless quite worth while, and is often surprisingly effective in its results. He has also come to believe that even the musical genius may profit by the experience of others and may thus be enabled to do effective work as a conductor more quickly than if he relied wholly upon his native ability.

The book is of course planned especially with the amateur in view, and the author, in writing it, has had in mind his own fruitless search for information upon the subject of conducting when he was just beginning his career as a teacher; and he has tried to say to the amateur of today those things that he himself so sorely needed to know at that time, and had to find out by blundering experience.

It should perhaps be stated that although the writer has himself had considerable experience in conducting, the material here presented is rather the result of observing and analyzing the work of others than an account of his own methods. In preparation for his task, the author has observed many of the better-known conductors in this country, both in rehearsal and in public performance, during a period of some twelve years, and the book represents an attempt to put into simple language and practical form the ideas gathered from this observation. It is hoped that as a result of reading these pages the amateur may not only have become more fully informed concerning those practical phases of conducting about which he has probably been seeking light, but may be inspired to further reading and additional music study in preparation for the larger aspects of the work.

The writer wishes to acknowledge the material assistance rendered him by Professor John Ross Frampton, of the Iowa State Teachers College, and Professor Osbourne McConathy, of Northwestern University, both of whom have read the book in manuscript and have given invaluable suggestions. He wishes also to acknowledge his very large debt to Professor George Dickinson, of Vassar College, who has read the material both in manuscript and in proof, and to whose pointed comments and criticisms many improvements both in material and in arrangement are due.


OBERLIN, OHIO June, 1918

Essentials in Conducting



[Sidenote: DEFINITION]

The word "conducting" as used in a musical sense now ordinarily refers to the activities of an orchestra or chorus leader who stands before a group of performers and gives his entire time and effort to directing their playing or singing, to the end that a musically effective ensemble performance may result.

This is accomplished by means of certain conventional movements of a slender stick called a baton (usually held in the right hand), as well as through such changes of facial expression, bodily posture, et cetera, as will convey to the singers or players the conductor's wishes concerning the rendition of the music.

Conducting in this sense involves the responsibility of having the music performed at the correct tempo, with appropriate dynamic effects, with precise attacks and releases, and in a fitting spirit. This in turn implies that many details have been worked out in rehearsal, these including such items as making certain that all performers sing or play the correct tones in the correct rhythm; insisting upon accurate pronunciation and skilful enunciation of the words in vocal music; indicating logical and musical phrasing; correcting mistakes in breathing or bowing; and, in general, stimulating orchestra or chorus to produce a tasteful rendition of the music as well as an absolutely perfect ensemble with all parts in correct proportion and perfect balance.

In order to have his directing at the public performance function properly, it thus becomes the conductor's task to plan and to administer the rehearsals in such a way that the performers may become thoroughly familiar with the music, both in technique and in spirit. In other words, the conductor must play the part of musical manager as well as that of artistic inspirer, and if he does not perform his task in such fashion as to be looked up to by the members of his chorus or orchestra as the real leader, and if he himself does not feel confident of being able to do his work better than any one else upon the ground, he cannot possibly be successful in any very high degree. A conductor must first of all be a strong leader, and failing in this, no amount of musical ability or anything else will enable him to conduct well. We shall have more to say upon this point in a later chapter.


Conducting of one kind or another has undoubtedly been practised for many centuries, but directing by gestures of the hand has not been traced farther back than the fourteenth century, at which time Heinrich von Meissen, a Minnesinger, is represented in an old manuscript directing a group of musicians with stick in hand. In the fifteenth century the leader of the Sistine Choir at Rome directed the singers with a roll of paper (called a "sol-fa"), held in his hand. By the latter part of the seventeenth century it had become customary for the conductor to sit at the harpsichord or organ, filling in the harmonies from a "figured bass," and giving any needed signals with one hand or the head as best he could. Conducting during this period signified merely keeping the performers together; that is, the chief function of the conductor was that of "time beater." With the advent of the conductor in the role of interpreter, such directing became obsolete, and from the early nineteenth century, and particularly as the result of the impetus given the art by the conducting of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner, the conductor has become an exceedingly important functionary, in these modern days even ranking with the prima donna in operatic performances! It is now the conductor's aim not merely to see that a composition is played correctly and with good ensemble; more than that, the leader of today gives his own version or reading of the composition just as the pianist or violinist does. Instead of being a mere "time beater" he has become an interpreter, and (except in the case of the organist-director of a choir) he attempts to do nothing except so to manipulate his musical forces as to secure an effective performance.


The conductor works largely through the instrumentality of instinctive imitation; that is, his methods are founded upon the fact that human beings have an innate tendency to copy the actions of others, often without being conscious that they are doing so. Thus, if one person yawns or coughs, a second person observing him has an instinctive tendency to do likewise. One member of a group is radiant with happiness, and very soon the others catch the infection and are smiling also; a singer at a public performance strains to get a high tone, and instinctively our faces pucker up and our throat muscles become tense, in sympathetic but entirely unconscious imitation. In very much the same way in conducting, the leader sets the tempo,—and is imitated by the musicians under him; he feels a certain emotional thrill in response to the composer's message,—and arouses a similar thrill in the performers; lifts his shoulders as though taking breath,—and causes the singers to phrase properly, often without either the conductor or the singers being aware of how the direction was conveyed. It is at least partly because we instinctively imitate the mental state or the emotional attitude of the pianist or the vocalist that we are capable of being thrilled or calmed by musical performances, and it is largely for this reason that an audience always insists upon seeing the artist as well as hearing him. In the same way the musicians in a chorus or orchestra must see the conductor and catch from him by instinctive imitation his attitude toward the music being performed. This point will be more fully discussed in a later chapter, when we take up interpretation in conducting.


In setting out to become a conductor it will be well for the young musician to recognize at the outset that by far the larger part of the conductor's work rests upon an art basis, and that only a comparatively small portion of it is science; hence he must not expect to find complete information concerning his future work in any treatise upon the subject. It is one thing to state that there are three primary colors, or that orange is the result of mixing red and yellow, but it is a very different matter to give directions for painting an effective landscape, or a true-to-life portrait. One thing involves science only, but the other is concerned primarily with art, and it is always dangerous to dogmatize concerning matters artistic. To carry the illustration one step farther, we may say that it is comparatively easy to teach a pupil to strike certain piano keys in such a way as to produce the correct melody, harmony, and rhythm of a certain composition; but who would venture, even in these days of frenzied advertising, to promise that in so many lessons he could teach a pupil to play it as a Hofmann or a Paderewski would? Here again we see clearly the contrast between science and art, matters of science being always susceptible of organization into a body of principles and laws which will work in every case, while art is intangible, subtle, and ever-varying.

The application of our illustration to conducting should now be clear. We may teach a beginner how to wield a baton according to conventional practice, how to secure firm attacks and prompt releases, and possibly a few other definitely established facts about conducting; but unless our would-be leader has musical feeling within him and musicianship back of him, it will be utterly futile for him to peruse these pages further, or to make any other kind of an attempt to learn to conduct; for, as stated above, only a very small part of conducting can be codified into rules, directions, and formulae, by far the larger part of our task being based upon each individual's own innate musical feeling, and upon the general musical training that he has undergone. All this may be discouraging, but on the other hand, granting a fair degree of native musical ability, coupled with a large amount of solid music study, any one possessing a sense of leadership can, after a reasonable amount of intelligent practice, learn to handle a chorus or even an orchestra in a fairly satisfactory manner. It is our purpose in general to treat the scientific rather than the artistic side of conducting, and we are taking for granted, therefore, that the reader is endowed with musical feeling at least in a fair degree, and has acquired the rudiments of musical scholarship as the result of an extensive study of piano, organ, singing, ear-training, music history, harmony, et cetera, and especially by attentive listening to a very large amount of good music with score in hand. As a result of combining such musical ability with a careful reading of these pages and with a large amount of practice in actually wielding the baton, it is hoped that the beginner will arrive at his goal somewhat earlier than he would if he depended entirely upon what the psychologist calls the "trial-and-error" method of learning.


