Adorno said of Wagner that he wrote ‘conductors’ music’. He meant this as a put-down, but most good orchestral music written between 1800 and 1920 was conductors’ music, grand in conception, intensely expressive, declamatory, scored for a large orchestra to be performed in imposing concert halls for a mass audience – music which, to be fully effective and to have maximum impact, required a co-ordinating mastermind to run the show.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a late Romantic masterpiece of conductors’ music, and it was not an unpredictable choice as the work at the centre of Todd Field’s film Tár, about an internationally acclaimed conductor, Lydia Tár, whose spectacular fall from grace follows revelations about her serial grooming and abuse, for sexual favours, of younger colleagues and protégés. Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto or Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ wouldn’t have done at all.
Tár takes fastidious care over its musicological credentials, but it gets at least one thing wrong. In the interview that kicks off the movie, Tár places the origins of modern conducting in the late 17th century, in the court of Louis XIV, where Jean-Baptiste Lully held a monopoly over the king’s music. This is more than a century too early, but it allows her to tell everyone’s favourite conducting story and get a laugh from the audience. Lully, while conducting his own Te Deum, stabbed himself in the foot with the staff he was using to rap out the beat for the players, and later died from gangrene: an allegory perhaps of Tár’s own remorseless self-devastation.
In Lully’s time the orchestra was in its infancy. The Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi was a crack ensemble, famous throughout Europe for its musical discipline and virtuosity, but it was something of an exception. For the kings and princes of the 18th century, the size of one’s orchestra was to become a sign of wealth and status and power, but these establishments placed significant strain on court exchequers. Orchestral ensembles of varying sizes came and went, and it wasn’t until the last three decades of the 18th century that anything resembling the modern orchestra settled into a standard. Meanwhile, music for these early orchestras was almost invariably conducted from within the ranks of the players, either by the concert master (first violin) or by the Kapellmeister (from the keyboard).
The origin of conductors’ music is usually attributed to Beethoven. In her interview, Tár rightly cites the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808) as a locus classicus in the history of modern conducting. The rhythm and rhetorical emphasis of its famous motif is not impossible for an orchestra to play without a conductor, but it’s far more effective with one. And then, as Wagner points out, there’s the question of the fermatas (pauses) – someone has to decide what Beethoven wants.
Wagner’s essay ‘About Conducting’ was published in nine short instalments in 1869-70, more than sixty years after the first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, by which time the conductor, as a musician without an instrument, directing the music from the front of the orchestra, had become a familiar figure in the concert halls of Europe. Although he gives some space to a consideration of his own music – the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, for example – and pays passing attention to the overture to Weber’s Freischütz, Wagner is mainly concerned with Beethoven: the Overture to Egmont, the ‘Eroica’, the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. There are brief passages on Mozart symphonies and overtures, but, for Wagner, Mozart’s music belongs on the other side of the great Beethovenian divide, if only just. Mozart’s last symphonies placed high demands on his players and took the music out of the reach of the talented amateurs who not infrequently joined professional bands in public performances at that time (the leading English amateur violinist and composer, John Marsh, complained in his journal that Haydn’s symphonies were also becoming too taxing for him). But for all their technical difficulty, Haydn and Mozart’s later symphonies were still written in the vernacular of the high Classical style – they were just particularly brilliant contributions to an ongoing musical conversation. In their scale and conception, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ and his Fifth Symphony were in a different category.
Like many of his contemporaries, Wagner thought of music history as teleological. Haydn and Mozart were innocent geniuses; it was the music of Beethoven, and, above all, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that blasted open a path to the future where Wagner himself stood. Composed between 1822 and 1824 and first performed in Vienna in 1824, Beethoven’s Ninth shattered existing paradigms of symphonic form, challenging notions of what the nature of music might be. From the outset it was seen as a limit case, and it took decades for European musical culture to digest it. The response of composers was either to regroup and retrench (Mendelssohn, Schumann) or to attempt to strike out into the uncharted territory the symphony gestured towards (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner). For orchestral players, it forced a fundamental revision of technique and performance practice.
