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This is a phrase often heard in the tap-rooms of quiet country pubs where curmudgeonly old men whinge about how bad things have become since their young days: They don’t build motor cars like that any more. Grandmothers are just as likely to be heard complaining about modern super-markets and their plastic-packed foods: "They don’t know how to bake a decent loaf these days". This could be said about almost any kind of consumer product, life-style, code of behaviour or whatever other aspect of present-day living warrants criticism.

This is all very well and good, the older generation is entitled to its - admittedly long-experienced - assessment of the world in which it now finds itself, but such views are after all, only personal opinions; likely to be quite justifiably challenged by those of a generation or two younger. As with everything else, the essence of music has changed too. Some of these changes are universally acknowledged if not necessarily approved. What of 'pop’ music? There has always been some kind of down-to-earth vernacular music making: the bawdy songs of the medieval tavern, now ardently preserved in those serious-minded and precious dissertations submitted as theses for a Ph. D in rarefied university music departments’ ‘Early Music’ studies. How does this kind of popular music compare with music hall of the 1880s, Jazz of the 1930s, or the pop of the 1960s?

For those whose interests are in more serious, intellectual music-making: opera, chamber music, the concert hall, there are just as many comparisons to be mulled over. One such frequent topic among the cognoscenti is to debate whether there are now any "great conductors" in the phrase: "like there used to be". Just in the same way that there is likely to be an everlasting debate about the quality of local brewed ales of the 1930s when compared with modern canned beers, or the hand-crafted motor cars of yesteryear with the flashy computer-designed models of today. Opinions differ, depending on ones own experiences and tastes. Since these considerations are so dependent on a personal view, hard facts are not easy to ascertain, if at all, but it might be worth investigating how these inevitable changes have come about.

Orchestral conducting, it is recognised, is a fairly new phenomenon when the long history of musical performance is taken as a whole. The star-conductor only began to displace the prima donna in the musical public’s hero-worship status towards the latter part of the nineteenth century; perhaps little more than a hundred years ago at most. However, some of the world’s so-called "great" conductors certainly made a world-wide impression. How did they do it ? There was no radio, no recording, no jet-setting about the world; merely the live performance in one place at a time, no radio or television relays to world-wide audiences. The prime reason for the development of the conductor’s craft (not then really an "art") was a prosaically practical one: merely to ensure that all the performers in a large and otherwise unwieldy ensemble, could be kept together in time and rhythm — not much concern about interpretation of the way the music was presented. Gradually, however, his (in those days hardly ever, if at all, "her") function changed. In addition to co-ordinating the basic pulse of the ensemble, it began to take on a far more influential role: that of "persuading" (if that is the right word) the body of performers to do so in his — the conductor’s — very specific and personal way. He began to stamp on the performance of the music, no matter who had composed it, his own interpretation of the printed symbols.

As players (perhaps rather more so than singers) became more technically precise in the matter of keeping accurate pulse and rhythm, the initial purpose of the conductor became a trifle less important: good players could - and still can - largely manage without a conductor in the matter of keeping time. The conductor’s essential purpose subtly changed to that of unfolding the music’s interpretation: moulding the shape, intensity and length of the phrases, exhorting the many disparate individuals in the group to perform in a unified way: the way the conductor himself insisted that it be done.

Whilst orchestral players have always maintained that a clear, distinct and unambiguous beat is what they appreciate most of all ("Just you give us a clear beat, we’ll do the rest!" is what, supposedly, the hard-bitten, no nonsense London orchestral players once told the young Vaughan Williams), there is no doubt that as time went on, conductors, or many of them, began to be rather less concerned with an automaton-like, regular and faultless beat, knowing that their players perhaps did not really need this kind of spoon-feeding as regards maintaining a steady and unanimous rhythm. Instead they began to shape the music more expressively, much in the same way that choral conductors might do, (generally not using a baton since they are more concerned with words rather than symbols for rhythms of notes: crotchets, quavers, minims). Now this is fine if the music itself is expressive and needs an imaginative interpretation, and does not demand a rigid, unchanging pulse.