The musical amateur who is ambitious to conduct should therefore study music in all its phases, and if in doubt as to his talent, he should submit to a vocational test in order to determine whether his native musical endowment is sufficient to make it worth his while to study the art seriously. If the result of the test is encouraging, showing a good ear, a strong rhythmic reaction, and a considerable amount of what might be termed native musical taste, let him practise his piano energetically and intelligently, and especially let him learn to read three and four voices on separate staffs (as in a vocal score) in order to prepare himself for future reading of full scores. Let him study harmony, counterpoint, form, and, if possible, composition and orchestration. Let him work indefatigably at ear-training, and particularly at harmonic ear training, so that notes and tones may become closely associated in his mind, the printed page then giving him auditory rather than merely visual imagery; in other words, let him school himself to make the printed page convey to his mind the actual sounds of the music. Let him study the history of music, not only as a record of the work of individual composers, but as an account of what has transpired in the various periods or epochs of musical art, so that he may become intelligent concerning the ideals, the styles, and the forms of these various periods. And finally, let him hear all the good music he possibly can, listening to it from the threefold standpoint of sense, emotion, and intellect, and noting particularly those matters connected with expression and interpretation in these renditions. In as many cases as possible let him study the scores of the compositions beforehand, comparing then his own ideas of interpretation with those of the performer or conductor, and formulating reasons for any differences of opinion that may become manifest.

Let the young musician also form the habit of reading widely, not only along all musical lines (history, biography, theory, esthetics, et cetera), but upon a wide variety of topics, such as painting and the other arts, history, literature, sociology, pedagogy, et cetera. As the result of such study and such reading, a type of musical scholarship will be attained which will give the conductor an authority in his interpretations and criticisms that cannot possibly be achieved in any other way. Let us hasten to admit at once that the acquiring of this sort of scholarship will take a long time, and that it cannot all be done before beginning to conduct. But in the course of several years of broad and intelligent study a beginning at least can be made, and later on, as the result of continuous growth while at work, a fine, solid, comprehensive scholarship may finally eventuate.




In the introductory chapter it was noted that the conductor must build upon a foundation of musical scholarship if he is to be really successful; that he must possess musical feeling; and that he must go through extensive musical training, if he is to conduct with taste and authority. But in addition to these purely musical requirements, experience and observation have demonstrated that the would-be conductor must be possessed of certain definitely established personal characteristics, and that many a musician who has been amply able to pass muster from a musical standpoint, has failed as a conductor because he lacked these other traits.

It is not my purpose to give at this point an exhaustive list of qualities that must form the personal equipment of the conductor. In general it will be sufficient to state that he must possess in a fair degree those personal traits that are advantageous in any profession. But of these desirable qualities three or four seem to be so indispensable that it has been thought best to devote a brief chapter to a discussion of them. These qualities are:

1. A sense of humor. 2. A creative imagination. 3. A sense of leadership combined with organizing ability.

[Sidenote: A SENSE OF HUMOR]

The first of these traits, a sense of humor, may perhaps upon first thought seem a peculiar quality to include in a category of virtues for the professional man of any type, and especially for the musician. But upon reflection it will be admitted that the ability to see things in a humorous light (which very frequently means merely seeing them in true perspective) has helped many a man to avoid wasting nervous energy upon insignificant occurrences, while the lack of this ability has caused more trouble among all sorts of people (and particularly, it seems to me, among musicians) than any other single thing.


Some player or singer is either over-arduous or a bit sleepy during the first stages of rehearsing a new composition, and makes a wrong entrance, perhaps during a pause just before the climacteric point. The occurrence is really funny and the other performers are inclined to smile or snicker, but our serious conductor quells the outbreak with a scowl. The humorous leader, on the other hand, sees the occurrence as the performers do, joins in the laugh that is raised at the expense of the offender, and the rehearsal goes on with renewed spirit.

An instrumental performer makes a bad tone, and the conductor laughs at him, saying it sounds like a wolf howling or an ass braying. If the remark is accompanied by a smile, the performer straightens up and tries to overcome the fault; but if the comment is made with a snarl there is a tightening up of muscles, an increased tension of the nerves, and the performer is more than likely to do worse the next time.

There is a difference of opinion between the conductor and some performer about fingering or bowing, phrasing or interpretation, and a quarrel seems imminent; but the conductor refuses to take the matter too seriously, and, having ample authority for his own viewpoint, proceeds as he has begun, later on talking it over with the performer, and perhaps giving him a reason for his opinion.

Humor is thus seen to have the same effect upon a body of musicians as oil applied to machinery, and musical machinery seems to need more of this kind of lubrication than almost any other variety.

But the conductor must distinguish carefully between sarcastic wit, which laughs at, and humor, which laughs with. In a book bearing the copyright date of 1849, the writer distinguishes between the two, in the following words:[1]

Humor originally meant moisture, a signification it metaphorically retains, for it is the very juice of the mind, enriching and fertilizing where it falls. Wit laughs at; humor laughs with. Wit lashes external appearances, or cunningly exchanges single foibles into character; humor glides into the heart of its object, looks lovingly upon the infirmities it attacks, and represents the whole man. Wit is abrupt, scornful ...; humor is slow and shy, insinuating its fun into your heart.

[Footnote 1: Whipple, Literature and Life, p. 91.]


The conductor with a sense of humor will ordinarily have the advantage also of being cheerful in his attitude toward the performers, and this is an asset of no mean significance. It is a well-known psychophysical fact that the human body does much better work when the mind is free from care, and that in any profession or vocation, other things being equal, the worker who is cheerful and optimistic will perform his labor much more efficiently at the expense of considerably less mental and bodily energy than he who is ill-humored, worried, fretful, and unable to take a joke. But the foreman who possesses this quality of cheerfulness and humor is doubly fortunate, for he not only secures the beneficial results in his own case, but by his attitude frequently arouses the same desirable state of mind and body in those who are working under him. It is particularly because of this latter fact that the conductor needs to cultivate a cheerful, even a humorous outlook, especially in the rehearsal. As the result of forming this habit, he will be enabled to give directions in such a way that they will be obeyed cheerfully (and consequently more effectively); he will find it possible to rehearse longer with less fatigue both to himself and to his musical forces; and he will be able to digest his food and to sleep soundly after the rehearsal because he is not worrying over trivial annoyances that, after all, should have been dismissed with a laugh as soon as they appeared. There must not of course be so much levity that the effectiveness of the rehearsal will be endangered, but there is not much likelihood that this will happen; whereas there seems to be considerable danger that our rehearsals will become too cold and formal. A writer on the psychology of laughter states that "laughter is man's best friend";[2] and in another place (p. 342) says that the smile always brings to the mind "relaxation from strain."

[Footnote 2: Sully, An Essay on Laughter.]


Creative imagination is an inborn quality—"a gift of the gods"—and if the individual does not possess it, very little can be done for him in the artistic realm. Constructive or creative imagination implies the ability to combine known elements in new ways—to use the mind forwards, as it were. The possession of this trait makes it possible to picture to oneself how things are going to look or sound or feel before any actual sense experience has taken place; to see into people's minds and often find out in advance how they are going to react to a projected situation; to combine chemical elements in new ways and thus create new substances; to plan details of organization in a manufacturing establishment or in an educational institution, and to be able to forecast how these things are going to work out.

