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Five things you didn’t know about conductors

8 October 2019

When you think of a conductor what springs to mind; arms waving wildly, a sweaty, suited ‘n’ booted, old man? Where did they come from? What are they used for? Why are they almost always men? Well, ponder no more as the WNO team are here to help. Conductors are vital to keep everyone in the orchestra playing in time and, most importantly, so that they all start at the same time. Below we’ve gathered some weird and wonderful facts to impress your friends with.

1. The first known recorded history of a conductor is Pherekydes of Patrae, known in ancient Greece as the ‘Giver of Rhythm’. A report from 709 BC describes him leading a group of 800 musicians by beating a golden staff.

2.In the 16th to 18th centuries conductors used large six-foot-long wooden staffs to pound on the ground to keep time. This was very effective because the musicians could hear it, but then the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully unfortunately pounded his foot instead of the floor developed gangrene and died. Thus the less dangerous baton came into popular use.

3. Renowned conductor Leonard Bernstein was known to not even need a baton; conducting using only his hands to produce fantastic results from the orchestra.

4. Russian composer and conductor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky suffered from hypochondria. He had an extreme fear that if he didn’t hold on to his chin while conducting his head might fall off! He also refused to drink anything not bottled out of fear of catching a disease. Ironically, in 1893 he was diagnosed with cholera and died one day later.

5. The great 20th century conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler famously – and very publicly – walked out of a concert given by fellow maestro Arturo Toscanini proclaiming: ‘That man is just a time-beater!’

From the golden staff to a wooden pole, the baton has developed over time and so have our conductors. They are not always men as our new Female Conductor in Residence, Tianyi Lu, shows. Also check out Harry Ogg, our other Conductor in Residence, they will both be conducting operas in our Spring 2020 Season. If you want to catch a maestro in action, our very own Music Director Tomáš Hanus is conducting Carmen and The Cunning Little Vixen this Season and will also conduct WNO Orchestra at the International Concert Series at St Davids Hall on 27 October 2019 and 26 April 2020 – not to be missed!