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The Composer As Conductor

We've spent all of our valuable time writing the music, including the planning of the compositional material and the working out of form, instrumentation and other intricacies that make a composition work as one.

Then came the fine tuning of the details such as tempo, articulations, dynamics, form and finally, score cleanup and tidying, not to mention the creation of the individual parts.

Now.... we must conduct it. What's next? What exactly happens when a composer steps on the podium to conduct their own music?

Caricature of Mahler conducting by Hans Schliessmann

Conducting the music you've written is a different mindset than when you were composing it. For one, you have to relearn your score. You have to keep mind that when you mount the podium to lead a group through a new piece of yours, you have to teach it to them. After all, unless you're super famous and they're familiar enough with your musical style to grasp it even before you step off the plane for your engagement, they don't know it and they don't know you either. Therefore, you must of have a deeper knowledge of the music you've written to help your performers understand it to best of their abilities. This goes the same for when you conduct music by other composers or your colleagues (and for me, this a golden rule): The better you know the score, the better prepared you are, the better the performance will be.

So....

Why do composers conduct?

Composers have a variety of reasons for choosing to take the podium. One popular reason is so there's someone to conduct their music in the first place. As a composer, getting an orchestral work played is already hard as it is, unless you have a really enthusiastic conductor champion who takes your work with them everywhere (which we don't all have).

Imagine getting engaged by an orchestra and you get to choose your program (rare, but just imagine). You might think, 'This is an opportunity to play that new orchestral piece that I'm refining.' or 'Aha! Here's a chance to play my colleague's new composition. People really need to hear this'.

As a young composer/conductor at the very beginning of his career, most of the conducting I've done thus far has been of my own music. I sincerely hope I can get to a place someday where I can program and promote music of my colleagues, because as I said above, it's already hard to get orchestral music performed.


Another reason is to deeper understand a piece music by diving into it. When one analyzes a score, they find the meaning inside and can see exactly how a composer has constructed their score. It's almost like becoming the composer. It goes back to my quote above; imagine trying to give a performance of the sixth symphony of Mahler without knowing that the two hammer blows in the last movement (*superstitious of the number 3, Mahler deleted a third blow he originally wrote) meant the death of his oldest daughter and the diagnosis of his life-threatening heart condition. You might also choose to dive into a Mahler biography before you embark on the lengthy score study process. All of this informs the research process and will ultimately make for a deeper interpretation of whatever music you choose to perform.

One of my own compositions, with my personal conducting marks

Path to the Podium

The most common path to the podium could be seen as starting from within the orchestra and moving up, although that's not always the case. I've been often told, mostly by other conductors, that there is no one true path to the podium. It can so happen that some launch their careers by standing in when someone else is indisposed (prime example: the case of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who launched his career in 1983 by conducting Mahler's huge 3rd symphony completely at the last minute with no rehearsal or prior preparation). Of course, most of the time, half of that depends on luck and the other half depends on how well prepared you are.

There are also conducting competitions, which I myself have no experience with (yet). Usually those are in multiple rounds beginning with two pianos and working one's way up to the full orchestra. Competitions are a test of musicianship, skill, preparedness and stamina as you work under intense pressure. As there are loads of good emerging conducting talent out there, these competitions can be extremely competitive.

But what are the reasons a composer chooses to take up the baton? Take this quote by Esa-Pekka Salonen:

My music wouldn't sound the way it does if I hadn't had the experience of conducting.

That's one reason: to really understand how music feels. I've found that's one reason conducting has informed my own composing. Once you've actually felt the music, the phrasing and the barlines in your hands and arms and body, it makes composing much more natural feeling music easier. Just look at the music of Mahler, which effortlessly flows along like a stream of consciousness. Mahler himself conducted the premieres of his first eight symphonies, so in a sense, his music was transferred out of body into existence.

Another reason: if you specialize in writing large ensemble music but know few conductors willing to perform them, why not do it yourself? (this goes back to what I said above). Personally, I specialize in writing for the orchestra and to date, I've completed several large scale symphonic poems, symphonies and suites. Somewhere along the way, I got realistic with myself: Who the hell is going to perform a 50 minute symphony by a relatively unknown 23 year old composer? What about now? What about in the future?

studying conducting with Miguel Harth-Bedoya, June 2019. It was a very intense, but extremely helpful opportunity.

Why would a composer conduct with the score?

One might think it ridiculous to watch a composer conduct a work of their own with the score at hand. You might be sitting there saying to yourself, "But they wrote it! They should know it all by heart! Why would they ever need the score??" The truth is this: If you've written a large scale orchestral work, with over a thousand individual notes any and everywhere, could you remember which note you wrote in beat 3.5 at measure number 140 in flute 2? Probably not. What about beat 6 at measure 356 in the contrabassoon? Nope. We spend so much time with the finer details of our scores that we can't remember every single thing that we set down on paper. There are often so many notes in our scores that if someone were to ask us to go back and recompose something we've just finished, it probably wouldn't be the same piece.

Plus, it gives the musicians playing it a sense of security in seeing the composer with the score. After all, they don't know the piece as well as the person who wrote it.