It is this quality of creative imagination that enables the inventor to project his mind into the future and see a continent spanned by railways and telephones, and the barrier of an ocean broken down by means of wireless and aeroplane; and in every case the inventor works with old and well-known materials, being merely enabled by the power of his creative faculties (as they are erroneously called) to combine these known materials in new ways.

In the case of the musician, such creative imagination has always been recognized as a sine qua non of original composition, but its necessity has not always been so clearly felt in the case of the performer. Upon analyzing the situation it becomes evident, however, that the performer cannot possibly get from the composer his real message unless he can follow him in his imagination, and thus re-create the work. As for adding anything original to what the composer has given, this is plainly out of the question unless the interpreter is endowed somewhat extensively with creative imagination; and the possession of this quality will enable him to introduce such subtle variations from a cut-and-dried, merely accurate rendition as will make his performance seem really spontaneous, and will inevitably arouse a more enthusiastic emotional response in the listeners.

Weingartner sums up the value of imagination in the final paragraph of one of the few really valuable books on conducting at our disposal.[3]

More and more I have come to think that what decides the worth of conducting is the degree of suggestive power that the conductor can exercise over the performers. At the rehearsals he is mostly nothing more than a workman, who schools the men under him so conscientiously and precisely that each of them knows his place and what he has to do there; he first becomes an artist when the moment comes for the production of the work. Not even the most assiduous rehearsing, so necessary a prerequisite as this is, can so stimulate the capacities of the players as the force of imagination of the conductor. It is not the transference of his personal will, but the mysterious act of creation that called the work itself into being takes place again in him, and transcending the narrow limits of reproduction, he becomes a new-creator, a self-creator.

[Footnote 3: Weingartner, On Conducting, translated by Ernest Newman, p. 56.]

This quality is indispensable to all musicians, be they creators or performers, but is especially desirable in the conductor, for he needs it not only from the standpoint of interpretation, as already noted, but from that of manager or organizer. Upon this latter point we shall have more to say later, but it may be well to state just here that if the conductor could imagine what was going on in the minds of his players or singers, and could see things from their viewpoint; if he could forecast the effect of his explanatory directions or of his disciplinary rulings, nine-tenths of all the quarreling, bickering, and general dissatisfaction that so frequently mar the work of any musical organization could easily be eliminated. We might also add that if the conductor could only foresee the effect upon his audiences of certain works, or of certain interpretations, his plans would probably often be materially altered.


But the conductor must be more than a humorous-minded and imaginative musician. He must also (especially in these modern times) be an organizer, a business man, a leader. The qualities of leadership and organizing ability are so closely connected that we shall for the most part treat them together in our discussion, and they are so important that a fairly extensive analysis will be attempted.

In an article on Schumann in Grove's Dictionary Dr. Philip Spitta, the well-known historian and critic, comments upon the conducting of this famous composer as follows:[4]

Schumann was sadly wanting in the real talent for conducting. All who ever saw him conduct or played under his direction are agreed on this point. Irrespective of the fact that conducting for any length of time tired him out, he had neither the collectedness and prompt presence of mind, nor the sympathetic faculty, nor the enterprising dash, without each of which conducting in the true sense is impossible. He even found difficulty in starting at a given tempo; nay, he even sometimes shrank from giving any initial beat, so that some energetic pioneer would begin without waiting for the signal, and without incurring Schumann's wrath! Besides this, any thorough practice, bit by bit, with his orchestra, with instructive remarks by the way as to the mode of execution, was impossible to this great artist, who in this respect was a striking contrast to Mendelssohn. He would have a piece played through, and if it did not answer to his wishes, have it repeated. If it went no better the second or perhaps third time, he would be extremely angry at what he considered the clumsiness, or even the ill-will of the players; but detailed remarks he never made.

[Footnote 4: Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, New Edition, Vol. IV, p. 363.]

This estimate of Schumann's work as a conductor demonstrates unmistakably that he failed in this particular field, not because his musical scholarship was not adequate, but because he did not have that peculiar ability which enables one man to dominate others: viz., a sense of leadership, or personal magnetism, as it is often called. Seidl asserts[5] that Berlioz, Massenet, and Saint-Saens likewise failed as conductors, in spite of recognized musicianship; and it is of course well known that even Beethoven and Brahms could not conduct their own works as well as some of their contemporaries whose names are now almost forgotten.

[Footnote 5: Seidl, The Music of the Modern World, Vol. I, p. 106.]

The feeling that one has the power to cause others to do one's will seems in most cases to be inborn, at least certain children display it at a very early age; and it is usually the boys and girls who decide on the playground what games shall be played next, or what mischief shall now be entered upon, who later on become leaders in their several fields of activity. And yet this sense of leadership, or something closely approximating it, may also be acquired, at least to a certain extent, by almost any one who makes a consistent and intelligent attempt in this direction. It is this latter fact which may encourage those of us who are not naturally as gifted along these lines as we should like to be, and it is because of this possibility of acquiring what in conducting amounts to an indispensable qualification that an attempt is here made to analyze the thing called leadership into its elements.


The primary basis upon which a sense of leadership rests is undoubtedly confidence in one's general ability and in one's knowledge of the particular subject being handled. The leader must not only know but must know that he knows. This makes quick judgments possible, and the leader and organizer must always be capable of making such judgments, and of doing it with finality. The baseball player must decide instantly whether to throw the ball to "first," "second," "third," or "home," and he must repeatedly make such decisions correctly before he can become a strong and respected baseball captain. The same thing holds true of the foreman in a factory, and both baseball captain and factory foreman must not only know every detail of the work done under them, but must know that they know it, and must feel confident of being able to cause those working under them to carry it on as they conceive it. So the conductor must not only know music, but must have confidence in his ear, in his rhythmic precision, in his taste, in his judgment of tempo, in short, in his musical scholarship; and he must not only feel that he knows exactly what should be done in any given situation, but be confident that he can make his chorus or orchestra do it as he wishes. Think for instance of securing a firm attack on the first tone of such a song as the Marseillaise. It is an extremely difficult thing to do, and it would be utterly impossible to direct any one else exactly how to accomplish it; and yet, if the conductor knows exactly how it must sound, if he has an auditory image of it before the actual tones begin, and if he feels that when he begins to beat time the chorus will sing as he has heard them in imagination, then the expected result is almost certain to follow. But if he is uncertain or hesitant upon any of these points, he will as surely fail to get a good attack.

Such confidence in one's own ability as we have been describing usually results in the acquiring of what is called an easy manner,—self-possession,—in short, poise, and it is the possession of such a bearing that gives us confidence in the scholarship and ability of the leaders in any type of activity. But the influence of this type of manner cannot be permanent unless it rests upon a foundation of really solid knowledge or ability.


The second element included in leadership and organizing ability is the power to make oneself understood, that is, clearness of speech and of expression. This involves probably first of all, so far as conducting is concerned, a voice that can be easily heard, even in a fairly large room, and that carries with it the tone of authority. But it includes also a good command of language so that one's ideas may be expressed clearly, and one's commands given definitely. An important point to be noted in this connection is that the conductor must be able to exercise rigid self-control, so as not to become incoherent under stress of anger, emergencies, or other excitement.


The final element involved in leadership is a tremendous love of and respect for the thing that is being done. Napoleon became a great general because of his confidence in his own ability, and because of his very great enthusiasm for his work. Lincoln became one of the greatest statesmen of all times largely because of his earnestness, his extraordinary love and respect for the common people, and his unfaltering confidence in the justice of the cause for which the North was contending. Pestalozzi could never have become one of the world's most influential teachers if he had not felt that the thing he was trying to do was a big thing, a vital thing in the life of his country, and if he had not had a real love in his heart for his work among the ragged and untrained urchins whom he gathered about him.

