WHAT IS THIS BUSINESS OF CONDUCTING?
AN ADDRESS BY MR. REGINALD STEWART
Chairman: Mr. W. E. Humphreys
Thursday, April 18, 1940
CHAIRMAN: Ladies and Gentlemen: It is with considerable regret that I have to tell you that Dr. Gaby could not be here today, owing to having been called away to Ottawa on very urgent business. Dr. Gaby was particularly sorry not to be here to greet his lady guests for we all too infrequently have the ladies present. However, Dr. Gaby asked me to tell you that he would be with us in spirit, even though he is really some three hundred miles away.
It is with great pleasure that I have the honour of introducing Mr. Reginald Stewart, a distinguished pianist and talented conductor of the Toronto Promenade Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Stewart was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and his career has been divided between the piano and the baton. In 1919, he became Conductor of the Canadian Operatic Society; in 1921, the Director of Music at Hart House, University of Toronto; and in the same year, pianist of the Hambourg Trio.
In 1925, he gave his first London, England, recital and subsequently conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at Albert Hall. His American debut as pianist was in the Town Hall, New York City, on March 6th, 1937, which was received with enthusiastic acclaim. Seven years ago Mr. Stewart founded the Toronto Promenade Symphony Orchestra, and has conducted almost two hundred concerts for this organization, whose excellent performances and interpretations of classical music give so much enjoyment to those who are in the City during the summer months. (Applause)
Mr. Stewart has also conducted the famous B.B.C. Orchestra in England, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra at Washington. During February of this year, he directed three concerts on the well known hour on Sunday evening.
I have much pleasure in introducing Mr. Reginald Stewart, whose subject will be, "What is this business of Conducting?" (Applause)
MR. REGINALD STEWART: Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: Each of you probably at some time or another has heard a Symphony Concert and wondered what lies behind what you see and hear. I have been asked to lift the curtain today and describe to you the functions of a conductor. There are other subjects about which I should prefer to talk. I don't suppose anyone really enjoys talking about his own job to a mixed audience, many of whom are doing in their own particular line of endeavour, work which is of much greater importance to the common weal than one's own. Also, of course, there is the difficulty of a professional being able to view his work with sufficient detachment to be able to make an exposition of it which will be clear to the layman. I understand that business life is well represented in this Club, and if you will forgive me for the occasional lapse into technicalities, I shall try to explain to you what is this business of conducting.
The business man usually has to deal with three elements: his material, his means of promoting that material and the market which he endeavours to reach. Now, the Conductor has to deal with the same three elements: his material is the music which the composer has written; his means are a group of instrumentalists, known collectively as an orchestra; and his market is the public in the concert halls or seated around the radios in their own homes.
The Conductor's function is to select the most suitable material, perfect its production with the best available means, and project it to the largest possible market.
It is my purpose to discuss the relationship of the conductor to these three elements, the material, the means and the market. First, let us look at the material with which he must work. There comes into a man's head a succession of notes, somewhere, sometime. It may be to a Stephen Foster, as he dreams of his "Jeanie with the light brown hair", or it may be to a Brahms, as he works on a new symphony in his study. Now, the simple little tune, "Jeanie with the light brown hair" would not be very attractive if it had not harmonic accompaniment, so, the, shall we say, naked tune is clothed with agreeable harmony, it is developed and extended until the song is complete. In the case of a symphony, new work is produced. This is what we might call the raw material. It is written in manuscript by the hand of the composer. Drudgery of the most wearisome sort.
If the work is to be played by a symphony orchestra, the composer must next determine which instruments are to play the various themes and harmonies, and he must write out all the notes for each instrument. Consider for a moment what a tremendous task that is. He prepares what is called a full score on which the notes for each instrument are written on a separate line. Copyists are then brought in to copy out for each instrumentalist his part, putting in not only the notes but his rest periods, expression marks, dynamics, and so on. It might be said that a sheet of music is nothing more or less than a schedule of instructions, specifications and detailed drawings such as an architect might give to a building contractor and which if followed explicitly should produce in actual form what has hitherto existed only in the imagination of the architect.
