Quotes from Composers and Conductors


The Conductor’s Art edited by Carl Bamberger
illustrated by B.F. Dolbin
Columbia University Press, 1965

from pg. 27-28

While not requiring particularly outstanding musical qualities, the art of beating time is nevertheless rather difficult to learn; very few people really possess it. The signs which the conductor makes are generally very simple, but they may occasionally become quite complicated by the divisions and subdivisions of the meter. The conductor must above all have a clear idea of the main features and the character of the work to be performed so that he can determine without hesitation and error the tempi planned by the composer. Unless he had the opportunity of receiving instructions directly from the composer or is familiar with the traditional tempi, he must consult the metronomic indications and study them thoroughly. Most modern composers mark compositions at the beginning and whenever there is a change of tempo. I do not mean to say by this that it is necessary to imitate the mathematical regularity of the metronome, which would give the music thus executed an icy frigidity; I even doubt whether it would be possible to maintain this rigid uniformity for more than a few bars. The metronome is nevertheless an excellent medium for determining the initial tempo of a piece and its main alterations.

If the conductor has neither the instructions of the composer nor traditional or metronomic tempo indications-as is frequently the case with the works written before the invention of the of the metronome-he has no other guide then the customary, very vague tempo markings; for the rest he must rely on his own instinct and his feeling for the composer’s style. To be sure, it cannot be denied that these guides are frequently insufficient or misleading. This is proved by the manner in which older operas are given in towns where the tradition for these works has been lost. Out of ten different tempi at least four will be wrong. I once heard a chorus from Iphigene en Tauride performed in a German theater; instead of Allegro non troppo in 4/4 time it was played in 2/2 time, i.e. twice as fast. I could quote an immense number of similar mistakes caused either by the ignorance and negligence of the conductor, or by the fact that sometimes it is really very difficult even for the most talented and careful man to discover the exact meaning of the Italian tempo marks. Of course, nobody will fail to distinguish a Largo from a Presto. If the Presto has two beats to a bar, an intelligent conductor , by examining the passages and the melodic designs contained in the piece, will soon find the degree of speed intended by the author. But with a Largo in 4/4 time and of simple melodic design, what means has the unfortunate conductor of discovering the correct tempo? The different degrees of slow movements that may be used for such a Largo are very numerous; only the individual feeling of the conductor can be the guide in such a case, although what matters most is the composer’s rather than the conductor’s feelings. Therefore, composers ought not to neglect furnishing their works with the metronomic indications, and it is the conductor’s duty to study them closely. To neglect this study is equal to an act of dishonesty toward the composer.


Conversations with Nadia Boulanger
Carcanet Press 1985

pg. 95

One mistake that should never be made is tampering with the tempo. What gives a piece of music its unity, its essential character, its dominant character? It is the underlying pulse, which must be respected even when other liberties are taken and one uses ‘rubato’. The rubato of a really serious musician doesn’t break the unity of the beat. Take a record of Toscanini, put on your metronome and you will see that everything is in marvelous accord. Liberty can only exist within the scope of a regular, severe, immutable pulse.


At the Piano with Debussy by Marguerite Long
J.M.Dent & Sons LTD.
Edited by Professor Pierre Laumonier
Translated by Olive Senior-Elllis

from pg.13

Debussy has left us all indications possible for the execution of his work. He regarded this with the utmost care, and at the same time was almost fierce about it. I often heard him tell-some what angrily-this story. A pianist once came to play one of his masterpieces. He stopped at a certain passage and said: “Master, according to me this should be ‘free’.” Recalling this, Debussy would say: “There are some who write music, some who edit it, and there is the gentleman who does what he pleases.” I asked him what he said at the time. Scornfully he remarked: “Oh nothing. I looked at the carpet, but he will never tread it again.”

