The conductor, as a central element in classical music, is a phenomenon not much older than the saxophone, although considerably more respected. His role developed as the increasing complexity and, even more, the growth in sheer size of the performing forces made it necessary for someone to stand out in front and try to hold it all together.

There was, of course, someone designated to beat time before the Romantic era put the conductor at the center of attention, but this was a humble task, often performed from the keyboard or the position of first violin. Another practice is indicated by the circumstances of Lully's death in 1687 from an injury sustained while conducting one of his religious compositions. While tapping out the beat audibly, hitting the floor with a staff, he struck his foot and later contracted a fatal infection.

From such obscure and perilous origins, the position of the conductor has risen in the last century to one of almost absolute power, glory, affluence and longevity. Top conductors today earn much more from classical music than composers -- which may be one reason why so many composers have taken up conducting as a sideline.

Of the three books related to the art of conducting under review, Bernard Jacobson's is the most useful for a general reader interested primarily in music and its interpretation. Having carefully chosen eight conductors who are as articulate with words as with the baton, he engages each of them in dialogues on the special challenges presented by a composer with whom he is particularly identified: Sir Adrian Boult, for example, on Elgar; Nikolaus Harnoncourt on Bach; Colin Davis on Berlioz and Carlo Maria Giulini on Brahms, to name only half of them.

In its survey of the minutiae that are a conductor's responsibilty (sometimes devoting a paragraph or more to a few bars or a single bridge passage) "Conductors on Conducting" gives a lucid picture of what is happening in the mind behind the baton as well as the special qualities of various composers. There are also interesting personal glimpses, such as Sir Adrian's confession that he feels "ashamed" about using different tempos for the first and second subjects in the opening movement of Schubert's Ninth, and Bernard Haitink's admission that he doesn't like such composers as Borodin and De Falla.

The Stokowski profile devotes less concentrated attention to the nuts-and-bolts of music-making, though this too has its place in the story. Stokowski was one of history's most flamboyant and controversial conductors but also one uncommonly dedicated to the promotion of good but neglected music and to sheer excellence in orchestral playing. His life, with its many marriages, its tempestuous scenes with orchestras and boards of directors, its carefully cultivated aura of mystery (including a spurious accent and conflicting accounts of his origins and even his place of birth) would make interesting reading even for the tone-deaf.

Stokowski was a showman who needed only a podium and an orchestra to give a performance with all the dramatic impact of a staged opera, but he was also a craftsman, intensely dedicated to the art of sound, innovative in such areas as the placement of players within the orchestra and the bowling of the stringed instruments. He was a pioneer in the recording of classical orchestral music, in the use of stereophonic sound and in the championing of such out-of-favor composers as Ives and Mahler.

His life is an easy one to chronicle in terms of the abundance and intrinsic interest of the material, but difficult to organize into a coherent presentation that does justice to all his facets. Abram Chasins has probably not produced the definitive study, but he has made an intriguing and readable exploration of the subject.

Philip Hart is clearly in close touch with the ups and downs of the musical reputation market, and he has selected eight conductors whose stocks are (rightly or not) on the upswing: Daniel Barenboim, Andrew Davis, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart and James Levine. He treats them (necessarily) in less lavish detail than Chasins does Stokowski -- though, in all fairness, there is at this point a lot less to be said about any of them -- and he spends less time than Jacobson in discussing music as such, but he provides, in general, well-rounded profiles of a rather mixed bag of musical personalities.