In general, earlier music, the baroque and classical style requires a steady rhythm, whereas romantic music on the whole does not invariably lend itself to such formal rigidity. The great conductors active at the end of the nineteenth and earlier in the twentieth century: Von Bülow, Hallé, Richter, Nikisch, Furtwängler, Toscanini, along with British conductors such as Beecham, Wood, Harty, Boult and especially Barbirolli were generally "expressive" in their gestures rather than precise automatons. This is, admittedly, a very wide generalisation, for each of them could be precise when the music (such as Mozart) called for it. But their greatness lay in their personal communicative gifts; not only with their players, or singers, but with their live audiences. This is a point that is often forgotten when comparisons are being made. It is all very well for record buffs to claim that such-and-such a re-mastered recording from — say —1925, or 1947 is a "collector’s piece" and that present-day performers make a poor comparison, but this ignores the phenomenon of the live concert which NO RECORDING CAN EVER REPRODUCE. Musical performance is not just about the performer bringing the printed notes to life and then leaving it on record for evermore. Musical performance is a two-way emotional phenomenon: the performer communicating and being responded to by the listener at the very moment the music is being performed. This is not necessarily an overtly demonstrative thing, but it is there all the same. (Pop concerts demonstrate that this is very much the case; hence the hysterical — perhaps overdone — reaction of hordes of young women at such "happenings"). Concert-goers by convention do not show such highly-charged emotion until they applaud at the end of the performance; but this has not always been the case - for example the near riot at the premiere of ‘The Rite of Spring’ in 1913. No matter how memorable and "collectable" an historical performance might be considered to be, there is nothing to compare with a live performance.

In this sense, some of the great conductors of the past - even the recent past - who gave performances within living memory - certainly do appear to be greater than many present-day travelling maestri whose performances whilst technically slick, accurate and polished so often lack that almost indefinable quality of communication with the listener. To be able to vouch for this with some conviction, (or authority, if you like), depends on having personally experienced such performances. Younger musicians and music-lovers certainly have opportunities to listen to performances given before they were born through the almost limitless and easily-available re-masterings. Thus they can claim to be able to make comparison with present day performances. In this sense of course, they are right, but what is lacking on such re-masterings is the irrecoverable sense of the original performance: not just the actual sounds made by the performers, but the undefinable atmosphere of that subtle sense of occasion, the response of the audience. In some cases the present-day listener can justifiably claim, of course, that on the evidence of hearing a re-mastered recording, that the standard of performance just cannot match either the technical or interpretative excellence of today’s artists: this is absolutely a matter of taste, and who can gainsay that?

However, the experience such as this writer has had, of having listened to, and taken part in, music-making of many kinds over a period of more than six decades, would seem to endow one with a reliable means of comparison between earlier performances and those of today. As far as conductors go there do appear to be differences of approach and, perhaps technical abilities. The earlier generation were perhaps not so conscious of technique for its own sake, but were certainly endowed with expressive insight and warm, human imagination which often appears to elude the present generation of celebrated conductors.

On the other hand, the younger generation are more slick (and this is not meant in any derogatory sense) with the baton, able to accommodate every mathematical or mechanical rhythmic complexity which so much contemporary music demands of them. All this is achieved with accuracy and assuredness that probably would have been beyond many conductors of earlier days.

These different musical temperaments can best be illustrated by something that happened some years ago. A very long-established professional orchestra which, even at that late date in musical history, had never played ‘The Rite of Spring’ because the very distinguished line of permanent conductors it had had over the years, considered it was too technically demanding, (even though it had been given its premiere in Paris forty years earlier and the conductors themselves probably considered it too awkward to conduct!) was eventually able to perform this significant twentieth-century work, through the ambition and cool-headed determination of an amateur conductor, who, being a very wealthy engineer and business-man with a clear-cut analytical mind, knew how to approach this demanding work. His performance was assured and competent: like the younger generation of today’s conductors he was essentially a technical wizard. However, in the second half of his all-Russian programme, he all but came adrift because he lacked that expressive insight essential to romantic music: he got lost when it came to accompanying an imaginative soloist! He was unable to mould phrases, but seemed to regard the music as a whole as an exercise to be applied rigidly and automaton-like.

Herein lies some of the differences between today’s whizz-kids able to direct the most complex of rhythms, and an earlier generation, who, although sometimes a bit lacking in sheer technique possessed an artistry often wanting in many of today’s technically dazzling but otherwise arid performances.

Arthur Butterworth © June 2004


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