To meet the demands of church and state occasion, music had at one time poured forth with a copiousness that we can scarcely credit: Lassus wrote 530 motets, Telemann 35 operas, Bach nearly three hundred cantatas, Haydn 104 symphonies. When, separated from its function, music pooled in the stagnant receptacle of the concert hall as entertainment and edification for the middle classes, the gush of productivity slowed. With the exception of Schubert, whose more than six hundred songs and nine symphonies before the age of 31 constituted a (by then) uncommon prolixity, composers wrote far less, and in what they wrote aspired to something new: originality of inspiration and vision, an expression that was theirs and no one else’s.
Before 1800, the rapid throughput of new music often meant there was little time for rehearsal; works might even be played from manuscript or at sight, which, though not ideal, was at least practicable given the familiarity of the idiom in which they were written. When the shared musical discourse gave way to the singular utterances of the Romantic imagination, neither instrumental technique nor rehearsal convention was adequate. Beethoven’s Ninth took innumerable rehearsals to prepare, and early performances, when not chaotic, were often found by listeners to be strange and puzzling. It was out of the question for the symphony to be performed without a conductor, since it required the rehearsal and co-ordination of a choir and soloists, as well as a large orchestra, not to speak of the challenge of delivering an intelligible reading of the work’s monumental structure.
To Wagner, it was a matter of course that a treatise on conducting should be centred on a detailed consideration of the Ninth. In ‘About Conducting’ and in a later essay – ‘On Performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’ – he develops a theory of the art, basing it on his own observations of good and bad performances, as well as on his experience of rehearsing and performing. To perform music ‘correctly’, he says, a conductor must understand three fundamentals: how to set tempo, how to negotiate transitions and how to identify and nurture ‘melos’.
Of these, the proper understanding of melos is the governing principle. Chris Walton, who has brought together all of Wagner’s writings on conducting in a new translation, complementing them with an extended critical and contextual essay of his own, thinks that Wagner’s use of the Greek melos is faintly pretentious and that all he means by it is melody. But, as Walton concedes, the coinage caught the imagination of generations of musicians and was central to the wide influence of Wagner’s essay in the half-century following its publication. Wagner believed that there was in all great music a song-like character, perhaps akin to what Lorca would later call ‘deep song’, and that this expressed itself in a continuous line, the work’s melos. To perform music well you had to give the melos space to sing. Decisions about tempo followed naturally from a true understanding of melos – not just the overall governing tempo of the performance, but the countless subtle and supple variations in tempo that the melos, in its sinuous course, required. For the melos to remain unbroken, changes in tempo had to be seamless, all abruptness avoided through the careful management of transitions (in other words, through the speedings up and slowings down of a sensitive rubato). Wagner knew himself to be an exemplary exponent of this kind of conducting. Sadly, not everyone seemed to understand it. Heresy was everywhere, and the original heretic was Mendelssohn.
Wagner’s relentless attack on Mendelssohn and what he calls ‘the school of Mendelssohn’ is, in one obvious respect, simply a reprise of his notorious views on Jewishness in music, about which he was intransigently unrepentant. Mendelssohn got under his skin. Perhaps he was made envious by the effortless brilliance of this close contemporary – as a child and teenager Mendelssohn was compared to Mozart – and by his natural gift for melody. Wagner was provoked by the thought that such extraordinary talent had somehow not quite seized its moment. The faltering of will in Mendelssohn seems to have infuriated Wagner, whose will never failed. But in ‘About Conducting’, we are meant to suppose that Mendelssohn was an insensitive time-beater, devoid of feeling for the subtleties of Beethoven or indeed the music of anyone else. His tempi, Wagner claims, were fast and inflexible because this was a way of covering up deficiencies in the playing. The influence of this way of conducting – he sneeringly calls it ‘elegant’ – had been pervasive and pernicious, and in Mendelssohn’s music conservatoire in Leipzig it had a permanent base from which to disseminate its deplorable practices throughout the continent.
