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The Composer as Conductor


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Author Topic: The Composer as Conductor  (Read 235 times)
Dundonnell
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« on: August 24, 2013, 11:42:51 pm »

(This is a copy of a thread-starter I posted on another forum five years ago Smiley I did try to initiate some discussion on here in another thread but just perhaps this separate thread might provoke some discussion Huh There are things in my post I might now wish to change but I shall not do so lest that cramps someone else's style Grin)

There have obviously been a number of composers who 'doubled' as professional conductors-Mahler, Richard Strauss, Leonard Bernstein, Howard Hanson, Pierre Boulez spring to mind.

Some other composers were prepared to conduct the works of other composers from time to time-Benjamin Britten is a notably fine example, others include Morton Gould and (once disastrously!) Alexander Glazunov.

Others conducted their own music but-by and large-restricted themselves to that only. However, as interpreters of their own compositions they frequently provide insights which mark out these interpretations and make their recordings classics.

Some 20th century examples of composers who have recorded their own works-

William Alwyn, Sir Malcolm Arnold, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir Edward Elgar, George Lloyd, James Macmillan, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir Michael Tippett, Sir William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams from Britain

Heitor Villa-Lobos from Brazil

Darius Milhaud and Andre Jolivet from France

Paul Hindemith and Hans Werner Henze from Germany

Zoltan Kodaly from Hungary

Carlos Chavez from Mexico

Witold Lutoslawski, Andrej Panufnik and Krzystof Penderecki from Poland

George Enescu from Rumania

Dmitri Kabalevsky and Aram Khachaturian from Russia

Frank Martin from Switzerland

Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Alan Hovhaness and John Adams from the USA

(This is not intended to be a comprehensive list! I know that composers like Dvorak conducted in the days before recordings.)

Of the composers listed above, some recorded a very substantial part of their complete oeuvre(Copland, Stravinsky, Penderecki, George Lloyd), others recorded complete symphony sets while some only very occasionally made it to the podium.

The questions which occur to me are:

Accepting that the composer(presumably) has a unique insight into how the music should sound-how does an orchestra respond to a conducting technique which may leave something to be desired? Tippett's recording of 'A Child of Our Time' is inspired but the playing is scrappy at times. Walton was a very variable conductor of his own music. In some instances the composer may have received training as a conductor or played in an orchestra(Malcolm Arnold), in others this has not been the case.

Is there a difference between 'traditions' or practice from one country to another? British composers seem to have been more likely to take up the baton than others. Or is it just a matter of circumstance-orchestral availability, recording opportunities, accident?

Why do some composers utterly refuse to attempt to conduct their own music? Did composers like Bartok in Hungary, Prokofiev or Shostakovich in Russia, Bax or Delius in Britain ever try to do so?
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tapiola
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« Reply #1 on: August 25, 2013, 06:43:56 am »

Prokofiev conducted his own music often until he premiered the 5th Symphony as the conductor in 1944. His health prevented any further attempts after that performance.
Bax wrote that he conducted an orchestra ONCE while a student and never again.
I think it's a matter of nerves more than anything else. The higher strung the composer, the worse they are as a conductor.
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kyjo
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« Reply #2 on: August 25, 2013, 03:06:59 pm »

The higher strung the composer, the worse they are as a conductor.

That may explain why British composers were/are often conductors as well. Brits are not particularly known for being high-strung Grin
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #3 on: August 25, 2013, 10:42:41 pm »

Thanks (and there are a couple of comments on my Bliss "Beatitudes" thread as well Grin)

Morton Gould and Gunther Schuller should have been added to the names of American composer-conductors.

We can argue(or not) about specific individual cases and the particular qualities of a composer's recordings but two of the issues I raised still remain for me.

In reverse order-the apparent willingness of so many British composers to conduct their own music(or, in some cases, other people's) contrasted with American composers. I am not sure that it is a matter of temperament-as Kyle suggests Grin Britten was, probably, fairly "highly strung" but that didn't stop him conducting. Maybe it is pure accident Huh

Perhaps more interesting though( Huh) is my point about technique. Now....conductors would, presumably, claim that it takes decades of training and practise to acquire the necessary skills to conduct. Does it Huh What ARE the skills required of a conductor Huh

Well....it seems to me(and I am not a conductor myself Grin) that he(or she) has to be able to "handle" the orchestra itself. This is particularly difficult for a young conductor-orchestras can be very difficult, the musicians may well have played a particular piece hundreds of times and think that they know it far better than the conductor. The days of the autocratic dictator-conductor(think Fritz Reiner or George Szell or even Georg Solti) are long gone.