And for the same reason it is clear that no one can become a strong and forceful conductor who does not have an overwhelming love of music in his heart. We may go farther and say that no conductor can give a really spirited reading of a musical composition if he does not feel genuinely enthusiastic over the work being performed, and that one reason for the sluggish response that musicians often make to the conductor's baton is the mediocrity of the music which they are being asked to perform. The conductor is not in sympathy with it (sometimes without realizing this himself), and there is consequently no virility in the playing or singing. The remedy for this state of affairs consists, first, in allowing only those who have some taste in the selection of music to conduct; and second, in inspiring all conductors to take much more time and much greater pains in deciding upon the works to be rehearsed. In directing a choir one may examine a dozen cantatas, or twenty-five anthems, before one is found that is really distinctive. If one stops at the second or third, and thinks that although not very good yet it is possibly good enough, very probably the choir will be found to be sluggish and unresponsive, filled with what Coward calls "inertia."[6] But if one goes on looking over more and more selections until something really distinctive is discovered, it is more than probable that the chorus will respond with energy and enthusiasm.

[Footnote 6: Coward, Choral Technique and Interpretation, p. 73.]

We have heard many arguments in favor of teaching children only the best music, and here is yet another, perhaps more potent than all the rest. They must be taught only good music because you as a musician will find it impossible to become enthusiastic over mediocre or poor works; and if you do not yourself glow over the music that you are directing, you will hardly succeed in arousing the children's interest, for enthusiasm spreads by contagion, and there can be no spreading by contact unless we have a point from which to start.

A sense of leadership consists, then, of a combination of self-confidence and poise, clearness of speech and expression, and enthusiasm for one's work; and if with these three there is mingled the ability to think clearly and definitely, we have a combination that is bound to produce distinctive results, no matter what the field of activity may be. Let us repeat that the encouraging thing about the whole matter is the fact that most of the things involved in leadership can be acquired, at least to a certain degree, if persistent efforts are made for a long enough time.

Before going on with the topic to be treated in the next chapter, let us summarize the materials out of which our conductor is to be fashioned. They are:

1. Innate musical ability. 2. A long period of broad and intelligent music study. 3. An attractive and engaging personality. 4. A sense of humor. 5. A creative imagination. 6. Conscious leadership and organizing ability.

Some of these qualities are admittedly almost diametrically opposed to one another, and it is probably because so few individuals combine such apparently opposite traits that such a small number of musicians succeed as conductors, and so few organizers and business men succeed as musicians. But in spite of this difficulty, we must insist again that any really tangible and permanent success in conducting involves a combination of these attributes, and that the conductor of the future, even more than of the past, must possess not only those qualities of the artist needed by the solo performer, but must in addition be a good business manager, an organizer, a tactician, a diplomat, a task-master—in plain English, a good boss. It is primarily because of the lack of these last-mentioned qualities that most musicians fail as conductors. A writer in the Canadian Journal of Music, signing himself Varasdin, sums it up well in the following words:

He who wishes to "carry away" his body of players as well as his audience, the former to a unanimously acted improvisation, the latter to a unanimously felt emotion, needs above all "commanding personal magnetism," and everything else must be subordinate to that.

He must be "very much alive"—(highly accumulated vital energy, always ready to discharge, is the secret of all personal magnetism)—and the alertness, the presence of mind, the acute and immediate perception of everything going on during rehearsal or performance, the dominancy and impressiveness of his minutest gesture, the absolute self-possession and repose even in working up the most exciting climaxes and in effecting the most sudden contrasts—all these are simply self-evident corollaries from our first and foremost requirement.




Before giving actual directions for the manipulation of the conductor's baton, it may be well to state that the stick itself should be light in weight, light in color, and from sixteen to twenty inches long. It must be thin and flexible, and should taper gradually from the end held in the hand to the point. Batons of this kind can be manufactured easily at any ordinary planing mill where there is a lathe. The kinds sold at stores are usually altogether too thick and too heavy. If at any time some adulating chorus or choir should present the conductor with an ebony baton with silver mountings, he must not feel that courtesy demands that it should be used in conducting. The proper thing to do with such an instrument is to tie a ribbon around one end and hang it on the wall as a decoration.


A word about the music desk may also be in order at this time. It should be made of wood or heavy metal so that in conducting one need not constantly feel that it is likely to be knocked over. The ordinary folding music stand made of light metal is altogether unsuitable for a conductor's use. A good substantial stand with a metal base and standard and wood top can be purchased for from three to five dollars from any dealer in musical instruments. If no money is available and the stand is constructed at home, it may be well to note that the base should be heavy, the upright about three and a half feet high, and the top or desk about fourteen by twenty inches. This top should tilt only slightly, so that the conductor may glance from it to his performers without too much change of focus. Our reason for mentioning apparently trivial matters of this kind is to guard against any possible distraction of the conductor's mind by unimportant things. If these details are well provided for in advance, he will be able while conducting to give his entire attention to the real work in hand.


The baton is ordinarily held between the thumb and first, second and third fingers, but the conductor's grasp upon it varies with the emotional quality of the music. Thus in a dainty pianissimo passage, it is often held very lightly between the thumb and the first two fingers, while in a fortissimo one it is grasped tightly in the closed fist, the tension of the muscles being symbolic of the excitement expressed in the music at that point. All muscles must be relaxed unless a contraction occurs because of the conductor's response to emotional tension in the music. The wrist should be loose and flexible, and the entire beat so full of grace that the attention of the audience is never for an instant distracted from listening to the music by the conspicuous awkwardness of the conductor's hand movements. This grace in baton-manipulation need not interfere in any way with the definiteness or precision of the beat. In fact an easy, graceful beat usually results in a firmer rhythmic response than a jerky, awkward one. For the first beat of the measure the entire arm (upper as well as lower) moves vigorously downward, but for the remaining beats the movement is mostly confined to the elbow and wrist. In the case of a divided beat (see pages 23 and 24) the movement comes almost entirely from the wrist.


The hand manipulating the baton must always be held sufficiently high so as to be easily seen by all performers, the elbow being kept well away from the body, almost level with the shoulder. The elevation of the baton, of course, depends upon the size of the group being conducted, upon the manner in which the performers are arranged, and upon whether they are sitting or standing. The conductor will accordingly vary its position according to the exigencies of the occasion, always remembering that a beat that cannot be easily seen will not be readily followed.


If one observes the work of a number of conductors, it soon becomes evident that, although at first they appear to have absolutely different methods, there are nevertheless certain fundamental underlying principles in accordance with which each beats time, and it is these general principles that we are to deal with in the remainder of this chapter. It should be noted that principles rather than methods are to be discussed, since principles are universal, while methods are individual and usually only local in their application.


The general direction of the baton movements now in universal use is shown in the following figures.

In actual practice however, the baton moves from point to point in a very much more complex fashion, and in order to aid the learner still further in his analysis of time beating an elaborated version of the foregoing figures is supplied. It is of course understood that such diagrams are of value only in giving a general idea of these more complex movements and that they are not to be followed minutely.

An examination of these figures will show that all baton movements are based upon four general principles:

1. The strongest pulse of a measure (the first one) is always marked by a down-beat. This principle is merely a specific application of the general fact that a downward stroke is stronger than an upward one (cf. driving a nail).

2. The last pulse of a measure is always marked by an up-beat, since it is generally the weakest part of the measure.

3. In three- and four-beat measures, the beats are so planned that there is never any danger of the hands colliding in conducting vigorous movements that call for the use of the free hand as well as the one holding the baton.

4. In compound measures the secondary accent is marked by a beat almost as strong as that given the primary accent.


The fact that a composition is in 4-4 measure does not necessarily mean that every measure is to be directed by being given four actual beats, and one of the things that the conductor must learn is when to give more beats and when fewer.