To carry the simile a little farther, the building contractor hands out to each of his tradesmen or workers, instruction sheets, covering his particular part of the work, while reserving for himself the blue print and specifications of the whole, by means of which he is able to supervise and correct the work of the individual while bringing into one harmonic whole the varying activities of the bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters, electricians, and so on.
The general contractor in the case corresponds to the conductor of the orchestra, whose function it is to see that the various instruments are brought in at their proper place and time with the desired colour and accent, in accordance with the effect that the composer or musical architect has drawn up. But, whereas the building contractor's work may be said to be done and done well by a faithful adherence to instructions and specifications, he is dealing after all with material substances, fixed forms. The conductor's work would be poorly done indeed if he merely saw to it that instructions were accurately carried out. Music is spiritual, rather than material. It exists in actual form only as it is sounded forth. When the vibrations have died away the music ceases to exist. Yet it can be recreated again and again, if not in actuality, in the heart and mind of those who remember it and love it. Because of the immaterial nature of music it is not capable of fixed definition in its performance, but it is fluid, adjustable, elastic in the hands of the performer. The notes played may be identical in two performances, yet one will reveal depths of emotion, while the other leaves us cold and unmoved. The good orchestral conductor must grasp the feeling of a composition and so convey it to his players as to imbue them with its moods. If he is successful in this, the audience also will respond, will feel the vitality of the performance in its impact upon their own sensibilities and will temporarily subject their own feelings and moods to the feelings of the music. Hector Berlioz, the great composer and conductor has this to say:
"The orchestral conductor should see and hear; he should be active and vigorous, should know the composition and the nature and compass of the instruments, should be able to read the score and possess-beside the especial talent of which we shall presently endeavour to explain the constitution qualities-other indefinable gifts, without which an invisible link cannot establish itself between him and those he directs; otherwise the faculty of transmitting to them his feelings is denied him. He is then no longer a conductor, a director, but a simple beater of time--supposing he knows how to beat it, and divide it, regularly.
"The performers should feel that he feels, comprehends, and is moved; then his emotion communicates itself to those whom he directs, his inward fire warms them, his electric glow animates them, his force of impulse excites them; he throws around him the vital irradiations of musical art. If he is inert and frozen, on the contrary, he paralyzes all about him, like those floating masses of the polar seas, the approach of which is sensed through the sudden cooling of the atmosphere."
The conductor stands between the composer and the performer as an interpreter of the composer's message. On his interpretation of that message depends the virility and significance of the performance, granted he has an orchestra possessing adequate ability to realize his conception of the work.
By far the greater proportion of the music now being played by symphony orchestras was composed by men who have long since passed from this earthly scene. They are not able to express themselves as to whether their music is being correctly rendered. We might be shocked if we were to hear how they would conduct their own works if they could come back from the dead and perform them today. They might take far greater liberties than any other conductor would risk taking.
A few days ago Stravinsky conducted a performance of one of his own works with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The next morning, Mr. Olin Downes of the New York Times, while praising the concert, criticized Mr. Stravinsky on the ground that many times during the work he completely ignored his own markings of expression in the score. If any other conductor had dared to do that he would have been hung, drawn and quartered by the critics the next morning for irreverence and disrespect of the composer's intention.
When Toscanini conducted his first performance of "Bolero" by Ravel in Paris, the composer was in the audience. Toscanini apparently conducted the work at a much quicker tempo than the composer intended and the members of the audience were amazed to see the composer becoming more and more agitated as the performance went on. Eventually, Ravel rose in anger and rushed to the back of the stage where he met Toscanini and said to him, "What do you mean by ruining my music? Don't you know this is a bolero and not a waltz?", and he proceeded to dance for Toscanini and show how impossible it would be to dance a bolero at the speed at which Toscanini played the work. To which Mr. Toscanini replied simply, "That is the way I feel the work. I am sorry if you don't like it." But they never spoke again.