Ravel who was also always concerned about his own intentions, often made me recount this tale. It illustrates the same intransigent attitude that, when Debussy was offered as artist of genius to sing the part of Melisande, made him reply: “A faithful interpreter is sufficient.”

from pg. 45

How often he said, “To the metronome: to the metronome!”


observations by Bruno Walter
The Conductor’s Art edited by Carl Bamberger
illustrated by B.F. Dolbin
Columbia University Press, 1965

from pg. 191-192

And that is the reason why none of his performances ever sounded hackneyed- every one of them, even the thirtieth repetition of the same work, took place “for the first time.” It goes without saying that at the bottom of his apparently uncontrolled and impetuous production of music there was an inexorable exactness. He rendered strict obedience to the musical score, to the value of its notes, and to its directions concerning time, delivery, and dynamics, and demanded of all his co-workers. He asked for and instrumental correctness from his singers and was never satisfied until the last measure of precision had been achieved by all. His insistence upon absolute musical clearness was commensurate with the clearness of his conducting and the exemplary beat of his baton, the distinctness of which was not impaired by even the most violent emotion. In the numerous performances under his guidance witnessed by me I may have noticed a mistake, now and then, on the part of the singer or a musician, but never a lack of precision or an inaccuracy in the ensemble, for the unfailing accuracy of his beat always knew how to keep stage and orchestra in perfect accord with each other. At the same time, he never gave the impression of machine-like precision, and I cannot recall that his exactitude was ever particularly mentioned either by his audiences or by the critics. The reason for this was that his precision was to him but a means to an end, and this end was-soulfulness. Without a sacred sense of order, leading almost to pedantry, the gifts of genius were to him but an empty sound mean nothing. When, however, he had succeeded, by his persist demands upon singers and musicians, in achieving absolute distinctness and precision, the soul was permitted spread its wings freely upon this secure foundation, and thus his performances produced the effect of spontaneous improvisation.


observations by Hans von Bulow
Mendelssohn and His World edited by R. Larry Todd
Princeton Paperbacks, ?

from pg. 132

If one wants to play Mendelssohn correctly, one should first play Mozart for example. Above all, one should renounce all Empfindsamkeit of conception, despite the temptations that are provided by certain frequently recurring melismas peculiar to Mendelssohn. One should try, for example, to play passages of this apparent character simply and naturally in rhythm, with a beautiful and regular attack, and one will surely find that they will sound in this fashion, much nobler and more graceful then in a passionately excited rubato. The master was committed, above all to the strict observance of meter. He categorically denied himself every ritardando that was not prescribed and wanted to see the prescribed ritards restricted to their least possible extent. He despised, furthermore, all arbitrary arpeggiations. In Op. 14, there was not a singular arpeggio mark despite the “brilliant” style. He permitted the use of the pedal only for certain tonal effects. What subtle caution that was exercised in this matter can be gleaned from his specifications of the appropriate symbols throughout. Finally, he also protested against that “thrilling” haste against the rushing and forcing of his pieces by players who believed that the best way they could meet the charge of “sentimental” interpretations was through this kind of speeded up, summary behavior. Here we must nevertheless observe that his most frequent comments while teaching were-“lively, briskly, keep going…” and that the tempi of his pieces are usually taken much too slowly by today’s conductors.


At the Piano with Ravel by Marguerite Long
J.M.Dent & Sons LTD.
Edited by Professor Pierre Laumonier
Translated by Olive Senior-Elllis

from pg.16

“I do not ask for my music to be interpreted, but only for it to be played.”
Maurice Ravel

from pg.18

Ravel’s disapproval of the tempo adopted by Toscannini in his Bolero created as incident long remembered. It has often been misrepresented and so I feel impelled to give a detailed account.

One night at a concert given in the Opera House, Toscannini had taken one movement too fast for the composer who had expressly indicated, ne pas presser. The piece was triumphantly successful. Ravel was soon located in the stalls by the audience and by the performers, who applauded vigorously. But Ravel remained seated , as if oblivious of what was happening. It was his custom , even when he was in a conspicuous position where he could be seen by everyone, never to stand up, never to bow, but to remain impervious to prolonged applause.

When the concert was over he went into the wings to see Toscannini. The latter, delighted, came toward Ravel, who advanced slowly and reluctantly. Without any consideration for the feelings of a man who was susceptible to the least criticism, he said: “That’s not my tempo.”

