Toscanini was ferocious. Karajan was a control freak. Beecham was the witty one. The camera loved Bernstein. And everyone adored Barbirolli. For all their faults and idiosyncrasies, few could ever accuse conductors of being a bland bunch.


In fact, with the possible exception of opera singers, conductors have, over the years, captured the public attention above all others – while the players and singers in front of them do the donkey work, they are the ones who we see on posters and TV, who command the biggest pay packet and enjoy the trappings of fame.

And yet, they are also the musicians whose art is often least understood and appreciated, with some sceptics – as we shall see – even openly questioning whether they need to exist at all. And yet they do exist, and have done so for many years. How did they come about? It’s time to head back in time and explore the emergence of the maestro.

Who were the first conductors?

The first conductors
Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Any look at the emergence of the orchestral conductor has to start with choirs, and the fundamental need for a beating of time to maintain a tidy ensemble during the performance of ever more complex music.

The use of hand signals (‘cheironomy’) to direct vocal group performances has been traced back to the first centuries AD. For the most part, however, our early written accounts and pictorial representations of cheironomy and time-beating relate to chapel/cathedral choir performances in the 15th century, for example in the Sistine Chapel.

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The ‘choirmaster’ might work in tandem with individual singers who ‘relayed’ the beat – the practice of particular singers in a choir unostentatiously beating time without the need for a choirmaster’s intervention can still be seen in our cathedral and collegiate chapel choirs.

As public secular concerts developed in Europe (notably in the UK) in the 18th century, so relatively speaking did the size and diverse nature of instrumental ensembles. These required a greater or lesser amount of time-beating, although some players took this as a slight on their professional competence.

Usually it was the principal violinist or the keyboard player who did the job, using all manner of arm and other bodily gestures (including foot-stamping!) while continuing to play themselves, ‘leading’ by example in conveying the range of desired detail in the way the work was performed – the word ‘conductor’ can, in fact, be found in 18th-century sources describing keyboard players when directing.

Remarkably, the practice of keeping time by making an audible rhythmic sound of some non-musical kind didn’t completely die out until well into the 19th century.

When did orchestras first get conductors?

With the arrival of Beethoven in the early 19th century and, then, succeeding Romantic composers, music became significantly more complex, also being written for greatly expanded and more diverse orchestral forces. Directing from the violin desk or keyboard was increasingly impractical, as so many more decisions needed to be made in terms of technical details, style and spirit.

For example, the development of music with a rubato – flexible tempo – element was an attractive innovation, but it was clearly practical for one person alone to decide on the precise nature of that flexibility.

The assumption that the new music needed ‘interpreting’ thus became the second major justification for the conductor – a visible figure clearly in charge. It was some time, however, before conductors took up their now familiar position on the concert platform, in front of the orchestra but with their backs to the audience (something which earlier might have been thought rude), and as late as 1873, the French conductor Jules Rivière conducted in London seated in the orchestra front row, facing the audience.

The truly dramatic development of the image and significance of the conductor is a 20th century phenomenon, driven especially by the growth of the international concert scene, the recording industry and vastly easier travel. We’re thoroughly used to the idea that the modern maestro dictates the specific ‘interpretation’ of a given work, but there is, ironically, far less room today for idiosyncracy – taking liberties with the composer’s intentions – than would have been deemed acceptable to many in the 19th century.

When did conductors start using batons?

Long before the emergence of the orchestral conductor, it was recognised that some form of extension to the arm made time-beating more visible during performance, and the predecessors of the modern baton include poles/staffs (which might be beaten against the floor) and, in a more ad hoc fashion, rolled-up paper. There’s also some reference to small sticks being used to convey speed to early chapel choirs.

The use of a prototype baton was pioneered at the Paris Opera in the 17th century as a device for keeping the elements of dance, voice and orchestra together. It was, though, an isolated instance. As far as those developing 18th-century instrumental ensembles were concerned, violinist-directors found their bows useful devices for conveying instructions, and there was no widespread shift to using batons to direct orchestras until around 1820. That was the year in which composer Louis Spohr startled London concertgoers by bringing the practice over from Germany.