Wagner described his own conducting as passionate, charismatic, intensely engaged with the musicians and a powerful inspiration to them. But his performances were not universally liked. In London, for example, audiences and critics tended to prefer Mendelssohn’s conducting to Wagner’s, on the ground that Wagner’s performances distorted the shape of the music. What seems clear from contemporary accounts and from the tenor of Wagner’s writings is that he understood the new music to be in its nature performative, achieving its expressive destiny in public events of memorable intensity – happenings, as it were, which had the power to transport and change people. He claimed that Mendelssohn had warned his students against writing ‘music of effect’. Already in the 1830s and 1840s there was a lot of it around – notably in the razzmatazz of virtuoso pianism. If Liszt and Chopin, Thalberg and Kalkbrenner appeared to perform more than just the music, a concomitant performativity was rapidly spreading its wings on the rostrum. Berlioz cultivated an image of himself as a mythical genius, and the staging of monster works such as his Requiem, with Berlioz as the presiding magus, must have made a spectacular impression on audiences.
Meanwhile, at the music hall end of the spectrum, there were types such as Louis Jullien, who conducted with a jewelled baton. You could cater to this new sensationalism or you could write the ‘Italian’ Symphony. You could conduct with a jewelled baton or you could try to wrest the proceedings back to sober and godly music-making. It was in vain, however, that Schumann insisted that all the conductor needed to do was start the music and then stop it again. As Walton convincingly shows, the music and conducting of effect was to win the day.
By the time Wagner set down his thoughts about conducting, the shapes of our modern musical landscape were bathed in clear early morning light. One major feature of the scene, looming large but indecipherable, was the invention of recording. Edison would demonstrate his phonograph to the world a decade after Wagner published ‘About Conducting’, and Wagner’s mindset in that essay is conditioned by the assumptions of the pre-recording age. Musical performance for Wagner is, in its nature, evanescent. The continuity of being for any piece of music is intrinsically fragile: it exists in the depths of the composer’s mind, in the partial transcription of the score and in the sum of all possible performances of that score. It can no more be held onto than moonbeams in a jar and its vulnerability to misrepresentation is extreme. In the light of this, Wagner’s strident defamations of Mendelssohn can be understood partly as an expression of anxiety about how his own works would survive, and Walton sees ‘About Conducting’ as one important plank of Wagner’s wider strategy to secure his legacy.
There has been much debate among musicologists about when music began to be thought of as constituted of works rather than, say, pieces of music written for specific occasions – pieces of music, that is, embedded in social function rather than objects lifted out of history and reified as individual artworks of eternal value. Until the 1800s, the notion of a musical canon was ill-defined. Pieces were written to be played as required and then new pieces were written. There was a pedagogical canon – a select corpus of music considered exemplary in the study of composition (motets by Palestrina for the teaching of species counterpoint, for example) – and certain pieces did enter a performance canon of a rather patchy kind (Byrd motets in the repertoire of English cathedral choirs, the sacred music of Delalande in the repertoire of the Concert Spirituel in Paris). In the 18th century, a more systematic interest in the music of the past expressed itself in institutions such as the Academy of Ancient Music in England, but the idea of an expanding corpus of canonical works, regarded with almost sacred reverence and repeated with ritualised solemnity, was a development of the 19th century.
The discovery of value in old music – Mendelssohn’s rehabilitation of Bach is the most famous example – was intimately related to the re-evaluation of music as an art, driven in large part by the writings of German philosophers in response to Beethoven. Composers found themselves upgraded from mere employees and servants of church and state to artists and philosophers in their own right, men of high imagination whose productions were now accorded an interiority comparable to the works of the great poets, painters and sculptors of the past. The ‘work concept’ followed from this, and it became the duty of conductors, as representatives of the great composers, to act as faithful guardians of Werktreue – the work’s truth, otherwise known as ‘the composer’s wishes’. All this was well entrenched by the time Wagner wrote ‘About Conducting’, but it was the invention of sound recording that accelerated the formation of the musical canon, an exponentially expanding library of works for study and repeated performance, accessible to the public on a scale unimaginable to Wagner and the musicians of his time.
Recording technology changed the very nature of music’s being in the world. The fact that musical performances could be rescued from ephemerality, lifted out of the river of time and retained for unlimited future reference, gave rise to the modern concept of interpretation. It’s interesting that Wagner does not use the German word Deutung for what the conductor does when he rehearses and performs musical works, but Vortrag – recitation. His concern is that the music be played properly, and in translating Vortrag as ‘interpretation’ Walton shows a peculiarly modern bias. Wagner is adamant about the way Beethoven’s Ninth should be played, but he didn’t think there were an indefinite number of possible versions of the symphony. Once you understood its idiom, you would know how it was to go. Conscious of the radical idiosyncrasy of his own musical idiom, Wagner was plainly anxious that it should be understood correctly by future generations, but given how relatively few performances any piece of music received, and even those in widely dispersed locations, the issue of interpretative fatigue didn’t arise for him. The fatigue or listlessness of musicians was another matter altogether.