Speaking of the tempo of the composer's work reminds me of the experience I had only a few weeks ago on this tour which I have just completed in the United States. I played a piece, a very famous piece of Ravel's, called "Jeux d'eau". I took the occasion to mention to the audience that this was music quite different from anything I had played before, it was music in which the composer described the voices of nature, the fountains playing in the garden, the leaves rustling in the trees-atmospheric music. After I had finished playing, a woman came up and said, "Oh, Mr. Stewart, I enjoyed your playing so much! You know, it was so atmospheric that some of the notes smelled!" Which I hope was a compliment!
So much for the conductor's relation to the composerto the material with which he has to work.
Again reverting to business terminology, let us consider the conductor's relationship to the "Means" by which the "Material" is produced for consumption by the "Market".
The best material in the world can be ruined in process by faulty production methods, inaccurate workmanship. Where proper standards are a matter of common knowledge it is very difficult to obtain a market for an inferior product. A successful manager of a business must know his standards and he must be able to insist on an adherence to them on the part of his staff. Likewise, a good conductor must have the utmost co-operation of skilled instrumentalists if his productions are to be successful in commanding audiences, satisfying as to size and revenue. Even on the part of diligent players there will sometimes appear to be a tendency to sag from the high level of performance required. These are days of terrific competition in the musical field, especially over the radio where the public is listening to the finest musical organizations continually. The conductor must have good players and must be in a position to insist on good playing.
If a conductor is persistent in his efforts toward an even better performance, the artistic standards of his organization are bound to rise-though not without pain and difficulty. There are almost certain to be some hard feelings in the process. In fact, a conductor's life seems to be the meeting of one crisis after another.
Before the conductor mounts the podium to open the programme he will have rehearsed every piece thoroughly. Usually the period devoted to rehearsal is about five times as long as the playing time of the pieces performed, i.e., for an average programme of one hour and a half of actual music, there should be about seven and one-half hours of rehearsal. It is at these rehearsals, usually in periods of two or two and one-half hours at a stretch, that the real work of conducting is done. Here, literally as well as figuratively, we take off our coats, roll up our shirt sleeves, and dig in. Before the rehearsal starts there has been individual preparation also. Any instrumentalist who wants to keep at the peak of his form must practise constantly and the conductor will have spent hours studying carefully the score, refreshing his mind as to possible "danger spots", and marking such places as called for special attention.
When something goes wrong, such as an incorrect note, a mis-timed entry or an uneven balance of tone, the conductor taps the stand with his stick, all playing ceases, the difficulty is explained, the troublesome part is played over, perhaps several times to put it in order, the conductor looks back over the score for a convenient restarting point usually denoted by a letter of the alphabet) calls out, say "Letter C", raises his stick and leads them on to run smoothly over the fractious passage and sweep on to the next hurdle.
Bit by bit the whole work is covered rather in the same way the tire repair man goes over an inner tube, inch by inch, for punctures and incipient breaks, satisfying himself that all the holes have been mended and friction points smoothed out.
Rehearsals are generally paid for on a time basis, therefore the amount of time available must be used to the best advantage. The conductor has to keep a careful eye on the clock and make every minute count. If he is not watchful, his rehearsal time may be unduly absorbed upon one or two items and little or no time left available for the remainder of the programme.
The conductor must know exactly how every part of the music should sound and precisely what may be expected of any player. He should have a working knowledge of every instrument and should be familiar with its range, complexities and idiosyncrasies.
Proper balance of sound is one of the conductor's chief concerns. At times important themes may easily become obscured by a mass of harmonic or contrapuntal detail. Certain parts must be kept to the fore, sometimes so gently as barely to project them above the rest of the music. Another point requiring constant care is that the inner voices are not too subdued, but that every instrumental voice that should be heard comes through crystal clear. Good players, accustomed to playing together, can help tremendously in obtaining the proper balance by listening to their neighbours while playing their own parts and enlarging or subduing their own tones to conform to the requirements of the whole.
