Tim Page is a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his writings about music for The Washington Post.
Most books on conducting fall into one of two camps. There are the collections of popular anecdotes — Arturo Toscanini’s tantrums, Leonard Bernstein’s orgiastic wriggles and dances on the podium, Fritz Reiner’s and Pierre Boulez’s bland seriousness in summoning thrilling performances from their ensembles. And then there are the practical guides, chock-a-block with musical excerpts, baton techniques and methods of counting time — all valuable to musicians, of course, but somewhat forbidding to the general audience.
And now Mark Wigglesworth, a British conductor who has led orchestras across much of the world, has come up with something unusual: a deft, sensible book of meditations on the craft of conducting, written with grace and humor, unfailingly light in spirit but sometimes profound in its utterance. “The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters” may be read straight through or picked up and put down at leisure, always with profit. It calls to mind a spirited bar conversation with a new friend, somebody you’ve asked to tell you about this most mysterious of musical professions and how it works.
There are many ways to lead an orchestra, but whatever method you assume — that of a mystical shaman, a sports coach, a traffic cop or some combination of them all — Wigglesworth insists that all conductors need one essential ingredient: confidence. Without that, he writes, “you are like a bird without feathers. As Adlai Stevenson said, ‘It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.’ ”
The days of the podium tyrant who could terrorize and fire musicians on the spot are long gone, and Wigglesworth is grateful that times have changed. “Authority functions through respect and persuades others to respond voluntarily, simply through personal influence,” he writes. By the time conductors have to ask musicians to watch or listen to them, “it is normally too late to have any effect.” The rapping on the stand to call players to attention is long outmoded. “In as creative and human a field as music, it is authority — not power — that is more successful in creating a genuine performance of quality,” Wigglesworth writes. “In the long run, even if it looks less impressive, control without oppression accomplishes far more.”
The book is full of such observations. How refreshing to find such a blatantly pragmatic explanation of why a conductor may settle on one speed or another: “Some orchestras can play the Overture to Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ with such dexterity and finesse that a fast tempo sounds like a glass of champagne. Less good orchestras might make the same tempo sound like six glasses of champagne. . . . An intention based on a very valid opinion made in the vacuum of your own study has to be connected to the reality of what it sounds like. It is what you hear, not what you want to hear, that determines whether your choice is right or not.”
Wigglesworth compares the learning of a new score to the reading of a complicated novel: It may be the plot that brings you in, but the details will keep your attention. “Slowly you begin to pick up more of the characterization,” he writes. “You start to hear adjectives within the melodies, feel the adverbs of the rhythm and, each time you go through it, extra layers are revealed. The more you hear in the score, the more the audience will hear too, and the better you know the piece, the easier it is to imagine its meaning.”
He takes into account the reason such composers as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler feel “very present” as individuals within their music. “Their ego is a public one that rings out loud and clear. The private lives of Mozart, Brahms, or Ravel, on the other hand, are less relevant to their musical expression, and there are composers whose lives give no clues whatsoever as to what their music means.”
Example? “I have yet to discover anything personal about Bach that got me closer to his compositions.”
In short, Wigglesworth has given us a volume that can be read with pleasure by anybody with an interest in concert music. One final aphorism, taken almost at random from a book that is full of them: “Music should feel free but it also has to sound intentional.” Yes.
By Mark Wigglesworth
250 pp. $25