For Wagner, a musical performance was the creation of human energy: the energy of musicians bowing, blowing and beating instruments. A symphony orchestra had the potential to be an astonishing energy generator, provided the musicians were in tune with the life of the music, its Zartlebigkeit – a word, Walton tells us, that Wagner borrowed from his reading of scientific tracts. Walton translates Zartlebigkeit as ‘flexibility’, but it is surely more evocative than this, suggesting in its fusion of Zärtlichkeit and Leben a quality of almost febrile vivacity. It was the task of the conductor to awaken this in the players, to harness and ride their energy in the rise and fall, the ebb and flow of the music, thereby to animate its grammar and release its coiled-up force.
Walton traces in interesting detail the influence of Wagner’s essays on the leading conductors of subsequent generations, especially in the matter of tempo variation within symphonic movements. On the evidence of early recordings, variable tempo continued to be a feature of orchestral performance until the middle of the 20th century, when it fell out of favour, giving place to the opposite orthodoxy of a uniform pulse. It’s possible to argue that it is not the unification or otherwise of tempo that determines the musicality of a performance, but rather the quality of its energy, the manner in which it allows the music to breathe, the space it gives for the line (the melos) to sing – perhaps, in a word, its Zartlebigkeit. And, in so far as the conductors of the past century have achieved this, they have followed Wagner.
From this perspective, the performances of the greatest conductors differ mainly in the nature of their musical energy. This is what Boulez was talking about when he said that his performance of the Rite of Spring improved over time: in the early days the energy was too tense, too wound up; later, he learned to be more generous with the power of the work. Hans Keller disliked Toscanini’s performances for what he perceived to be their energetic vehemence. The peculiar pleasure of Carlos Kleiber’s Beethoven performances resides in the sense they give of having world enough and time. But such an account of what distinguishes one performance from another has not been enough for a music industry in need of a much brighter differentiation for its products. To pack concert halls for repeated performances of the same works, and to sell records of such performances, concert promoters and record companies have depended on an unquestioned acceptance that the primary meaning of great musical works is not self-evident but opaque and recondite, only yielding its secrets to the furrowed brows of great musical men. Accordingly, it has been the task of conductors (indeed all musicians) to offer interpretations of the classic texts, rather than merely to perform them well while leaving their interpretation to the listener.
In the 19th century, many of the greatest conductors were composers: Spontini, Weber, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler. With its rapid expansion, the music industry needed legions of composer surrogates. To the public, composition was a dark art, as remote as higher mathematics or theoretical physics. By contrast, the figure of the great conductor, fashioned into a celebrity, was easier to grasp, and star conductors soon came to rival composers in the public imagination.
We are so used to the institutions of the classical concert and the orchestral conductor that we can be blind to their stranger aspects – their peculiarities hide in plain sight. The salience of the conductor as classical music’s dominant performing musician is remarkable. In the concert hall, he is the only musician who makes no sound, yet his pre-eminence is elaborately choreographed. He comes on stage last and receives noisy acclaim from the audience before and after the performance. Positioned at the pivot between two large masses of people, he is the only person to stand and the only one who is permitted to move freely, unencumbered by an instrument and not beholden to the etiquette of immobility. To a neutral and uninformed observer, the conductor, while evidently understood to be one of the performers, might also – since he faces the same way – appear to belong in some sense with the audience, perhaps as prime listener. His practical function – to direct the music – is overlaid with symbolism, and at the interface of the orchestra and the audience he is the recipient of two quite different waves of transference. At his back, an amorphous crowd of strangers beam expectation at him. They have paid to experience something amazing. Variously informed about what exactly he is doing, they are happy to submit themselves to his mystique and charisma. To them, he is the high priest, guardian of the sacred texts, the leader.
