conducting, in music, the art of unifying the efforts of a number of musicians simultaneously engaged in musical performance. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance the conductor was primarily a time beater, maintaining the measure or tactus of polyphonic music with his hand or a roll of music paper. During the baroque era the harpsichordist, playing the basso continuo, was the conductor. When the continuo disappeared, the first violinist, even today called concertmaster, became the leader or shared the function with a keyboard player. A few 18th-century conductors, such as Johann Stamitz of the Mannheim orchestra, achieved a high standard of performance. The custom of beating time with a stick (baton) on a music stand or table originated in France. This noisy practice was irritating to the listener. It actually caused the death of the composer Lully who struck his own foot with his baton, resulting in an abscess that killed him. The beating technique was altered and a more subtle manner was used by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Spohr. Berlioz, in his treatise on instrumentation and Wagner, in his classic treatise Über das Dirigieren [concerning directing], laid down the principles of modern conducting; and under the latter's influence Hans von Bülow became the first of the virtuoso conductors. A generally conventional set of gestures is used for beating time, a downstroke marking the beginning of a measure. The baton remains popular although a few conductors, notably Stokowski, prefer not to use it. Modern conducting is highly individual and requires great musical understanding, a thorough knowledge of instruments and of the concert repertory, a clear mastery of the baton and hand gestures, and a human sympathy for the performers.
See A. C. Boult, A Handbook on the Technique of Conducting (7th ed. 1951); C. Bamberger, The Conductor's Art (1965); H. C. Schonberg, The Great Conductors (1967).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.