A “real” conducting divertimento- the legendary composer-conductors

Before unveiling the hotly anticipated final 5 of our “Real” Top 20 Conductors, I thought it might be interesting to, er, milk the moment with a little divertimento or two.

Regular Vftp contributor Peter Davison beat me to the punch on one topic:


“There’s another category to consider – composer-conductors. Britten was a fine conductor for example. There have been some bad ones too, trading on their reputations or the misguided belief they were the only true interpreters of their own work.”


So- what of the composer-conductors?

Well, the obvious choices would be Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez- each so accomplished in both fields that you could get rid of the hyphen and upgrade to “composer” and “conductor,” or even “great composer” and “great conductor.”  There are others in previous generations who could shed the hyphen. It’s probably likely that the three greatest conductors of all time were composers- Haydn, Mendelssohn and Mahler. You can probably add Wagner to that list, too.

It seems reasonable that a great composer would make a great conductor- surely musicianship is the most important item in any conductor’s toolkit, and who is more likely to excel at pure musicianship than a great composer? If you can hear a new work, not yet written down, let alone played, in your inner ear in all it’s complexity, you surely can fix a wrong note in a Beethoven symphony?

Being a good conductor is all about being a complete musician, and there were few musicians more complete than Paul Hindemith, my grand-teacher (he taught Gerhard Samuel, my teacher). A virtuoso violist who premiered the Walton Viola Concerto, he was competent on every instrument to be able to play every note he ever wrote. He was also one of the first major musicians to take a serious interest in old instruments and performance practice, and led a number of ensembles throughout his career exploring historical informed performance of early music. All of my students have to learn his “Elementary Training for Musicians,” which is the best practical book for developing musicianship ever written. His range of musical passions was exceptionally broad- when he resigned from the university he finished with seminars on Schönberg’s string quartets and madrigals of Gesualdo. Quite a range of interests! Here is some footage of Hindemith conducting one of the gems of 20th c. music, his “Konzertmusik” for Brass and Strings with the Chicago Symphony

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I find it extremely hard to evaluate Hindemith’s conducting, because it does call into question what parts of the craft are really essential and what aren’t. It sounds amazing, and is incredibly tight, in spite of the fact that Hindemith’s hands aren’t always with the band. His rhythm does swim all over the place, while the players’ remains flawless.  His confidence, and level of engagement seem to fluctuate wildly. Sometimes he seems bored, other times panicked, other times he looks like a master musician in complete charge. It leads us right into the heart of whether conducting really matters- would the orchestra sound any better if Hindemith looked more engaged or if his technique were more consistent? Or is the orchestra just responding to what Hindemith knows and feels about his own music, whether or not that knowledge is visually perceptible?

The conducting of Igor Stravinsky asks much the same questions. The second time I ever conducted in public I did the Stravinsky Octet. It turned out that two of the teachers at the festival where I was studying had played in the studio orchestra with whom Stravinsky had worked so extensively in the 1950’s and 60’s. I started eagerly asking for advice and one of the said- “don’t bother asking how he conducted this stuff- you already know more about conducting than Stravinsky ever did.”

So, was he unclear, I asked?  “Well, I wouldn’t call him “clear,” he said, “but it didn’t matter. We knew what he wanted and we’d do anything for him because of who he was.”

That’s an important point- who you are and who you are perceived to be really matters as a conductor, on all sorts of levels. It affects how much rehearsal time you get, what you can say to people without offending them, how much players will practice for you, how often they look up and how much they’ll follow you, how much talking will go on in rehearsal and on and on. Say what you will about his conducting, Igor Stravinsky was somebody.



Like Hindemith, the technique isn’t going to win any beauty pageants. More to the point, some gestures are very in tune with dynamics and color of the music, while others aren’t. The cue to the horn soloist at the beginning of the Finale couldn’t really be less musically appropriate or less helpful. It is almost the perfect cue to cause a split- an arhythmic violent stab at the beginning of a lyrical, exposed solo. In fact the player doesn’t split for two reasons: one, he is a damn good horn player, and two, it was Igor freakin’ Stravinsky who gave the weird cue. Trust me, if it was me up there poking the air like that, the horn player would have split it big time.

Stravinsky made clear in his writings that professional conducting for him was a necessary evil- it provided him with valuable income, but it wasn’t something he aspired to do, and he was primarily a conductor of his own music. The “Second Igor,” Igor Markevitch was much more interested in conducting   as a profession, and actually set aside composition for many years to focus on conducting. Considering that Diaghilev commissioned a Piano Concerto and a ballet from Markevitch when he was only 17, and he was highly prolific throughout the 30’s, it’s a surprise he had almost stopped composing by 1945, when he was only 33, and would let his music sit un-played until the 1970’s. Maybe it is better to call him a Composer-then-Conductor.



Copland is another figure we think of as only conducting his own music. However, I was surprised to find in this touching film of him conducting his beautiful opera The Tender Land (good footage of his conducting starts at 2:00). It may not be great conducting, but I think he has quite a beautiful and refined technique. How sad that this important document isn’t in better shape, and why wasn’t the Met having him do this instead of Michigan Opera?

