The composer and conductor: which comes first?

This is not a piece I’m going to spend lots of time analyzing the history of in preparation for a dissertation on the subject. It was just a passing thought I had based on this week’s music piece for Thursday, and I thought I’d talk about it. It’ll make more sense when you know what that piece is, but for now, it’s at least worth talking about in the context of Mahler.
While he seemed to have garnered some praise and recognition in his time for his works, most prominently the eighth symphony, he was known during his lifetime far more as a composer. It seems Brahms was relieved at this in hopes that maybe he would stick to conducting and stop writing music. He didn’t, thankfully.

Herbert von Karajan, perhaps one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. I remember reading somewhere that he said if ever he were to compose, he suspects his compositions would be most like those of Shostakovich

Regardless of political or historical affiliations with music, Mahler seems (as far as I know) to be one of the few composers known as much for his conducting as his composition, if not more so. Among other people we think of now as primarily composers who were known for their conducting chops were Mendelssohn and Wagner. It was Mendelssohn who premiered Schubert’s unfinished ninth in March of 1839 after being given the score by Robert Schumann, its discoverer. Wagner went on to do amazingly huge and important things in opera, but was also a conductor, even writing a book about it.
Other composers, not so much. One would think that a composer would be able to conduct his own piece from the podium in at least a minimally satisfactory manner, but then again,
Mahler even had trouble with some of his own stuff. Das Lied von der Erde is one of the works of Mahler I have greatly neglected, but we will eventually get around to it. About the final movement, Der Abschied, Mahler remarked to Bruno Walter the following (quoted on Wikipedia via program notes from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra):

The last movement is very difficult to conduct because of its cadenza-like writing for voice and solo instruments, which often flows over the barlines. Mahler specifically instructed the movement to be played “Ohne Rücksicht auf das Tempo” (Without regard for the tempo). Bruno Walter related that Mahler showed him the score of this movement and asked, “Do you know how to conduct this? Because I certainly don’t.” Mahler also hesitated to put the piece before the public because of its relentless negativity, unusual even for him. “Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?” he asked.

So, truth be told, composers can have issues with their own works, I suppose, especially if they aren’t really comfortable with conducting. Sibelius seems to have been quite competent, but I’ve read stories and comments about Stravinsky being less than the clearest of conductors.

History aside, one of the greatest double threats, who I was just speaking with my sort-of composition teacher about last night at a concert was Pierre Boulez. We were chatting during the intermission of the second night of a two-part concert series featuring contemporary composers of Eastern and Western descent. In fact, many of the Taiwanese composers of pieces being performed were in attendance, all but one, I believe. In any case, my experience with Boulez as conductor has been mostly with Mahler and Schoenberg, but he is undeniably one of the most important composers of the 20th century, and is still alive. So he definitely makes it into the list of double threats, even if you don’t care much for either his music or his conducting style. There’s this article from Kenneth Woods about the subject which is where I suppose I read about Stravinsky’s conducting technique. It’s worth a mention here because I know of his reputation but nothing of his works that Benjamin Britten would also qualify here, and Mr. Woods mentions him, along with some others.
I primarily know Leonard Bernstein as a conductor of some of the world’s best orchestras, as well as having a large influence in bringing the works of Mahler to a wider audience. He was influential in doing so, although he wasn’t the earliest.
Anyway, I know very little of his works; even West Side Story and stuff I am very unfamiliar with. At best, I know his Overture to Candide and another short little piece or two. Never listened to any of his symphonies, but I am aware that they exist. He tends to be kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from Boulez, at least when it comes to what I know them best for: their Mahler. Boulez, as stated a bajillion times before on the web, is a surgeon of Mahler in precision and clarity of interpretation, almost to a fault, while Bernstein tends to “over-gild the lily.” That quote came from someone who definitely knew what they were talking about in an interview in the Mahler series from Universal Edition. They embody in their interpretations at least some degree, as would be expected, of their own personal touch or thought about music in general. Granted, neither of them compose like Mahler did (I assume Bernstein doesn’t, but again, of what I’ve heard… no), but their interpretations are starkly different. It’s partly because of that that I haven’t been able to crack into either of their oeuvres yet. I’ve listened to Boulez’s Le Marteau and a few others, to very little result so far, and frankly haven’t had much interest in Bernstein’s works. I digress.
They are also two very good examples of composer-conductors. But… ask yourself this question: which would you most like to be known for? Most of my dear readers probably haven’t composed many symphonies, but if you’d spent a few years of your life pouring your thought and emotions in to a work, wouldn’t you want to share it? Wouldn’t you want it to enjoy success? Even cold disinterest would seem to equate to rejection.
There’s no question that Mahler was one of the greatest musical minds of his (or any, perhaps) generation, and his knowledge of balance and orchestral sounds and techniques and textures is borne out in his copious notes in his own scores as to how perform them. He knew exactly what he wanted. Some of the conductors in the above interviews about Mahler talk about this and how it is at once helpful, but also very demanding. But that’s another topic.
Anyway, the question I really have to ask is not, as the title may seem to suggest, a ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ type question, but rather, which one would be most important to you? Which one was most important to Mahler? and the success of which would bring you greater joy or accomplishment? Those are questions personal to everyone. Woods above mentions Hindemith as the consummate musician, and one can argue that a fantastic composer would be able to conduct extremely well, but the reverse could also said to be true. It’s kind of an overused buzzword these days, but perhaps it has to do with ‘passion.’ I don’t know, but Thursday’s piece will also give us something to think about in this regard. Until then…


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