Such batons tended to be conical wooden affairs which might feature near the bottom an engraving that indicated the ‘handle’ – images show it was perfectly normal to grasp the baton with the fist, above the lower end. Intriguingly, though, that centuries-old practice of conducting with a rolled-up tube of paper (see earlier) still had champions during the 19th century. As batons became increasingly ubiquitous, they tended to be relatively long and pointed, as likely as not made of thick ebony or light coloured wood. These days, baton options include those made of fibreglass and carbon fibre.

The maestros

Nineteenth-century composer-conductors were to the fore in helping define the magic of the maestro – Mendelssohn, for example, and especially Berlioz and Wagner, who both wrote influential treatises on conducting, clarifying and codifying the still new art. The composer-conductor figure carried the allure for audiences of being both progenitor and performer. Richard Strauss and Mahler – and, in modern times, Leonard Bernstein and Esa-Pekka Salonen – have been, among others, filling the dual role with distinction.

Across the 19th century, it became clear that the role of the conductor required talent and technique every bit as virtuoso as anything an instrumental soloist or singer could offer. Specialist non-composer conductors came to the fore – the likes of Hans Richter (1843-1916) and Felix Mottl (1856-1911) spring to mind – and they tended to divide themselves into those who favoured big dramatic gestures and others adopting a more modest and cerebral approach.

In an age before swift and easy international travel, conductors became almost mystically associated with particular orchestras and cities: for example, Hans Richter in Vienna, Edouard Colonne in Paris, Hans von Bülow in Hamburg and Berlin and Charles Hallé in Manchester. The power to create maestro mystique then gradually transferred in the 20th century to the classical recording industry, the big labels bestowing iconic status to the likes of Herbert von Karajan and Carlo Maria Giulini. Today, with the record companies wielding less clout, those days are largely behind us.

Who was the first female conductor?

Tracing the very first professional woman conductor is fraught with difficulty. One candidate, however, might be the formidable Brazilian Chiquinha Gonzaga, born in 1847. A fine pianist and prolific composer, Gonzala had many of her stage works performed both inside and outside Brazil.

She also conducted a theatre orchestra in Rio de Janeiro. But what happened next? Her first husband demanded a divorce because he disapproved of her musical career. A second marriage also foundered.

Examples of female conductors from the past are spirit-crushingly rare. In 1885, Madame Marie Schipel conducted in London, but of course it was ‘merely’ a female band (the Viennese Ladies Orchestra) that she was directing. Moving into the early-20th century, there was the UK’s Dame Ethel Smyth and France’s Nadia Boulanger, the first of her gender to conduct a string of leading orchestras in the US and Europe. But that’s pretty much it.

That said, recent years have at least seen a marked improvement in the numbers of women on orchestra podiums around the world. In the UK, the likes of Jane Glover, Sian Edwards and Andrea Quinn all made their mark in the latter years of the 20th century and today Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, Simone Young and Mirga Gražinyte˙-Tyla can all justly be described as household names as far as concertgoers are concerned.

Do orchestras need a conductor?

In the late 1970s, André Previn famously began a TV programme examining the role of the conductor by setting the London Symphony Orchestra in musical motion, and then sitting down in the audience to wait for everything to fall apart. It didn’t, of course, leading to an examination of the deeper reasons why orchestras need someone in charge.

The most famous example of a long-term attempt to deprive a symphony orchestra of conductorship is that of the Soviet Russian ‘Persimfans’ orchestra – an acronym derived from Pervïy Simfonicheskiy Ansambl’ bez Dirizhyora (First Conductorless Symphony Ensemble) – founded in 1922. A key notion was to prove that in a non-hierarchical Communist society, the position of conductor was redundant. The clearly accomplished players performed in a (non-hierarchical) circle, without a first violin ‘leader’. The Persimfans lasted for a decade or so, inspiring similar enterprises around the world. Sergei Prokofiev was an admirer, although he noted that the only real problems came with tricky tempo changes.

The idea of operating without a conductor has been taken up by an increasing number of chamber orchestras, bringing things full-circle to those 18th-century days. Examples include the Prague Chamber Orchestra (founded 1951), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (1972), the Australian Chamber Orchestra (1975) and the New Century Chamber Orchestra in the USA (1992).


The downside for such orchestras is the need to develop processes by which decisions on detail are made in rehearsal. A major upside is the possibility of truly spontaneous and electric music-making, as players spark off each other directly. It makes for an attractive visual spectacle as well. Might, then, the age of the conductor even come to an end? Try telling the maestros themselves that.