Vítězslava Kaprálová conducting (undated)

To compose or conduct...that is the question

There are some composers who still composed but took on or have taken on conductor jobs. From the early 20th century, there is the example of Gustav Mahler who was director of the Vienna State Opera, and later held positions with the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for a number of years but somehow found the time to compose two huge Bruckneresque symphonies. Another conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, had such a busy schedule that he had to take sabbaticals to write his music. Pierre Boulez, who started his musical life as an avant garde composer, became a renowned guest conductor after serving as music director of the New York Philharmonic (succeeding Bernstein) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1960's and 1970s. A contemporary example is Esa-Pekka Salonen, himself a prolific composer, and legendary music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and recently, the San Francisco Symphony.


That leads me to the question: Would I ever take on a music director position? Well...maybe. It's something I've been thinking about for a while as my study of conducting deepens. On one hand, there's the job security it offers when there's no composing work available and when one chooses not to take an academia job (which I don't plan on). On the other hand there is the hard work that comes with a music directorship, including paperwork, fundraising, meetings, administrative duties and more. There is also the challenge of maintaining the standard and legacy of the symphony orchestra you are conducting, all while attracting and keeping donors and subscribers. Add to that, having a respectable personality on the podium while convincing 60-80 people in front of you to do a piece of music they've played hundreds of times your way. As you can imagine, all of this is very daunting and time consuming and obviously takes a large amount of time away from composing. Either way, it's a sacrifice and a very hard choice to make.


Some famous composer/conductors



Stravinsky conducting (circa 1929)

- my all time favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky. His technique as a conductor was not always the best, but near the end of life, he recorded definitive performances of nearly all of his orchestral works. Stravinsky composed music for most of his career, and most of his conducting was done late in his life.


- The three famous classicists, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, conducted their own music. As the modern method of conducting didn't really take shape until the late 19th century (of which Beethoven bridged the gap), they conducted differently than we might have expected. For example, Mozart led performances of his symphonies from a keyboard instrument, most likely a harpsichord.


- Felix Mendelssohn was famous during his day, not only as a composer but as a conductor as well. He was an early music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.


- Robert Schumann, better known as a composer today, also tried his hand on the podium, albeit unsuccessfully. He spent about one or two seasons as music director of an orchestra in Düsseldorf in the early 1850's, where he was eventually let go because of his limited conducting skill and increasing mental illness.


- Richard Wagner, composer of the epic Ring Cycle operas, conducted as well, starting his career as music director of several opera houses. He also wrote an interesting treatise called 'On Conducting'.

drawing of Berlioz conducting

- Hector Berlioz, another personal favorite and composer of the innovative Symphonie Fantastique, turned to conducting to interpret his own music. An interesting fact is that he conducted Franz Liszt (a contemporary of Berlioz and another notable composer/conductor) in the world premiere of the latter's first piano concerto.


- No composer/conductor list is complete without the mention of the great Gustav Mahler. A career conductor, he was music director of the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic in the early 20th century. He is best known for his 10 orchestral symphonies, which are huge, expansive musical essays. With the exception of symphonies no. 9 and 10 (which was left unfinished as his death), he conducted the premieres of his own symphonies himself.


- In the same vein as Mahler, Richard Strauss was also a career conductor, but also wrote huge orchestral pieces that he conducted the premieres of himself. Video footage of Strauss late in his career shows him looking not too thrilled on the podium.


- a personal favorite, Vítězslava Kaprálová, one of the first prominent female composer/conductors. During her lifetime, she composed impressive orchestral and chamber music, and won the respect of (mostly all male at the time) orchestras such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Czech Philharmonic with her confident and authoritative conducting style.


- Esa-Pekka Salonen, mentioned many times in this article already, a prolific composer despite his extremely busy conducting schedule.


- John Adams, one of the most performed composers today (and an extremely nice guy), mostly tours his own music and orchestral showpieces. He has conducted renowned orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and more in performances of his own music. (in the attached video, Adams conducts his own 'Harmonielehre' with the score!)

Myself with John Adams, January 2019

- Thomas Adès, well regarded composer of contemporary orchestral and chamber music, also conducts very effectively. In addition to his own music, he has conducted standard repertoire and also promotes music of other contemporary composers (such as his student, Francisco Coll).


and some personal friends of mine...


- Will White, a friend, mentor and guiding light for many years, is currently music director of Orchestra Seattle and Seattle Chamber Singers (OSSCS). He has composed in virtually all genres, from chamber music to music for children to a vast and fascinating Symphony in three movements.


- Kevin Scott, a friend from New York, has been music director of several bands and orchestra and has composed music in a wide range of styles and for varieties of instrumentations.

Coda

The composer is a creator of music in more ways than one. We must first find a way to create music seemingly out of thin air, and then, with only our hands and sometimes the aid of long white stick, convey the meaning of what we've created. It's like two different mindsets but with the same end goal in mind; to create art. We've spent all of our time creating the music. Now.... we must conduct it.

conducting the Brevard Sinfonia, July 2018

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