If the tempo is very rapid, the 4-4 measure will probably be given only two beats, but in an adagio movement, as, e.g., the first part of the Messiah overture, it may be necessary to beat eight for each measure in order to insure rhythmic continuity. There are many examples of triple measure in which the movement is so rapid as to make it impracticable to beat three in a measure, and the conductor is therefore content merely to give a down-beat at the beginning of each measure; waltzes are commonly conducted by giving a down-beat for the first measure, an up-beat for the second, et cetera; a six-part measure in rapid tempo receives but two beats; while 9-8 and 12-8 are ordinarily given but three and four beats respectively.

It is not only annoying but absolutely fatiguing to see a conductor go through all manner of contortions in trying to give a separate beat to each pulse of the measure in rapid tempos; and the effect upon the performers is even worse than upon the audience, for a stronger rhythmic reaction will always be stimulated if the rhythm is felt in larger units rather than in smaller ones. But on the other hand, the tempo is sometimes so very slow that no sense of continuity can be aroused by giving only one beat for each pulse; hence, as already noted, it is often best to give double the number of beats indicated by the measure sign. In general, these two ideas may be summarized in the following rule: As the tempo becomes more rapid, decrease the number of beats; but as it becomes slower, increase the number, at the same time elaborating the beat so as to express more tangibly the idea of a steady forward movement.

By carefully studying the second series of figures given on pages 23 and 24 and by making certain that the principle of "continuous movement" explained on page 28 is observed, the student will be able to learn the more highly elaborated beats employed in slower tempos without very much difficulty. These diagrams, like the first set, are, of course, intended to be suggestive only.


In this same connection, the amateur may perhaps raise the question as to whether it is wise to beat the rhythm or the pulse in such a measure as [music notation]. In other words, is it well to give a down-beat on 1, two small beats toward the left for 2, while 3 and 4 are treated in the ordinary way? This question may be answered by referring to the rule given on page 25, but perhaps it will be safer to make the application more specific by advising the young conductor to adhere fairly closely to beating the pulse unless a much slower tempo makes extra beats necessary. The additional movements may be of some service in certain cases, but in general they tend to confuse rather than to clarify, this being especially true in the case of syncopated rhythms. The only exceptions to this principle are:

1. When a phrase begins with a tone that is on a fractional part of the beat; e.g., if the preceding phrase ends with an eighth, thus: [music notation]; for in this case the phrasing cannot be indicated clearly without dividing the beat.

2. When there is a ritardando and it becomes necessary to give a larger number of beats in order to show just how much slower the tempo is to be. The second point is of course covered by the general rule already referred to.

The conductor must train himself to change instantly from two beats in the measure to four or six; from one to three, et cetera, so that he may be able at any time to suit the number of beats to the character of the music at that particular point. This is particularly necessary in places where a ritardando makes it desirable from the standpoint of the performers to have a larger number of beats.


Although covered in general by the preceding discussion, it may perhaps be well to state specifically that the compound measures 6-8, 9-8, and 12-8 are ordinarily taken as duple, triple, and quadruple measures, respectively. In other words, the dotted-quarter-note ([dotted quarter-note symbol]) is thought of as the beat note, some modern editors going so far as to write [2 over dotted quarter symbol] in place of 6-8 as the measure sign; [3 over dotted quarter symbol] in place of 9-8; and [4 over dotted quarter symbol] in place of 12-8. In conducting these various types of measure, the general principle given on page 25 again applies, and if the tempo is very slow, the conductor beats 6, 9, or 12, to the measure, but if it is rapid, the flow of the rhythm is much better indicated by 2, 3, and 4 beats respectively.


Although only occasionally encountered by the amateur, five- and seven-beat measures are now made use of frequently enough by composers to make some explanation of their treatment appropriate. A five-beat measure (quintuple) is a compound measure comprising a two-beat and a three-beat one. Sometimes the two-beat group is first, and sometimes the three-beat one. If the former, then the conductor's beat will be down-up, down-right-up. But if it is the other way about, then the beat will naturally be down-right-up, down-up. "But how am I to know which comes first?" asks the tyro. And our answer is, "Study the music, and if you cannot find out in this way, you ought not to be conducting the composition."

Just as quintuple measure is a compound measure comprising two pulse-groups, one of three and the other of two beats, so seven-beat measure (septuple) consists of a four-beat group plus a three-beat one. If the four-beat measure is first, the conductor's beat will be down-left-right-up, down-right-up; i.e., the regular movements for quadruple measure followed by those for triple; but if the combination is three plus four, it will be the other way about. Sometimes the composer helps the conductor by placing a dotted bar between the two parts of the septuple measure, thus: [music notation]


The most fundamental principle of time beating, and the one concerning which the young conductor is apt to be most ignorant, is the following: The baton must not usually come to a standstill at the points marking the beats, neither must it move in a straight line from one point to another, except in the case of the down beat; for it is the free and varying movement of the baton between any two beats that gives the singers or players their cue as to where the second of the two is to come. We may go further and say that the preliminary movement made before the baton arrives at what might be termed the "bottom" of the beat is actually more important than the "bottom" of the beat itself. When the baton is brought down for the first beat of the measure, the muscles contract until the imaginary point which the baton is to strike has been reached, relaxing while the hand moves on to the next point (i.e., the second beat) gradually contracting again as this point is reached, and relaxing immediately afterward as the hand moves on to the third beat. In the diagrams of baton movements given on preceding pages, the accumulating force of muscular contraction is shown by the gradually increasing thickness of the line, proceeding from the initial part of the stroke to its culmination; while the light curved line immediately following this culmination indicates the so-called "back-stroke," the muscular relaxation. It is easy to see that this muscular contraction is what gives the beat its definiteness, its "bottom," while the relaxation is what gives the effect of continuity or flow. It will be noticed that when the baton is brought down on an accented beat, the beginning of the back-stroke is felt by the conductor as a sort of "rebound" of the baton from the bottom of the beat, and this sensation of rebounding helps greatly in giving "point" to these accented beats.

In order to understand fully the principle that we have just been discussing, it must be recalled that rhythm is not a succession of jerks, but is basically a steady flow, a regular succession of similar impulses, the word rhythm itself coming from a Greek stem meaning "flow." Like all other good things, this theory of continuous movement may be carried to excess, and one occasionally sees conducting that has so much "back-stroke" that there is no definiteness of beat whatsoever; in other words there is no "bottom" to the beat, and consequently no precision in the conducting. But on the other hand, there is to be observed also a great deal of conducting in which the beats seem to be thought of as imaginary points, the conductor apparently feeling that it is his business to get from one to another of these points in as straight a line as possible, and with no relaxation of muscle whatever. Such conductors often imagine that they are being very definite and very precise indeed in their directing, and have sometimes been heard to remark that the singers or players whom they were leading seemed exceedingly stupid about following the beat, especially in the attacks. The real reason for sluggish rhythmic response and poor attacks is, however, more often to be laid at the door of a poorly executed beat by the conductor than to the stupidity of the chorus or orchestra.[7]

[Footnote 7: It is but a step from the conclusions arrived at above to a corollary relating to conducting from the organ bench. How does it happen that most choirs directed by an organist-conductor do not attack promptly, do not follow tempo changes readily, and do not in general present examples of good ensemble performance? Is it not because the organist is using his hands and feet for other purposes, and cannot therefore indicate to his singers the "continuous flow of rhythm" above referred to? When a conductor directing with a baton wishes to indicate a ritardando, he does so not merely by making the beats follow one another at longer intervals, but even more by making a more elaborate and more extensive movement between the beat culminations; and the musicians have no difficulty in following the baton, because it is kept continuously in motion, the points where the muscular contractions come being easily felt by the performers, because they can thus follow the rhythm in their own muscles by instinctive imitation. But when the organist-conductor wishes a ritardando, he merely plays more slowly, and the singers must get their idea of the slower tempo entirely through the ear. Since rhythm is a matter of muscle rather than of ear, it will be readily understood that conducting and organ-playing will never go hand in hand to any very great extent. There is, of course, another reason for the failure of many organists who try to play and conduct simultaneously, viz., that they are not able to do two things successfully at the same time, so that the chorus is often left to work out its own salvation as best it may; while, if the conducting is done by using the left hand, the organ end of the combination is not usually managed with any degree of distinction. Because of this and certain other well-known reasons, the writer believes that choral music in general, and church music in particular, would be greatly benefited by a widespread return to the mixed chorus, led by a conductor with baton in hand, and accompanied by an organist.]