While the audience has an interest in believing the conductor to be brilliant regardless of the quality of the performance he directs, the orchestra may look on him with scepticism and a weary tolerance. The relationship of conductor to players is acutely asymmetrical. Managerial and strategic power lies with the conductor. His musical will is absolute, but he is entirely dependent on the players to implement it and his authority hangs on their respect. Individually, the players have little leverage, but as a group they have the power of the dead weight, of a scarcely perceptible inertia – the withholding of that last degree of rigour and vivacity that they know he wants from them.
The relationship of conductor to players became structurally vitiated once he stepped out from the ranks of the orchestra. As long as the Kapellmeister of old directed the music from the front desk of the violins or from the keyboard, he was primus inter pares, a musician among musicians and, crucially, a fellow employee. Once he detached himself from the group, he became something else, no longer one of the workers, but an artist, a sage, paid in different coinage and paid more. The players were doing a job, but the conductor had visionary ideals – and his objective, obsessively pursued, was an impossible perfection. Rehearsals became the battleground for these competing interests, the conductor demanding ever more rehearsal time, the players wanting to get home and have a life.
The history of the orchestra from Lully to Wagner and beyond was one of a steady movement towards greater discipline and conformity in standards of performance. Written accounts of the earliest orchestras tell of string players retuning their instruments in the middle of pieces, of heterophonic cacophony as individuals added ornaments to melodies according to the inspiration of the moment without regard for what anyone else might be doing, of the common practice of ‘preluding’ – a sort of improvisatory free-for-all before the music proper got going. As these wilder eccentricities were driven out of the system, the creative independence of players shrank and demands on their technical proficiency rose. By the end of the 19th century, the pressure on players was already extreme, and they went on building. Wind players in orchestras today are required to perform as soloists on a nightly basis. You only have to look at the horn parts of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to get a sense of what is at stake.
Any resentment players may feel towards conductors lies in the consciousness that while they are doing the real work, the conductor gets the lion’s share of the plaudits; that their singular and hard-won artistry is sunk in the mass, all grist to his mill. Learning to think about complete pieces of music is the most interesting part of any musical training and yet it is this that an orchestral player has to relinquish, accepting confinement to a single line of the complex weave, ceding to the conductor the fascinating and exhilarating task of seeing the pattern from above. And then there’s the question of the conductor’s technique: what precisely does it consist in?
It is not easy to be a really good conductor, let alone a great one. As a conductor new to a top orchestra, you start from a position of deficit. Despite the power vested in you, you are the only professional whose necessity is always in question. The orchestra knows that even in the most elaborate works it can achieve 90 per cent of what is required without you. Faced with an assembly of the finest musicians in the world, you have only a small window within which to gain their respect. Hanging over the first rehearsal will be a question: ‘Who do you think you are?’ You must show that your ear is superb, that your insight is distinctive, that your beat is clearly legible, that you know how to achieve musically interesting results from a complex score within the tight rehearsal time available. You must speak only when you have something to say (one famous conductor, new to the Vienna Philharmonic, was told ‘every word will be a nail in your coffin’) and anything that you do say must be immediately readable in your gestures.
The physical aspect of conducting is not technique in the way an instrumentalist understands it, not an artistry acquired over decades of solitary practice. Much of what a student does on a conducting course concerns score-reading and analysis and the learning of repertoire. As Boulez was fond of pointing out, the metrical basis of Western music up to Stravinsky and Bartók had its roots in simple dances in two, three and four, and the underlying gestural patterns to conduct this music can be taught in an afternoon. Though not all composers who have tried their hand at conducting have been good at it (Debussy was especially uneasy on the rostrum and it took Stravinsky a while to get the hang of it), the tradition of great composer-conductors continued into the 20th century, despite the proliferation of dedicated professionals (one thinks obviously of Boulez but also of Britten, Maderna and Bernstein).