With the composer himself on the podium this is much less of an issue. If the composer is well-established the orchestra is likely to respect the unique insights of the composer and, usually, rise to the occasion in terms of their commitment to the piece in question. That is why so many-but by no means all-of the performances on record or disc conducted by composers bring an additional intensity to the rendering-think RVW in his recordings of his own music.

On the other hand there are technical aspects to conducting-the basic ability to beat time, to cue orchestral musicians in: stick technique in short. If I stood up in front of an orchestra and flourished my baton at them the whole piece would come completely unstuck in seconds Grin Yet.....some composers clearly had the basic ability to keep the orchestra together but had a very indistinct and shaky conducting technique. The performance does not fall to bits but one wonders to what extent the orchestra is in fact "carrying" the conductor. As a result, not all performances of a composer's music conducted by himself turn out to be totally successful: both Walton's and William Alwyn's recordings of their own music have been-it is generally agreed-improved upon.

Then take the case of Sir Malcolm Arnold. Arnold(like John Foulds or Arthur Butterworth, to name but two) had played in an orchestra( as principal trumpet). He knew HOW to conduct. There is the quite extraordinary case of his performance of the Seventh Symphony(available on this site) where he, effectively, transforms the work into something entirely different from the later interpretations of conductors by extending it by over ten minutes. Is this really how he intended the symphony to sound Huh

I wonder..........
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tapiola
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« Reply #4 on: August 26, 2013, 12:19:51 am »

I knew somebody would mention Britten. Absolutely "very high strung", as was Elgar. They were excellent conductors.
Thinking of Bax, I tricked myself into saying that!
There seem plenty of "high-strung" individuals that could not conduct (Rubbra, Klami, Sibelius, Shostakovich) and those who could conduct quite well (Bernstein, certainly Arnold, Bantock, Walton, the list is endless).
So, on hindsight "high-strungedness" seems irrelevant here.
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #5 on: August 26, 2013, 12:38:01 am »

I knew somebody would mention Britten. Absolutely "very high strung", as was Elgar. They were excellent conductors.
Thinking of Bax, I tricked myself into saying that!
There seem plenty of "high-strung" individuals that could not conduct (Rubbra, Klami, Sibelius, Shostakovich) and those who could conduct quite well (Bernstein, certainly Arnold, Bantock, Walton, the list is endless).
So, on hindsight "high-strungedness" seems irrelevant here.

Rubbra conducted the first performance of his Symphony No.4 in wartime in his army uniform Grin (and with the very reluctant permission of the Army Roll Eyes)

Sibelius did conduct some of his earlier compositions did he not Huh
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« Reply #6 on: August 26, 2013, 03:15:37 am »

I might add a mention of Oliver Knussen, well-known both as a composer and as a conductor of other people's music. I enjoyed his Prom this year of 20th Century pieces including the Tippett 2nd. I also noticed that he sat to conduct, which was common up to the early 19th Century, but came in for criticism later (Sullivan was often criticised for it, for example).
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« Reply #7 on: August 26, 2013, 03:47:39 am »

I think William Mathias conducted much of his own music..especially the choral.
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tapiola
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« Reply #8 on: August 26, 2013, 04:15:01 am »

Sibelius was a poor conductor but a better than average violinist. He left the conducting to Kajanus.
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« Reply #9 on: August 26, 2013, 06:23:38 am »

well, composer-conductors should be differentiated from composer-virtuosos like Shostakovich, Bartók, Rachmaninov, Medtner, etc who may not have ever conducted their works but did nonetheless interpret and present them on many occasions on the instrument that they played (usually piano, although there are exceptions e.g. Holliger on oboe, Globokar on trombone, etc). the ones who didn't conduct their own music probably felt their conducting skills were too shaky to do so.

among non-performers, i suppose stage fright is too mundane an explanation? Tongue

the large number of British & American composer-conductors is probably because most of the mainstream British and American conductors (whether native or imported) were not inclined to present native contemporary music more than once a decade or so. as such, composers who wanted their orchestral music heard had to conduct it themselves most of the time. that's my hypothesis anyway
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