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Conducting

Conducting is the act of directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures. Orchestras, choirs and other musical ensembles often have conductors.

A conductor resident with an orchestra (as opposed to a guest conductor) who has involvement with the policies of an orchestra or opera company is sometimes known as a musical director, or nowadays by the German word Kapellmeister. Respected senior conductors (like senior instrumentalists) are sometimes referred to by the Italian word Maestro.

History of conducting

An early form of conducting is cheironomy[?], the use of hand gestures to indicate melodic shape. This has been practiced at least as far back as the middle ages. In the Christian church, the person giving these symbols held a staff to signify his role, and it seems that as music became more rhythmically involved, the staff was moved up and down to indicate the beat, acting as an early form of baton.

From around the 17th century other devices to indicate the passing of time were used. Rolled up sheets of paper, smaller sticks and unadorned hands are all shown being used in contemporary pictures. The large staff remained in use at the Paris Opera, and was responsible for the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully - he hit his foot with the staff while conducting, and the wound became gangrenous[?].

In instrumental music, a single performer usually acted as the conductor. This could be the principal violinist, who used his bow as a baton, or a lutenist who would move the neck of his instrument in time with the beat. It was also common to conduct from the harpsichord in pieces which had a basso continuo part. In opera performances there were sometimes two conductors - one at the keyboard in charge of the singers, and the principal violinist in charge of the orchestra.

By the early 19th century, music had become sufficiently complex that it was desirable to have one person dedicated to conducting, not having to concern himself with performing as well. Accordingly, the baton became more common - this had the added advantage of being easier to see than bare hands or rolled-up paper by the orchestra, which was at this time expanding in size. Among the earliest notable conductors were Louis Spohr, Carl Maria von Weber and Felix Mendelssohn, all of them also composers.

Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner were also condcutors, and they wrote two of the earliest essays dedicated to the subject. Wagner was largely responsible for shaping the conductor's role as somebody who imposes his own view of a piece onto the performance rather than somebody who is simply responsible for ensuring entires are made at the right time and that there is a unified beat.

Conducting technique

The right hand, without or without a baton, indicates the beat by tracing out one of a number of standard patterns depending on the time signature. In duple time a simple down-up pattern is usual, in triple time the basic pattern is down-right-up and in quadruple time the pattern is down-left-right-up. In each case, a downward motion indicates the initial beat of the bar (the down beat).

The movement of the right hand is usually fluid, although by making the movement more or less jerky a greater or lesser indication of staccato can be conveyed.

The left hand is typically used to indicate changes in dynamics and can convey other indications of expression. A pointing gesture can indicate an entry, though this can also be conveyed by the conductor simply looking at the player about to come in. Facial expressions can also be used to convey expression.

See also: List of famous conductors



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