The codification and standardisation of stick technique as taught in conservatoires today is something new. Few of the eminent conductors of the past studied conducting in this sense. They learned it on the job, starting out in menial posts as repetiteurs and as assistants to established masters. A cursory look at films of a dozen performances of Beethoven’s Ninth by different conductors reveals a wide range of gestural idiom from the most to the least demonstrative without a concomitant difference in the execution of the music. After his stroke and in his old age, Klemperer sat at the rostrum and directed proceedings with a lapidary economy. The 93-year-old Herbert Blomstedt manages the ‘Ode to Joy’ with hand movements as slight as those of someone adjusting a picture hanging on the wall. Richard Strauss excoriated conductors who used their left hand at all and the rare video footage of him conducting his own work in his final years suggests that he did most of the heavy lifting with his eyes. Boulez conducted even the largest orchestras with his hands with matchless clarity, while the relationship of Furtwängler’s beat to the music was so indirect at times that players had trouble following it.
Unlike instrumental technique, where execution aims at an ideal economy, conducting technique, being substantially reinvented by each conductor, can and often does accommodate a degree of redundancy. Moreover, while for a classical instrumentalist the room for improvisation is extremely narrow, the conductor will only discover the exact nature of his dance in the course of each performance. Mravinsky’s rapport with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra was so intuitive that together they were able to create moments of unusual expressive subtlety beyond most other conductors and orchestras. Take, as an example, the sudden change of character, impetus and affect in the exposition of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, where an exuberant folk dance motif transitions without preparation into a yearning melody: the rural and social switching abruptly into the urban and individual, innocent optimism into anxiety and doubt, a sudden pang cutting across a happy memory. The moment of the transition is very hard to manage cleanly without a degree of rallentando in the final bar before the change, but no ‘rall.’ is marked, and when conductors smooth out the metrical modulation by slowing up, as they often do, the exquisite expressiveness of the moment is lost. Mravinsky and his orchestra could do this with only the slightest hint of a ritardando, but in the extant films of their performances, Mravinsky’s physical gestures in this passage are never the same.
The quality of a conductor’s abilities is only discernible by inference from the music. Films of conducting with the sound turned off are quite weird (try it with Bernstein or Rattle conducting the end of Mahler’s Second Symphony). But when the music and the gestures anneal, the effect is riveting. In the concert hall, much of the detail of the conductor’s dance remains unseen: the players follow him in their peripheral vision, the audience sees him only from behind and mostly at a distance. The camera’s view is privileged and can seem like an intrusion into the intensely private space that the conductor occupies. Aside from the power dynamics of the role (famously condemned by Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power), there is in it an innocent, wild artlessness that can be exceptionally beautiful, telling us something unique about the nature of what music is. (Osip Mandelstam thought the conductor’s gestures, in figuring forth the music, were like chemical formulae.)
The singularity of conducting as a musical art lies in the splitting out of mind and body from the material distraction of sound. To conduct, let us say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s Fifth, you must maintain for the duration a state of almost trance-like mental concentration, an interior focus that is separate, silent and dispassionate. This is music as pure thought, but the text you are absorbed in, being a set of intricate instructions for the disposition of physical energy, must be embodied in your dance, a dance which is both a precise signalling to the players (a kind of bee dance) and a solitary, spontaneous meditation in response to the music they play. When this circle of energy is achieved, players and conductor appear to breathe together like one large organism. There’s a performance of the Prelude to Lohengrin, conducted by Claudio Abbado towards the end of his life, where the orchestra moves like water weed in the current of a river or grassland in a breeze. In rare film of Furtwängler rehearsing the finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, he appears to direct the impetus of the music from behind the beat, reining it back like a rider on a powerful horse, his body shaken by the monumental force of the music.Charles Munch, conducting Debussy’s La Mer, daubs colours on the air with the abandon of a three-year-old child holding a pot of paint, his face suddenly radiant with unalloyed joy.
The orchestral conductor was entirely an invention of the male mind and the high pleasures and rewards of conducting (who wouldn’t give their eye teeth to be able to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony?) have been kept by men for themselves. Only in the last couple of decades have women been allowed into the profession in any numbers, and then stingily. The pace of change has quickened recently. Last year’s BBC Proms featured seven female conductors, and a glance at the programmes of the main London classical music venues suggests that efforts to redress the gender balance are more than merely nominal (the same can’t be said for Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna or New York). The appearance of a high-budget movie about a female conductor with Cate Blanchett as the star could be a sign of a tectonic shift in the culture. Lydia Tár herself is so confident the struggle is already won that she suggests the charity she set up to train and promote women conductors should start admitting men. Alice Farnham, who has written an unpretentious and engaging book about her experiences in the profession and who has run similar charities, is more cautious. The question of what happens to conducting when ‘he’ turns to ‘she’ is a fascinating one, but it was not what interested Todd Field. In imagining Lydia Tár, he simply transposed a male stereotype of the conductor across the gender divide. The film is preoccupied with Tár’s monomania, not as a conductor – her relations with her orchestra are cordial – but as a woman incapable of curbing her drives. Reviewers of Tár have wondered whether the musical mise en scène is anything more than incidental, but had Tár been cast as the CEO of a multinational or as a university professor or film director, the movie would have been insufferably predictable, about as gripping as a Harvey Weinstein biopic.
