Out of copyright. Transferred from personal archive.

Source: The musical digest, Winter 1947 (vol. 1, no.1), p.41-43
Text taken from Foulds, Music to-day (1934), p.90-94
Text copyright: John Foulds, 1947

Conducting and conductors
by John Foulds

One of the musical phenomena of the age is the rise to eminence, pre-eminence, of the Chef-d'orchestre, the Dirigent, the Conductor. It is really not so long ago that the function of starting the orchestra, giving certain broad indications and so on, devolved upon the principal first violin player; leader as we sometimes call him.

With the old types of music this system was apparently well able to cope. At any time since Spohr it would have been impracticable and we cannot imagine an orchestra attempting the commencement of Schumann's Manfred overture, for example, under such conditions. Almost all typically modern works would be impossible; and in a recent case, when half the orchestra and half the chorus maintained a 4/4 rhythm against the 7/4 of the rest, chaos would quickly have resulted without a firm indication by the conductor of four beats with the left hand and seven with the right.

The conductor is, of course, much more than a mere tempo-indicator. But so anxious are some of the younger aspirants to demonstrate this, that they seem to have forgotten that after all (or rather, before all) it is necessary to be able to beat a steady tempo. I have seen several of recent years who lack the ability to conduct four bars without unintentional deviation. Similarly, many young pianists debilitate everything they attempt by constant use of a decadent Chopinesque rubato. Ability to walk steadily at will must be felt to be inherent in a conductor's style before we can accept his deviation as intentional; apart altogether from the correctness or desirability of such deviations. Particularly in Wagner and some moderns is this ability to continue a tempo without deviation of greatest importance; and for the tempo to stagger about all over the place in the epileptic manner we can sometimes notice is to vitiate some of their grandest moments.

The orchestral player is an exemplar of the team-spirit in excelsis. He sinks to a position of humblest subordination or rises to a personal asseveration of compelling power at a glance from the conductor, at a hint of an inflexion of the bâton in his direction. And the 'give and take' between player and player and between the different departments of an orchestra is of a subtlety hard to exaggerate. In the splendid orchestra of my youthful experience, first clarinet, a soulful Italian, and first bassoon, a passionate Frenchman, were continually at daggers drawn... in the green room. In the concert-room they would duet divinely—would whisper you "as gently as any sucking dove" in the many lovely passages of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, which ask for such playing. In the finale of Beethoven's Violin Concerto Joachim would willingly subordiante his roulades, his variations and decorations, the while 'pap' Lalande would raise his poignant bassoon-voice in lamentation the mots soul-searching.

All great conductors must posess what is commonly called a 'magnetic personality'; for the first necessity, granted a sufficiency of technical skill, is for a conductor to unify his orchestra, Von Bülow is always spoken of with awe by 'old pro's' regarding his almost hypnotic power in this respect. Nikisch also.

An old cellist once told me of his experience with Wagner in the historic Philharmonic concerts which the master conducted in London 1855. 'Beyond question here was a man inspired, but what he wanted we could not make out. He did not inspire us for we could not seem to understand either his music or himself.' It was a different matter when the master handed over the bâton to Hans Richter. Here was no gulf fixed between creative artist and his interpreters, but an interpreter-in-chief co-coperating closely with willing confrères. His eye flashed fire, the fire of contagious inspiration, and lighted up every member of his orchestra. Hence the necessity as he used to say, for the conductor to 'have the score in his head, not his head in th score.' Every really great conductor has been able first of all to impose his magnetism on his orchestra. Mahler added this gift to his great organising ability and, of course, his profound musicianship.

In this respect no two equally great conductors were more dissimilar than Richter and Toscanini. The former at his best was wont to enlarge his field of magnetism in a marvellous way, seeming to include the whole audience in his emotional sweep. Toscanini remains apparently more self-contained, and forced the audience to contribute its quota of emotion-possibility which he then moulds in a way that can only be described as quasi-hypnotic. Richter might be said to carry the whole audience with him; Toscanini to attract the whole audience to him. He is probably the greatest of living conductors. The possession of an unusually retentive musical memory is one of his most useful assets. When we consider that he conducts all concert works and almost all operas from memory, and adds modern works to his repertoire apparently ad libitum, there is room for sheer amazement at the vitality of this highly specialized gift in a man of his years. It is, admittedly, a gift of somewhat lesser importance than his purely musical talents, but there is no doubt that the possession of it does set free his other gifts and liberate his remarkably complete musical personality to an extent that might not be possible otherwise. His memory is proverbial and I have seen none put the gift to greater use than he. M. Albert Wolff of the Concerts Lamoureux, and our own Sir Thomas Beecham are also copiously endowed by Nature in this way.

Created 2003.4.15