A Day in the Life

This week I have been preparing three scores that I have to conduct for an audition next week. So, after all that Wagner-ing (see previous five-part blog entitled Big Bad Wagner), I thought I would switch it up some. I want to give you an idea of how a conductor prepares to flap about in front of an orchestra.

Starting Out

I have three scores to learn. And unusually, I had never heard a single note of any of them before I sat down to study this week. (Well, that’s not entirely true, I knew the main tune of Berlioz’ Hungarian March.) But Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 and Verdi’s Nabucco overture were completely unfamiliar to me.  So here’s what I did.

First, I retrieved the scores from my bookshelf (I have invested lots of time and money into building a solid library of scores and literature on music.) I then sat down at the piano and slowly worked my way through each one, just to get a rough idea of the basic musical content (i.e. the main themes and the general form/structure.) I then moved to my desk and started to do some general research on each piece. Here’s what I learned. (By the way, I was talking to a good mate the other day and he said that he enjoyed the image of me excitedly flipping through books strewn across my desk like a frenzied music detective. I said to him that when I was in that mode it sometimes made me feel like Hermione Granger from Harry Potter running off to the library. We then realized how spectacularly uncool the entire exchange made us…)

Hector Berlioz - the fiery Frenchman

Berlioz’ march is an extract from a rarely performed large-scale work calledThe Damnation of Faust. The truth is, knowing this does little to effect the approach to the music because the style is quite self-evident from the score. This is far from always being the case, by the way. But it is just so fantastically bombastic that the music kind of plays itself to an extent. Some pieces – like a Beethoven or Mahler symphony – cause a lot of hand-wringing over artistic choices, but this piece is not so serious.



Giuseppe Verdi - Italian for 'Joe Green'

Verdi’s Nabucco is about the exile of the ancient Hebrews in Babylon. As I work my way through the overture I am relieved to discover that Verdi includes the most famous excerpt from the opera (the chorus Và, pensiero.) I already know this very well because I have conducted it several times before. The other musical material was unfamiliar to me and so I pulled out my book of opera synopses and discovered what it was; the main theme is actually drawn from a scene in the opera where the Chorus of Hebrews curse one of their own after an act of betrayal. When I discovered this, it made a lot of sense. The nature of the music is quite aggressive and brusque and I suddenly gained a new perspective on how to approach it – it should be performed very drily, with little resonance allowed on the instruments; this will give it a feeling like a tightly wound coil ready to spring.

The second half of the overture is like an increasingly excited party. It is clear that the great Italian opera composer Rossini was a big influence on Verdi. The phrases are pithy and short, with a repeated rhythm that recalls Rossini’s famed William Tell overture. There is also evidence of Rossini’s patented technique for building climaxes: he starts with few instruments playing softly, then adds some more instruments without increasing the dynamic (volume). He then adds even more instruments and starts an incremental crescendo until the whole big lot of them are bashing and sawing away with unrestrained glee. Musicians love playing loudly (mainly cause it’s miles easier than playing softly, which demands a lot of control.)

'Papa' Haydn - because he invented the Classical symphony

The Haydn symphony is very innocuous. As I played through it the first time, I was reminded that Haydn is actually a whole generation older than Mozart, and two generations older than Beethoven. This is significant because Haydn’s style – at least in the present work – is less ‘Classical’ (referring specifically to the period in the late 18th Century) and more what we call ‘Galant’ (pronounced ga-LAHNT). The Galant style, which predominated in the middle half of the 18th Century, was a reaction to the complexity of Baroque music. The Galant favored symmetry, short phrases, song or dance-like melodies, and simple harmonies.

I may get shouted down as a heretic for what I am about to say (especially by one of my former professors) but I don’t really dig a lot of Haydn. I like some of his string quartets, and I can fully appreciate that he pioneered several genres and forms that were invaluable to the evolution of Mozart and Beethoven. But I just don’t get that excited about his music if I'm honest.

With that said, it is my job to be a passionate advocate for Haydn when I stand on the podium. I must embody his creative spirit. And so I ask, what was Haydn trying to say here? Well, one of the big clues to the second movement – which is the key to the whole work – is the instrumentation: Haydn imports into the symphony a barrage of instruments that, until this time, had only ever appeared in operas for a special effect. I am talking about the percussion section. Nowadays, we have a veritable battery of percussion instruments, from the Anvil and Bell Tree to the Wood Block and Xylophone. But in Haydn’s day, using anything other than timpani (the big kettle drums that can be tuned to have a definite pitch) was quite revolutionary. So he was obviously making a statement. My guess is that he was seeking to impress the London audiences. (Haydn had been invited to give a series of concerts in London by a respected entrepreneur, and so he wanted to give them a good show. And boy did the English love it. They went nuts for this symphony, with this second movement being frequently encored.) So Haydn clearly knew what he was doing.

This all means that when I get up to conduct it, I must enjoy the fact that the main musical material is straightforward by design; Haydn is lulling the audience into complacency so as to give them a big surprise when the military music enters with all that percussion. It is part of Haydn’s sense of humor to manipulate the audience this way. So I have to laugh along with his joke, so to speak.

Next time we will look at how and why a conductor marks the score. 

Kirsten Hicks