Tár could fairly be accused of using the novelty of a female conductor to rescue itself from the tedium of its central theme. I’m inclined to think there’s more to it, though whether the film understands what it appears to be saying about music is open to question. It’s risky using music such as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in a film soundtrack since it can seem to debauch something of great beauty to generate ready-made intensity. This is an issue that would have greatly interested both Wagner and Mendelssohn had they lived to experience cinema.
Mendelssohn died young, twenty years before Wagner published ‘About Conducting’, but the principles of musical understanding that he espoused lived on in the figure of Brahms and in Brahms’s literary and philosophical champion, Eduard Hanslick, whose essay ‘On the Musically Beautiful’, published in 1854, was a powerful broadside against the new musical aesthetic of which Wagner was the chief representative. The great contribution of Hanslick’s essay, now accepted as the foundational text of modern musical aesthetics, was to call into question the commonplace that music was ‘about’ feeling. It controversially relegated what music made people feel to a mere epiphenomenon of the true experience. At the root of Hanslick’s argument is the idea that the human capacity to feel is generic whereas what captivates us in great music is its particularity. He was, in effect, asking where musical feelings reside: in us or in the music?
Non-diegetic soundtracks, in which the music is external to the world of the characters and only the audience hears it, neatly prove Hanslick’s point about our readiness to attach the same music to different situations (for example, Albinoni’s done-to-death Adagio as amplifier for the poignancy of Kaspar Hauser’s solitude, and for the tragedy at the centre of Manchester by the Sea). By choosing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as the work around which its narrative is structured, Tár had to distance itself from Visconti’s famous appropriation of the fourth movement, the adagietto, for the non-diegetic soundtrack of Death in Venice. Tár takes pains to head off this association by making the music integral to the narrative. When they come to rehearse the adagietto, Lydia Tár pointedly tells the players to put Visconti out of their minds. And yet, once again, a film director has chosen this same music as the correlate for a story of psychosexual disturbance. In her interview, Tár says that the adagietto is all about young love, but the single-minded purpose of the film is to show her as a woman who, for reasons unknown, is pathologically incapable of human empathy, and the cohabitation within the same fictive space of Mahler’s intensely expressive music and the portrayal of a disordered mind ensures the inevitable elision of the one with the other.
Tár rations its music severely, but knows exactly how to exploit its power. The first scene where Lydia Tár conducts is choreographed for maximum impact. We see her in the Berlin apartment she uses when composing. At the piano, reaching an impasse in her own work, her fingers stray involuntarily into the trumpet solo that opens the first movement of Mahler’s symphony. At the precise moment where the musical line arrives at the shattering and effulgent cadence in bars twelve and thirteen, the camera cuts to the orchestra, Tár’s arms outstretched in full conducting ecstasy. It’s a stunning moment of cinema, especially when experienced on a wide screen with full quadrophonic sound. The same musical sequence returns at the film’s denouement, a nightmare of performative hysteria in a concert hall.
For sheer excitement, the experience of hearing a large orchestra playing one of the great 19th-century or Modernist classics is hard to match. When an audience is swept up by such music the effect is not unlike a religious event or a political rally: feeling washes in waves across the auditorium, seeking a place to escape. Authoritarian regimes have not been shy to exploit this dynamic, notoriously in the case of the Nazis, who lured the ingenuous Furtwängler into collaborating in the staging of chillingly effective propaganda (the filmed concert at the AEG weapons factory is a particularly creepy example).