Coordinate with the discussion of continuous movement and back-stroke, the following principle should be noted: A preliminary movement sufficiently ample to be easily followed by the eye must be made before actually giving the beat upon which the singers or players are to begin the tone, if the attack is to be delivered with precision and confidence. Thus in the case of a composition beginning upon the first beat of a measure, the conductor holds the baton poised in full view of all performers, then, before actually bringing it down for the attack, he raises it slightly, this upward movement often corresponding to the back-stroke between an imaginary preceding beat and the actual beat with which the composition begins. When a composition begins upon the weak beat (e.g., the fourth beat of a four-pulse measure), the preceding strong beat itself, together with the back-stroke accompanying it, is often given as the preparation for the actual initial beat. In case this is done the conductor must guard against making this preliminary strong beat so prominent as to cause the performers to mistake it for the actual signal to begin. If the first phrase begins with an eighth-note ([music notation]), give a short beat for 4 and an extra up-beat for the first note of the phrase. If it begins with a sixteenth-note, do the same thing, but make the extra up-beat with which the first tone is to be coincident shorter and quicker. If a good attack cannot be secured in any other way, beat an entire preliminary measure until the attack goes well, then adopt some such plan as has just been suggested.

[Sidenote: THE RELEASE]

The preliminary up-beat which has just been discussed is equally valuable as a preparation for the "release" or "cut-off." The movement for the release is usually a down stroke to right or left, or even upward. It is customary not to beat out the final measure of a composition or a complete final section of a composition, but to bring the baton down a few inches for the first beat of the measure, and then to hold it poised in this position, either counting the beats mentally, or trusting to feeling to determine the time for stopping. A slight upward movement is then made just before the tone is to be released, and it is the warning conveyed by this preliminary movement that enables the performers to release the tone at the precise instant when the baton is brought down for the cut-off. It should be noted that the release must come at the end of the duration value of the final note. In 4-4 a final [dotted half-note symbol] would therefore be held up to the beginning of the fourth beat, i.e., until one is on the point of counting four; a final [whole note symbol], until the beginning of the first beat of the following measure. It is because of carelessness or ignorance on this point that composers now sometimes resort to such devices as [music notation] to show that the final tone has four full beats. In such a case, the ending [music notation] means exactly the same thing as [music notation], the tone being released precisely on one of the following measure, in either case.

[Sidenote: THE HOLD]

In the case of a hold (fermata), the movement for the cut-off depends upon the nature of what follows. If the tone to be prolonged forms the end of a phrase or section, the baton is brought down vigorously as at the end of a composition; but if the hold occurs at the end of a phrase in such a way as not to form a decided closing point, or if it occurs in the midst of the phrase itself, the cut-off is not nearly so pronounced, and the conductor must exercise care to move his baton in such a direction as to insure its being ready to give a clear signal for the attack of the tone following the hold. Thus, with a hold on the third beat, [music notation] the cut-off would probably be toward the right and upward, this movement then serving also as a preliminary for the fourth beat to follow.


For working in rehearsal it is convenient to use some such exclamation as "Ready—Sing," or "Ready—Play," in order that amateur musicians may be enabled to attack the first chord promptly, even in reading new music. In this case the word "Ready" comes just before the preliminary movement; the word "Sing" or "Play" being coincident with the actual preliminary movement. In preparing for a public performance, however, the conductor should be careful not to use these words so much in rehearsing that his musicians will have difficulty in making their attacks without hearing them.


The length and general character of the baton movement depend upon the emotional quality of the music being conducted. A bright, snappy Scherzo in rapid tempo will demand a short, vigorous beat, with almost no elaboration of back-stroke; while for a slow and stately Choral, a long, flowing beat with a highly-elaborated back-stroke will be appropriate. The first beat of the phrase in any kind of music is usually longer and more prominent, in order that the various divisions of the design may be clearly marked. It is in the length of the stroke that the greatest diversity in time beating will occur in the case of various individual conductors, and it is neither possible nor advisable to give specific directions to the amateur. Suffice it to say, that if he understands clearly the foregoing principles of handling the baton, and if his musical feeling is genuine, there will be little difficulty at this point.


The directions for beating time thus far given have, of course, referred exclusively to what is termed "measured music," i.e., music in which the rhythm consists of groups of regularly spaced beats, the size and general characteristics of the group depending upon the number and position of the accents in each measure. There exists, however, a certain amount of non-measured vocal music, and a word concerning the most common varieties (recitative and Anglican chant) will perhaps be in order before closing our discussion of beating time.

[Sidenote: RECITATIVE]

In conducting the accompaniment of a vocal solo of the recitative style, and particularly that variety referred to as recitativo secco, the most important baton movement is a down-beat after each bar. The conductor usually follows the soloist through the group of words found between two bars with the conventional baton movements, but this does not imply regularly spaced pulses as in the case of measured music, and the beats do not correspond in any way to those of the ordinary measure of rhythmic music. They merely enable the accompanying players to tell at approximately what point in the measure the singer is at any given time, the up-beat at the end of the group giving warning of the near approach of the next group.


In the case of the Anglican chant, it should be noted that there are two parts to each verse: one, a reciting portion in which there is no measured rhythm; the other, a rhythmic portion in which the pulses occur as in measured music. In the reciting portion of the chant, the rhythm is that of ordinary prose speech, punctuation marks being observed as in conventional language reading. This makes it far more difficult to keep the singers together, and in order to secure uniformity, some conductors give a slight movement of the baton for each syllable; others depend upon a down-beat at the beginning of each measure together with the lip movements made by the conductor himself and followed minutely by the chorus.

The beginning of the second part of the chant is indicated by printing its first syllable in italics, by placing an accent mark over it, or by some other similar device. This syllable is then regarded as the first accented tone of the metrical division of the chant, and, beginning with it, the conductor beats time as in ordinary measured music. If no other syllable follows the accented one before a bar occurs, it is understood that the accented syllable is to be held for two beats, i.e., a measure's duration. Final ed is always pronounced as a separate syllable.

The most important thing for an amateur to learn about conducting the Anglican chant is that before he can successfully direct others in singing this type of choral music, he must himself practically memorize each chant. The amateur should perhaps also be warned not to have the words of the first part of the chant recited too rapidly. All too frequently there is so much hurrying that only a few of the most prominent words are distinguishable, most of the connecting words being entirely lost. A more deliberate style of chanting than that in ordinary use would be much more in keeping with the idea of dignified worship. Before asking the choir to sing a new chant, it is often well to have the members recite it, thus emphasizing the fact that the meaning of the text must be brought out in the singing. In inaugurating chanting in churches where this form of music has not previously formed a part of the service, it will be well to have both choir and congregation sing the melody in unison for a considerable period before attempting to chant in parts.


