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The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters
by Mark Wigglesworth
publ. London 2018, 250 pp., ebook
Faber & Faber

That Mark Wigglesworth is one of the finest conductors currently before the public is, for too many, a well-kept secret, and he has been recorded rather less frequently than admirers might hope.

In this invaluable book, he writes, with immense insight, in often rather beautiful prose, for the general and specialist reader, about the nature of conducting. It is not merely a very clever book, revealing a depth of learning lightly displayed, but a very wise one, whose appeal moves beyond the world of music. Mike Brearley (quoted by Wigglesworth), the former England cricket captain as well as philosopher and psychoanalyst, wrote a superb book, The Art of Captaincy, which demonstrated an understanding of leadership far beyond the cricket field. This book also is filled with insights about human relations.

The theme of Wigglesworth’s book reaches well beyond reflections on what the conductor does – or tries to do. For him, music making is about relationships in the circumstances of a given performance. He is insistent that it is not the job of a conductor simply to impose a performance which has been pre-determined. He or she must take into account the accumulated experience and insight of players and soloists as well as the conductor’s own ideas, adapting them to the hall and other factors:

Music is invisible, and, at its best, leadership is too. Conductors give shape to musical performances, as well as to the practical and psychological processes that precede them. Shaping the invisible might appear either vague or transcendental but beneath the surface a conductor’s craft is both specific and deeply human. (p.31)

He notes that it is not possible to work today as a dictator-conductor, and at one point marvels at how some dictatorial figures in the past sometimes produced quite magical performances. What Wigglesworth emphasizes repeatedly is the need for genuine respect. It is instructive to compare his thoughts with one of the most blatant pieces of bullying I have seen in music. On the DVD The Art of Conducting – Great Conductors of the Past (Teldec 0927426672), there is a clip of Bruno Walter forcing an orchestra to play the same phrase over and again, as a piece of naked control, but little guidance. Oliver Knussen, when the clip was shown on a BBC programme, in 1994, reacted as I did. It was all with a smile, but it was cruel watching, with little respect for the experience and dignity of the players. For Wigglesworth, collaboration and humility are all:

.. we need a reverential humility in the face of works of art that are far more significant than we could ever be, but at the moment of the performance we are part of that work of art and must have a subjective attachment to it if we are to do it justice. Respect keeps its distance. Love gets involved. There is no denying which is more powerful.

It is said that wisdom is understanding how and when to use your knowledge…. [It] is a waste of time if your knowledge simply functions as a cage that stifles spontaneity rather than as a climbing frame for creativity… I certainly think that musical instinct is just as powerful as knowledge – and even more so in the most intuitive musicians. A natural conviction is more infectious than a studied one, and it persuades with a lightness of touch that is far more successful than a heavy-handed one. (p.131)

That sense of humility is pervasive in the book. He notes the ability of orchestras to feel a sense of pride and to rescue the conductor from his errors (I recall very well the last, sad years of Barbirolli, when Hallé concerts were continually saved by the efforts of Martin Milner, the admirable leader). He makes interesting comments on the futility of trying to conduct along with recordings and differentiates the varied skills of conducting opera, orchestral concerts or accompanying a soloist.

The book is not a technical treatise about how to conduct: its focus is on the significance and nature of the role. The author does not spend time dissecting the techniques of other conductors, mentioning very few by name. Nor is the work in any sense autobiographical – anyone seeking an account of Wigglesworth’s principled resignation from the ENO will be disappointed. The nearest he comes is a brief statement of the values he believes should be upheld in running an opera company (pp.177-8).

It is a long time since I have been quite so enthusiastic about any book on music. At less than £15 in hardback – cheaper as an ebook – it belongs on every music-lover’s shelf, a work both rich and wise.

Michael Wilkinson

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