Class and Classical Music

This is a section from my Invisible Handcuffs book.  I am far from an expert on music, so I would appreciate any feedback you have.


6 comments so far

  1. TimT on

    It seems quite lucid and understandable, and an interesting argument. There are some obvious examples that could be drawn on – modern bands and jazz bands who are able to operate perfectly well without conductors, for instance. This is coordination also achievable because of the smaller forces being deployed – in the 19th century the orchestra grew and grew and grew, and it was in the deprivation years follow the first and second world wars that artists often reacted violently against the large size of orchestras. So Stravinsky’s large-orchestra work ‘The Rite of Spring’ back dates just before the first world war; and his first neo-classical works (written for small, determinedly idiosyncratic groupings of instrumentalists and artists) just after the war.*

    I only wish the historical argument was a little more detailed and gave more examples of music in those periods.

    I quite like the irony of opera being a popular entertainment and turning into what is now essentially an elite one.

    That joke about the person who wanted to see the conductor and not the orchestra has probably been used a few times, but I remember recently seeing a New Yorker cartoon featuring a conductor busking, without orchestra, on a street corner.

    *I haven’t checked the chronology on all this, but I think I’m right.

  2. louisproyect on

    Michael, your upload ain’t here.

  3. TimT on

    Yeah, you’ve got to click on that link saying ‘music’ and then click on another link that’ll take you to the pdf.

  4. mark hansen on

    while i am no student of european music, i do remember a film starring Gerard Depardeu(sp?) in which he played a conductor who used a heavy brass staff which he lifted and set down to keep the musicians on the beat.
    this technique, so far as i know, predated the conductor’s use of a light weight hand held baton.
    i heard a story from a woman i knew years ago about how at least one conductor, of the type played by Depardeu,
    died after crushing his foot with the heavy brass staff.

    • Dennis Brasky on

      That was Jean-Baptiste Lully, a Frenchified Italian who rose to his position by glorifying Louis XIV and possibly by assassinating his predecessor.

  5. Steven K. on

    Sorry, this response may be a little late to be of any help, but the unnecessity of the conductor to the performance of classical music– even pieces for a relatively large ensemble– is generally borne out by my personal experiences. Obviously this is all purely anecdotal, but I know a lot of musicians who feel the same way (though I also know a surprising number of symphonic musicians who seem to have been effectively convinced that they would be powerless without a conductor).

    I am a cellist. I have played in small chamber music groups (trios, quartets, and larger string ensembles), as well as in small orchestral settings under a conductor’s baton. I am not a professional musician by a long shot, but in my experiences, while a conductor can be very helpful for keeping time (as can also be said for a metronome) and signaling dynamic changes, all this is marked in the players’ sheet music. When I am playing with a conductor (admittedly it has been a while), my eyes tend to be primarily on the music in front of me, secondarily on the first cellist and the other cellists around me, and on other players within my line of sight, and probably lastly on the conductor. Many of the important signals a conductor gives the players aren’t really vital beyond initial practice sessions, in my view.

    In more complex works, particularly certain 20th century pieces which provide complex and specific directions to the conductor and the players related to the preparations, arrangement, and performance, the role of a conductor can sometimes be more vital, but in the vast majority of the classical repertoire, the conductor as guiding leader of the orchestra is a basically superfluous figure, at least in terms of the actual performance of the music.

    To be fair, chamber music generally has fewer separate parts that need to be coordinated than symphonic music, but the same types of cues that players in (for example) a string quartet will use– a sharply inhaled breath, a quick upturn of the head, a movement of the bow prior to playing a given note, or even just simple eye contact– can be very effectively used in an orchestra setting as well, even if the scale is larger and the overall dynamic is different.

    Obviously, styles, techniques, and tastes have changed considerably over the years– old ones go out of fashion and new ones replace them, and in recognition of this fact we categorize the broader genre “classical music” according to the predominant styles of various eras. Even still, I agree that the rise of the conductor cannot be attributed entirely to reasons of pure musical necessity. Even if this were the case, it would not explain why the conductor’s role should be any more important or prestigious than that of any other member of the orchestra. This particular phenomenon is probably better explained in social and economic terms than musical ones.

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