Another significant composer whose reputation as a conductor almost overshadowed his composition was Bruno Maderna. Tragically, there doesn’t seem to be any video of his conducting on YouTube. This excerpt is audio only, but shows he could be a sensual Ravelian.

Richard Strauss was a truly important conductor whose reputation has never quite recovered from the treatment he got in the Great Conductor’s video, in which George Szell told a story about Strauss checking his watch in performance.  Strauss was obsessed with a minimalist technique as an old man, but as a young man, he was described as a Gergievian wild man. Unlike folks like Stravinsky, Strauss had a vast professional experience conducting all kinds of music, including a vast range of opera. Bored as he looks in the famous film of him conducting Till Eulenspiegel, it is pretty sensational sounding. I remember the first time I listed to an LP of him conducting one of the tone poems I was conducting. I was a bit shocked that he didn’t seem to know any of the “traditions” of the piece- he was just doing more or less exactly what was in the score without any historical perspective. Then, I realized that was exactly the point!

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If there is one composer of the modern era who was so incredibly musically gifted that he was able to surpass the performances of many of the best of his “professional” conductor counterparts, it was Benjamin Britten. Of course, the recordings of his own music remain, and always shall remain, definitive, but he was a brilliant Mozartian, knew his Mahler backwards and excelled at that most technically demanding aspect of conducting, accompanying. In fact, at one point in his career, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter would only play concertos with two conductors, Carlos Kleiber and Benjamin Britten.

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The more I think about the conducting of people like Hindemith and Stravinsky, the more I think there is an important point in play. Of course, they were among the most brilliant musicians ever to walk the planet, and they got superb results in these and many other recordings. The question is- would a more fully developed conducting technique and podium persona have gotten even better results? My experience as a teacher is that they would have. In all my years teaching I’ve had the chance to work with some great, great instrumentalists, composers, arrangers and leaders all of whom had a quite advanced self-taught technique. In every case, they were still able to improve and refine and, in doing so, get better results from the orchestra. The question is really whether a marginal improvement in the results of these great artists performing work would be worth taking time and energy away from the creative work? It is probably a question that answers itself.


Of course, the burning question here is which team would win in five-on-five Composer-Conductor versus Conductor-Composer metaphorical pickup hoops.

How do the conductor-composers stack up to the composer-conductors?

A number of the conductors on our list considered themselves composers- I remember hearing a Kubelik Symphony on the radio when I was about 14 and thinking it was pretty rad. Constantin Silvestri, not on this list, but a significant conductor, was a prolific composer- I’ve been approached about recording some of his orchestral music, and it is good stuff. My own conducting teacher, Gerhard Samuel, was a very, very fine composer. What about Enescu- was he a composing violinist, a conducting-composer, a composing-conductor or composer-pianist? Lukas Foss, like Bernstein, could be a composer-conductor or conductor-composer and was an equally fine pianist. I grew up when he was conducting the Milwaukee Symphony- not a great band, back then, and the fact that they called him “Focus Lost” made me not inclined to take him seriously as a performer. However, when he came to the Columbus Symphony when I played there, it was a revelation. He led a pristine and elegant Pulcinella, then sat at the piano to direct Hindemith’s marvellous Four Temperaments from the bench with a rich, magisterial sound and flawless technique. He then conducted one of his own works and a barn-burning Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini on the second half, tossing in the Pas de Deux from the Nutcracker as an encore. Great stuff. If I were managing either team, I’d want Foss playing for me.

If five composers had to put their conducting up against the composing of five conductors, who would come off better? What if we scored both their conducting and composing on a a ten point scale, ie Furtwangler gets a 10 for conducting and a 4 for composing, while Stravinsky gets a 10 for composing and a 3 for conducting. This doesn’t work because Stravinsky’s composition is so much more important than Furtwangler’s conducting (unless you are in the audience chewing your own arm off when Stravinsky conducts Bruckner 8).

All I know is that I have a feeling that if Hindemith tried to conduct the Furtwangler 2nd Symphony , all oxygen might disappear from the planet.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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7 comments on “A “real” conducting divertimento- the legendary composer-conductors”

  1. Peter

    Encyclopedic knowledge of conductors and conducting, Ken. There’s a TV series in it!

    I suspect JS Bach was more than useful as a conductor.

    BBC Phil have this rather rare post of composer-conductor which has put Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and HK Gruber centre-stage as conductors. Gruber has incredible dynamism and, as a fomer orchestral musician, knows all the tricks of the trade.

    Are we one day to hear a Woods’ orchestral masterpiece?

  2. Tom Chambers

    Regarding Strauss/Szell: as a long-time Szell fan, I remember a different interview in which he remarked that Strauss often seemed bored with conducting his own compositions, was much more interested in conducting Mozart, but when the mood took him he could conduct a hair-raising Electra.

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  4. Tim Cunningham

    It might not be wise to include Copland as a great conductor as those who played under him would have reservations. Orchestras tried their best to keep him out of trouble and they usually made it, but players frequently found him hair raisingly difficult to play for. I remember being with a couple of TSO principals one night after Copland had nearly destroyed a couple of his simpler pieces.

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