Now that we have laid down the principles upon the basis of which our prospective conductor is to beat time, let us warn him once more that here, as in other things, it is intelligent practice that makes perfect, and that if he is to learn to handle the baton successfully, and particularly if he is to learn to do it so well that he need never give the slightest thought to his baton while actually conducting, hours of practice in beating time will be necessary. This practising should sometimes take place before a mirror, or better still, in the presence of some critical friend, so that a graceful rather than a grotesque style of handling the baton may result; it should also be done with the metronome clicking or with some one playing the piano much of the time, in order that the habit of maintaining an absolutely steady, even tempo may evolve. The phonograph may also be utilized for this purpose, and may well become an indispensable factor in training conductors in the future, it being possible in this way to study the elements of interpretation as well as to practise beating time.


It must not be imagined that if one is fortunate enough to acquire the style of handling the baton which we have been advocating one will at once achieve success as a conductor. The factors of musical scholarship, personal magnetism, et cetera, mentioned in preceding pages, must still constitute the real foundation of conducting. But granting the presence of these other factors of endowment and preparation, one may often achieve a higher degree of success if one has developed also a well-defined and easily-followed beat. It is for this reason that the technique of time beating is worthy of some degree of serious investigation and of a reasonable amount of time spent in practice upon it.





Interpretation from the standpoint of the conductor differs from interpretation in singing and playing in that the conductor must necessarily convey ideas or emotions to his audience through an intermediary, viz., the orchestra or chorus. He furthermore labors under the disadvantage of having to stand with his back (certainly the least expressive part of man's physique) to the audience. The pianist, singer, and violinist, on the other hand, face their audiences; and because they themselves actually do the performing, are able to work much more directly upon the minds and emotions of their hearers. For this reason, interpretation must be studied by the conductor from a twofold basis:

1. From the standpoint of the expressive rendition of music in general.

2. From the standpoint of securing the expressive rendition of music from a group of players or singers.

We shall devote this and the three following chapters to a discussion of these two phases of interpretation.


The word interpret, as ordinarily used means "to explain,"—"to elucidate,"—"to make clear the meaning of," and this same definition of the word applies to music as well, the conductor or performer "making clear" to the audience the message given him by the composer. It should be noted at once, however, that interpretation in music is merely the process or means for securing the larger thing called expression, and in discussing this larger thing, the activity of two persons is always assumed; one is the composer, the other the performer. Which of these two is the more important personage has been for many decades a much mooted question among concert-goers. Considered from an intellectual standpoint, there is no doubt whatever concerning the supremacy of the composer; but when viewed in the light of actual box office experience, on an evening when Caruso or some other popular idol has been slated to appear, and cannot do so because of indisposition, it would seem as if the performer were still as far above the composer as he was in the days of eighteenth-century opera in Italy.

It is the composer's function to write music of such a character that when well performed it will occasion an emotional reaction on the part of performer and listener. Granting this type of music, it is the function of the performer or conductor to so interpret the music that an appropriate emotional reaction will actually ensue. A recent writer calls the performer a messenger from the composer to the audience, and states[8] that—

As a messenger is accountable to both sender and recipient of his message, so is the interpretative artist in a position of twofold trust and, therefore, of twofold responsibility. The sender of his message—creative genius—is behind him; before him sits an expectant and confiding audience, the sovereign addressee. The interpretative artist has, therefore, first to enter into the spirit of his message; to penetrate its ultimate meaning; to read in, as well as between, the lines. And then he has to train and develop his faculties of delivery, of vital production, to such a degree as to enable him to fix his message decisively, and with no danger of being misunderstood, in the mind of his auditor.

[Footnote 8: Constantin von Sternberg, Ethics and Esthetics of Piano Playing, p. 10.]

This conception of the conductor's task demands from him two things:

1. A careful, painstaking study of the work to be performed, so as to become thoroughly familiar with its content and to discover its true emotional significance.

2. Such display of emotion in his conducting as will arouse a sympathetic response, first on the part of orchestra and chorus, and then in turn in the audience.


Real interpretation, then, requires, on the part of the conductor, just as in the case of the actor, a display of emotion. Coldness and self-restraint will not suffice, for these represent merely the intellectual aspect of the art, and music is primarily a language of the emotions. This difference constitutes the dividing line between performances that merely arouse our judicial comment "That was exceedingly well done"; and those on the other hand that thrill us, carry us off our feet, sweep us altogether out of our environment so that for the moment we forget where we are, lose sight temporarily of our petty cares and grievances, and are permitted to live for a little while in an altogether different world—the world not of things and ambitions and cares, but of ecstasy. Such performances and such an attitude on the part of the listener are all too rare in these days of smug intellectualism and hypersophistication, and we venture to assert that this is at least partly due to the fact that many present-day conductors are intellectual rather than emotional in their attitude.

It is this faculty of displaying emotion, of entirely submerging himself in the work being performed, that gives the veteran choral conductor Tomlins his phenomenal hold on chorus and audience. In a performance of choral works recently directed by this conductor, the listener was made to feel at one moment the joy of springtime, with roses blooming and lovers wooing, as a light, tuneful chorus in waltz movement was being performed; then in a trice, one was whisked over to the heart of Russia, and made to see, as though they were actually present, a gang of boatmen as they toiled along the bank of the Volga with the tow-rope over their shoulders, tugging away at a barge which moved slowly up from the distance, past a clump of trees, and then gradually disappeared around a bend in the river; and in yet another moment, one was thrilled through and through with religious fervor in response to the grandeur and majestic stateliness of the Mendelssohn Motet, Judge Me, oh God.

It was interpretation of this type too that gave the actor-singer Wuellner such a tremendous hold upon his audiences a few years ago, this artist achieving a veritable triumph by the tremendous sincerity and vividness of his dramatic impersonations in singing German Lieder, in spite of the fact that he possessed a voice of only average quality.

It was an emotional response of this character that the Greek philosophers must have been thinking of when they characterized drama as a "purge for the soul"; and surely it must still be good for human beings to forget themselves occasionally and to become merged in this fashion in the wave of emotion felt by performer and fellow-listener in response to the message of the composer.

It is emotion of this type also that the great composers have sought to arouse through their noblest compositions. Handel is said to have replied, when congratulated upon the excellence of the entertainment afforded by the Messiah, "I am sorry if I have only entertained them; I hoped to do them good." An English writer, in quoting this incident, adds:[9]

What Handel tried to do ... by wedding fine music to an inspiring text, Beethoven succeeded in doing through instruments alone ... for never have instruments—no matter how pleasing they were in the past—been capable of stirring the inmost feelings as they have done since the beginning of the nineteenth century.

[Footnote 9: C.F.A. Williams, The Rhythm of Modern Music, p. 13.]

There is danger, of course, here as everywhere, that one may go too far; and it is entirely conceivable that both soloist and conductor might go to such extremes in their display of emotion that the music would be entirely distorted, losing what is after all its main raison d'etre, viz., the element of beauty. But there seems at present to be no especial danger that such an event will occur; the tendency seems rather to be toward overemphasizing intellectualism in music, and toward turning our art into a science.[10] The thing that we should like to convince the prospective conductor of is that real interpretation—i.e., genuinely expressive musical performance—demands an actual display of emotion on the part of the conductor if the ideal sort of reaction is to be aroused in the audience.

[Footnote 10: This danger is especially insidious just now in our college and high school courses in the appreciation of music. Instructors in such courses are often so zealous in causing pupils to understand the machinery involved in the construction and rendition of music that they sometimes forget to emphasize sufficiently the product resulting from all this machinery, viz., beauty. The idea of these courses is most excellent, and in time those in charge of them will doubtless realize that the hearing of actual music in the classroom is more valuable to students than learning a mass of facts about it; and that if a choice were necessary between a course in which there was opportunity for hearing a great deal of music without any comment, and one on the other hand in which there was a great deal of comment without any music, the former would be infinitely preferable. But such a choice is not necessary; and the ideal course in the Appreciation of Music is one in which the student has opportunity for hearing a great deal of music with appropriate comments by the instructor.]