Finally, it goes without saying that the orchestra must be in tune. The slightest deviation from true pitch is most distressing. It is generally the concert-master's duty to direct the tuning-up of the orchestra. This is usually attended to before the entry of the conductor. Sir Henry J. Wood of London was for a time so obsessed with the idea of getting absolute accuracy of pitch from his orchestra that he used to have each player present himself privately to him in his room before the rehearsal began. He used a special tuning device and each player sounded his "A". The orchestra men became a little "fed up" with the practice and one day they played a prank on Sir Henry. The thirty-five violinists of the orchestra each went before Sir Henry to be "tuned" and as each player left the room he turned over the same violin to the next violinist who came in, and the violin was very seriously tuned by Sir Henry Wood--the same violin. The same instrument was therefore tuned thirty-five times by Sir Henry who was entirely oblivious to the joke.
Then there was the story of the village quartette in which the first violinist was the lord of the manor and the other three members were trades people of the village, the butcher, the baker and the postman. After one particularly bad performance by the quartette the three underlings got together in a corner and said, "Look, what are we going to do about this? His Lordship's "E" string has slipped, he is playing terribly out of tune and he doesn't seem to know anything about it." Nobody wanted to approach him but eventually the butcher was appointed to do so. He went up very timidly to the great man, "Your Lordship, I hate to mention this; your "E" string appears to have slipped." His Lordship said, "Really", and he took the violin, pulled the "E" string a little and said, "Oh, no, that is as tight as I usually have it."
Now, as to the final element, "Markets". You have all, of course, noted a great improvement in musical appreciation and interest at concerts. This is due to the radio and phonograph and also to the increased attention to music in the schools. The younger generation knows much more about music than the older one, and eighty-five percent of the people who attend our Promenade Symphony Concerts are under the age of thirty. I am constantly being amazed by the intelligent remarks and letters I receive. It seems to me that the barrier which used to exist between artist and audience is gradually being removed. You know, I have always felt that we musicians, ourselves, were to blame for that barrier. The man on the street has always taken the attitude: Oh, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms-these are composers I could never hope to understand. They are for the academicians. It is no use my going to hear concerts.
And the musician, I am afraid, has rather enjoyed the feeling of superiority such an attitude has created. He went his own way, playing on his programmes only music he himself, after his twenty-five years of study, enjoyed, forgetting all about the man who was hearing music for the first or second time. He consoled himself for his small audiences by the fact or the thought, at least, that music could only be for the select few.
That last legend has taken a good deal of breaking down. After all, why should music be only for those who can afford high prices of admission? For only those who can come in stuffed shirts and the family jewels to hear great music? We know, of course, in the 17th and 18th century music was supported by kings and princes and was reserved by them for a select group of their friends. The great mass of the public very seldom heard an orchestra, but we have travelled far since then. People realize that music is a common heritage and they will come to hear performances if they are good, and if they can hear them at reasonable prices, by which I mean the price of the movie. Which means, of course, larger halls to seat larger audiences at lower prices of admission. This is the prospect for the future.
After all, music was written not only for musicians, but for the masses. Most conductors, I think, realize a sense of responsibility to the people generally, to see that their heritage is given to them. As I see it, a conductor's efforts might well be devoted to creating and sustaining within his own community a love for the beautiful and true, as expressed in music. If he succeeds in this he will not have lived in vain, even although composers' names are written in granite and interpreters' names are but engraved in sand. With these thoughts he may fortify himself when he is discouraged. He can, I hope, with truth assure himself that this business of conducting is indeed good business for the community. (Loud applause)
THE CHAIRMAN: Ladies and Gentlemen, I omitted to tell you in my introductory remarks that Mr. Stewart is going to play for us now. . . . At this juncture Mr. Stewart delighted his audience by playing several numbers on the piano ...
THE CHAIRMAN: I know you want me to thank Mr. Stewart on your behalf. Your rapt attention to his most informative address is self-evident. I should like to say, however, in conveying your thanks to Mr. Stewart, that he has offered his services to the Canadian Government in any capacity whatsoever, such as entertaining troops, gratuitous concerts for the Red Cross, and so on.
Mr. Stewart, you will, I am sure, accept our thanks for your very informative address and your beautiful performance. I am going to ask the audience whether you would like Mr. Stewart to give you, if he would, one more piano selection. (Applause) We make it a point to adjourn these meetings promptly and if there are any who have appointments they may go now. . . . Mr. Stewart played an additional number for his audience, after which the meeting adjourned.