The intrinsic instability of the orchestral concert follows from its lack of a mediating structure. As in a circus, its tricks happen in real time. Unlike theatre, it is not mediated by the fictional imagination. It has no third term. The contrast with opera is highly instructive. Compared to a concert hall, an opera house is a haven of sanity. Opera absorbed the intensities of Romanticism without being pulled off its centre, for the simple reason that opera was theatre. However extreme the turbulence of mind and feeling in operatic music, it was always conducted away into the ground of fiction. In a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony no one quite knows where all this grief, love and exaltation belongs, but we are in no such doubt about Wotan’s Farewell or Isolde’s Liebestod or the hatred of Elektra for her mother or Lulu’s joy in her transfiguring moment of freedom. In opera we are moved by the drama, by the fate of the characters, not by ourselves. Meanwhile, the conductor is safely out of the public eye, in the orchestra pit, getting on with the complex job of holding things together. She is not the star the public has come to hear. They may not even know her name.
One musician who has explored the unacknowledged problem of the orchestral concert with fascinating results is Barbara Hannigan. She turned to conducting about ten years ago after a career as a much acclaimed operatic soprano specialising in often fiendishly demanding contemporary works – Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, Lulu and the like. Her most original innovation has been to combine conducting with singing. The gender hierarchy between male conductor and female opera singer or instrumental soloist has always been complacently conventional. By conflating the roles of singer and conductor, Hannigan upends this hierarchy to startling effect.
But it is in her performance of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine that she achieves a full subversion of the institution of orchestral conducting. Poulenc’s one-act opera sets to music Cocteau’s play in which a woman – the only character – talks on the phone to the lover who has just dumped her for another woman. The play and Poulenc’s brilliantly responsive setting of it enclose us in a mind in the throes of an excitability that at times approaches hysteria. Hannigan performs the piece in the concert hall, from the rostrum as both singer and conductor, simultaneously inhabiting the fictional role and directing the orchestra, weaving the dramatic dance of the character into the conductor’s dance, while a video of the performance (further interpreted in real time by a video artist) is projected onto a screen facing the audience at the back of the orchestra. The effect, at once virtuosic and intellectually provocative, is to subsume the conductor’s rostrum within the self-absorbed inner world of a fictional character, taking the orchestra with it. As a comment on the two-dimensional naivety of the concert hall, the wit and sophistication of the performance is quite breathtaking.
Farnham doesn’t mention Hannigan in her book, or for that matter Simone Young, perhaps the most successful female conductor of her generation. There’s a self-limiting cosiness about In Good Hands, as though she needs to keep close to home. In writing about what it’s like to be a woman in this fiercely male world, she goes to great lengths to be reasonable and conciliatory. One can see why she made her career in opera, and it’s about opera and ballet and the exhilarations of working together with other talented people on complex projects that she writes best. When asked recently what she thought of Tár, Farnham found it in herself to be positive about it. But as a role model for the woman conductor, Lydia Tár is entirely regressive. In one scene, her daughter, Petra, lines up her toys and gives them each a pencil as a baton. Tár laughs at her: ‘It’s not as though it were a democracy.’ If Farnham can make it a democracy, she will. She is encouraged by what she sees in her protégés: the new culture of orchestral playing and conducting is to be one of inclusiveness, collegiality and mutual respect.
The niceness of In Good Hands is just a touch enervating. Even the book’s title is faintly dispiriting, as though ‘good’ were good enough. The music that occasioned the rise of the orchestral conductor – ‘conductors’ music’, the ‘music of effect’ – eventually gave place to much cooler ways of composing which dispensed with the symbolism of the great man. Conducting became less about the staging of spiritual happenings and more about how well you could conduct five against four. From another side, the Historical Performance Movement of the mid-20th century convincingly relocated the conductor in the ranks of the orchestra for the performance of music up to the time of Beethoven. But the arena for these new and rediscovered ways of making music remained the 19th-century concert hall, where, in any case, the 19th-century and Modernist repertoire still held pride of place. Performances of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth are as popular now as ever they were, and young musicians line up to conduct them. The influence of women on this deathless institution is yet to be felt. There are few role models for young women entering the profession. One imagines that Lydia Tár will strike any serious musician as a monstrous irrelevance. But between Tár’s sociopathic solipsism and Farnham’s niceness, there is surely room for more complex configurations of the role.
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