In order to interpret a musical work, then, the conductor himself must first study it so as to discover what the composer intended to express. Having become thoroughly permeated with the composer's message, he may then by instinctive imitation arouse in his chorus or orchestra so strong a reflection of this mood that they will perform the work in the correct spirit, the audience in turn catching its essential significance, and each listener in his own way responding to the composer's message.


Musical interpretation consists thus in impressing upon the listener the essential character of the music by emphasizing the important elements and subordinating the unimportant ones; by indicating in a clear-cut and unmistakable way the phrasing, and through skilful phrasing making evident the design of the composition as a whole; and in general by so manipulating one's musical forces that the hearer will not only continue to be interested in the performance, but will feel or understand the basic significance of the work being performed; will catch and remember the important things in it, will not have his attention distracted by comparatively unimportant details, and will thus have delivered to him the real spirit of the composer's message. This implies skilful accentuation of melody, subordination of accompaniment, increasing the tempo or force in some portions, decreasing them in others, et cetera. Clear enunciation and forceful declamation in choral music are also included, and in it all, the performer or conductor must so subordinate his own personality that the attention of the listeners will be centered upon the composition and not upon the eccentricities of dress or manner of the artist.


It is inevitable that there should be considerable difference of opinion among composers, critics, listeners, and performers, as to just what music may or may not legitimately be expected to express. Some modern composers are apparently convinced that it ought to be possible through music to suggest pictures, tell stories, or depict moral and intellectual struggles on the part of the individual. Others contend that music exists solely because of its own inherent beauty, that it can arouse general emotional states only, and that if it is good music, it needs no further meaning than this. Even "pure music," the champions of this latter idea urge, may express an infinite variety of emotional tones, from joy, encouragement, excitement, tenderness, expectancy, invigoration, and tranquillity, to dread, oppression of spirit, hesitation, harshness, and despondency. A modern writer on esthetics treats this matter at length, and finally concludes:[11]

Is the symbolization pervasive enough to account for the steady continuing charm of lengthy compositions?... The symbolizations ... mostly resemble patches; they form no system, no plot or plan accompanying a work from beginning to end; they only guarantee a fitful enjoyment—a fragment here, a gleam there, but no growing organic exaltation like that actually afforded by musical compositions.

[Footnote 11: Gehring, The Basis of Musical Pleasure, p. 89.]

At another point in the same work, this writer again discusses this same matter (page 120):

Music is presentative in character, not representative. Measure, to be sure, may correspond to the beating of the pulse, and the final cadence may picture the satisfaction of desires; the coda may simulate a mental summary; but the composition in its totality, with its particular melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, and with the specific union of all these elements characteristic of this composition, does not represent any definite psychical or material fact.

The majority of us would doubtless take a middle-ground position, admitting the beauty and power of music, per se, but acknowledging also the fact that abstract beauty together with a certain amount of suggested imagery, in combination, will usually make a stronger appeal to the majority of people than either element by itself. Many of us are entirely willing to grant, therefore, that a more complex and more vividly colored emotional state will probably result if the auditor is furnished with the title or program of the work being performed; but we contend nevertheless that this music, regardless of its connection with imagery, must at the same time be sound music, and that no matter how vividly descriptive our tonal art may become, if it cannot stand the test of many hearings as music, entirely apart from the imagery aroused, it is not worthy to endure. It is not the meaning of the music which makes us want to hear it repeated, but its inherent beauty; it is not usually our intellectual impression, but our emotional thrill which we recall in thinking back over a past musical experience.

Those of us who take the middle ground that we have just been presenting contend also that descriptive music can only legitimately arouse its appropriate imagery when the essential idea has been supplied beforehand in the form of a title or program, and that even then the effect upon various individuals is, and may well be, quite different, since each one has the music thrown, as it were, upon the screen of his own personal experience.


It will be noted that in this discussion we are constantly using the word expression from the twofold standpoint of composer and performer, each having an indispensable part in it, and neither being able to get along without the other. But in our treatment of conducting, we shall need to come back again and again to the idea of expression from the standpoint of interpretation, and in directing a piece of music we shall now take it for granted that the composer has said something which is worthy of being heard, and that as the intermediary between composer and audience, we are attempting to interpret to the latter what the former has expressed in his composition. It should be noted in this connection that wrong interpretation is possible in music, even as in literature. One may so read a poem that the hearer, without being in any way to blame, will entirely miss the point. So also may one conduct a musical work, whether it be a child's song or a symphonic poem, in such a fashion that neither performers nor audience gain a proper conception of what it means.


In the case of vocal music, the key to the emotional content of the work may almost always be found by carefully studying the words. In preparing to conduct choral singing, master the text, therefore; read it aloud as though declaiming to an audience; and when you come to the performance, see that your vocalists sing the music in such a way that the audience will be able to catch without too great effort both the meaning of the individual words and the spirit of the text as a whole.

The great Italian tenor Caruso expressed himself forcibly upon this point during an interview for the Christian Science Monitor, in 1913. In reply to the question "Where do you locate the source of expression in singing?" he said:

I find it in the words always. For unless I give my hearers what is in the text, what can I give them? If I just produce tone, my singing has no meaning.

"Thereupon" (continues the interviewer), "vocalizing a series of scale passages such as are used in studio practice, Caruso commented":

Now, when I do that, I don't say anything. I may make musical sounds, but I express nothing. I may even execute the notes with a good staccato or legato (again illustrating with his voice) and still, having no words to go by, I make no effect on my listeners.

Look at the question in another way. Suppose I were to sing a line of text with a meaning in my voice that contradicted the idea of the words. Would not that be nonsense? It would be as much as though I were to say to you "This wood is hard," and were to say it with a soft voice. People have observed that I sing as though I were talking. Well, that is just what I mean to do.

"Singing, then" (the interviewer goes on), "as Caruso began to define it, is a sort of exalted speech, its purpose being to illuminate the imagery and sentiment of language. The mere music of singing he seemed for the moment to put in a subordinate place.

"By way of further emphasizing his point, he referred to a theme in Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, which is used in two opposing situations—by the soprano in a mood of joy, and by the tenor in a mood of sorrow. He sang the measures of the soprano as though laughing. Then he sang those of the tenor as though weeping."

"But those two passages of melody cannot be identical," objected the interviewer.

"Oh, yes, they are," the tenor declared; and he quickly proved it by singing them over again with a less marked indication of the moods. "Here you plainly see where expression must start. It has to be from the words, of course. The performer puts in the feeling of gladness or sadness without regard to the notes, paying attention only to the text."

Expression in choral music is dependent upon the text to just as great an extent as in the case of solo singing; and choral conductors may well ponder upon the above words of one of the world's greatest singers, and apply the lesson to their own problems. The average audience is probably more interested in the words of vocal music than in anything else; and since both vocal and choral performances are usually given before "average audiences" it behooves the conductor to look into the minds of those before whom he is directing, and to adapt the performance to the attitude of the listeners.






In the last chapter we discussed expression and interpretation from a general standpoint, closing with certain comments upon the interpretation of vocal music. But it must be admitted at once that expression in instrumental music is a vastly more intricate matter than in the case of vocal music; and in order to get at the subject in any tangible way, it will be necessary for us, first, to analyze music into its expressional elements; second, to decide which of these elements belong exclusively to the composer and which are shared by the interpreter; and third, to examine each of these latter elements in turn from the standpoint of the conductor as interpreter.

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