With equal coolness Toscannini replied: “When I play your tempo the piece is ineffective.”

“Then don’t play it!”

What a stinging response! Some of his friends naturally suggested that Ravel had not responded to the acclamation of the public so as to show his disapproval of Toscannini’s interpretation. The latter never played the Bolero again, so it was Ravel who was the sufferer from this disagreement.


The Conductor’s Art edited by Carl Bamberger
illustrated by B.F. Dolbin
Columbia University Press, 1965

from pg. 117-118
Ten Golden Rules
For the Album of a Young Conductor

  1. Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself but to delight the audience.
  2. You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.
  3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy Music.
  4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a short glance to give an important cue.
  5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight: if you can hear them at all they are still too strong.
  6. If you think that the brass is not blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
  7. It is not enough that you yourself should hear every word the soloist sings-you know it by heart anyway: the audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words, they will go to sleep.
  8. Always accompany a singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.
  9. When you think you have reached the limits of presstissmo, double the pace.
  10. If you follow these rules carefully you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.

from pg. 119-120
On Conducting Classical Masterpieces

It is decisive for the technique of conducting that the shorter the movements of the arm, and the more confined to the wrist, then the more precise is the execution. If the arm is allowed to be involved in conducting; which results in a kind of lever-action the effects of which are incalculable-the orchestra is apt to be paralyzed and misdirected, unless it is determined from the start (and this is frequently the case with the conductors whose down-beat is imprecise) to play according to its own judgment, in tacit agreement, as it were, without paying too much attention to the antics of the conductor.

The left hand has nothing to do with conducting. Its proper place is the waistcoat pocket from which it should only emerge to restrain or make some minor gesture for which in any case a scarcely perceptible glance will suffice. It is better to conduct with the ear instead of with the arm: the rest follows automatically.

In 50 years of practice, I have discovered how unimportant it is to mark every crotchet or quaver. What is decisive is that the upbeat which contains the whole of the tempo which follows should be rhythmically exact and that the down-beat should be extremely precise.

from pg. 121

We have no authentic metronome figures for the works of our classical masters. (* N. B. This is incorrect – especially in the case of Beethoven!!!!!)


The Conductor’s Art edited by Carl Bamberger
illustrated by B.F. Dolbin
Columbia University Press, 1965

from pg. 311-312

As to conductors’ inspiration…and to “creative activity in performance”… That is a principle which inevitably leads to the baroque and untrue. It is precisely the path that lead music to the baroque and untrue at the end of the last century and in the first years of this, when singers made bold to “create” (as the French still say) their parts, and in consequence made a complete hash and contradiction of sense out of them. No: I want only one single creator, and I shall be quite satisfied if they perform simply and exactly what he has written. I often read in the papers about effects that the composer never could of thought of; but for my part, I have never found such a thing. I understand everything you say about Mariani; we are all agreed on his merit. But it is not a question of a single person, were he ever so eminent, it is a question of art itself. I deny that either singers or conductors can “create,” or work creatively- this, as I have always said, is a conception that leads to the abyss…. Shall I give you an example? You spoke to me recently in praise of an effect that Mariani achieved in the Overture to La Forza del Destino by having the brass enter fortissimo on G. Now then, I disapprove of this effect. These brasses, intended to be mezza voce, could not express anything but the Friar’s song. Mariani’s fortissmo completely changes the character of the passage, and turns it into a warlike fanfare. It has nothing to do with the subject of the drama, in which all warlike matters are mere episodes. And there we are again on the path to the baroque and untrue.

A mediocre Aida! A soprano singing Amneris! And on top of all that, a conductor who dares to change the tempi!!!…I hardly think we need to have conductors and singers discover new effects; and for my part I vow that no one has ever, ever, ever even succeeded in bringing out all the effects that I intended…No one!! Never, never….Neither singers nor conductors!!

…But now it is the style to applaud conductors too, and I deplore it not only in the interest of the few whom I admire, but still more because I see that the bad habits of one theater spread to others, without ever stopping. Once we had to bear the tyranny of the prima donnas; now comes that of the conductors as well!