Before the Baton

How was large-scale music directed or conducted in Britain before baton conducting took hold in the 1830s? Peter Holman writes of his research into music direction in eighteenth-century England and dispels some prevalent myths found in the history of conducting, from Corinth in 709 BC onwards.

As it often happens, a large research project starts with a single chance discovery. In 2006 I was reading newspapers from 1788 (I was looking for articles on the painter Thomas Gainsborough in the wake of his death in August that year) when I chanced upon an item berating the composer Stephen Storace for trying to beat time in the wings of the Drury Lane Theatre during the first performance of his opera The Doctor and the Apothecary; he was sternly informed that he should have been at the harpsichord. Intrigued, I began to look for more evidence of the ways that music was directed in eighteenth-century England. One thing led to another, and the result is Before the Baton: Musical Direction and Conducting in Stuart and Georgian Britain (Boydell Press, 2020).

While working on the book, I quickly became aware that the early history of conducting has received remarkably little scholarly attention. Writers on the subject have mostly had other things on their minds. They tend to divide into those writing practical treatises on conducting who feel the need to provide a little – usually highly inaccurate – historical background, and those writing histories of the orchestra for whom conducting is only of peripheral interest. The best general treatment of the history of conducting, Georg Schünemann’s Geschichte des Dirigierens, was published as long ago as 1913.

The ‘facts’ that crop up time and time again in histories of conducting are either completely false or are highly misleading. A good example, still taken at face value by some recent writers, is the account of a performance by 800 musicians during the Olympic games at Corinth in 709 BC. The 800, playing instruments of all types, were supposedly conducted by Pherekydes of Patrae, the ‘giver of the rhythm’, ‘placed on a high seat, waving a golden staff’. Needless to say, the source of this information, an article published in 1824 by the journalist and publisher Adolf Bernhard Marx, is an elaborate hoax in the form of a pseudo-scholarly article reporting on the discovery of ancient metal scrolls, with an edition of their supposed contents. Marx clearly devised it to show that the symphony orchestra of his time and its baton conductor had been prefigured in ancient Greece. Mark Evan Bonds was the first person to rumble the hoax and identify the culprit; he wrote in 2006 in his book Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven, that it exemplifies ‘the inclination of early nineteenth-century Germans to identify themselves with the ancient Greeks’; it ‘played a key role in the formation of their national identity’ (p. 96).

The most famous or notorious episode in the history of conducting is the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully. The received version is that he became infected with gangrene after hitting his foot while beating time with a stick on the floor during a performance of his Te Deum in 1687. However, the source, an anecdote printed by the French aristocrat and writer Jean-Laurent Le Cerf de la Viéville nearly 20 years after the event, has been partially misunderstood. There is no doubt that Lully died from a self-inflicted wound on his foot, though Le Cerf de la Viéville does not actually say that he hit it during a performance. The context seems to be a rehearsal in which Lully, perhaps dissatisfied with the way things were going, snatched up his canne – his ordinary walking stick – to galvanise his performers into singing and playing in time. Like his counterparts all over Europe, Lully would have used a roll of paper to beat time in performance; he is pictured holding one in several portraits and it was common for composers to be depicted holding them, often with the roll slightly unfurled to reveal some handwritten music, to signify their dual roles as composers and leaders of ensembles.

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) Jean Louis Roullet, Yale University Art Gallery.

While large-scale choral and orchestral music was directed all over Europe by men wielding rolls of paper, much of my book is concerned with how direction was managed while those in charge were also playing an instrument; it was much easier for singers to direct groups since they could use one hand to hold the music and the other to beat time. However, Italian Baroque opera was nearly always directed from the keyboard by the maestro al cembalo. The oil painting of The Teatro Regio in Turin show that the maestro sat at a harpsichord on the extreme left-hand side of the pit (stage right from the perspective of those on stage) with a team of bass players grouped around him reading the music over his shoulder. The second continuo team was placed at the other end of the pit grouped around a second harpsichord. The upper strings and treble wind instruments were in rows between the two groups, with the first violins facing the stage so that they could easily double and accompany the singers. The bass players were divided into two groups partly so that the double-bass players did not obscure the stage and partly so that the singers could hear the continuo part anywhere on the stage.

The Teatro Regio in Turin, oil on canvas, Pietro Domenico Olivero.

The implications of arrangement for the way Handel and his contemporaries directed their operas are obvious and profound. As the Turin picture shows, eighteenth-century orchestral pits were not sunken as in modern opera houses (that only caught on following Wagner’s example at Bayreuth), so everyone in the orchestra could easily see the stage and the singers and could make a contribution to what would effectively have been a collective interpretation. The maestro led the performance by playing the all-important continuo rather than trying to exert his authority in performance by conducting, and with his harpsichord placed against the stage he had good communication with the singers.

Around 1750 the orchestral leader (first violin), who was traditionally placed next to the first continuo group on a high seat (so that everyone could see his bow), began to usurp the authority of the maestro al cembalo. For instance, Susan Burney (Charles Burney’s third daughter) described rehearsals in the 1770s of the Italian opera company at the Haymarket Theatre in London during which the leader, Wilhelm Cramer, was clearly in control even though the composer or arranger of the opera was present at the harpsichord. However, in the early nineteenth century the pendulum swung back to the keyboard as charismatic composers such as Rossini and Weber came to London and directed their operas from the piano. Things changed again in the early 1830s when Michael Costa, the young maestro al cembalo at the Haymarket Theatre, inspired by Hippolyte Chélard’s conducting of a visiting German opera company, made the short but momentous journey from the keyboard to the conductor’s rostrum. Modern-type baton conducting had developed in France in the late eighteenth century but took a long time to be accepted in England and in the hidebound world of Italian opera.

Much of Before the Baton is concerned with how Handel and his successors directed oratorios. When he performed a revised and enlarged version of Esther in 1732 in the Haymarket Theatre (oratorios were not generally performed in churches until the nineteenth century) he was effectively creating a new genre, part opera with recitatives and arias and part large-scale choral music; the 1732 Esther incorporated two of the famous anthems he had written for George II’s coronation in 1727. So he had a dilemma: whether to lead the continuo team or beat time, a dilemma it took him about eight years to resolve; he seems initially to have relied on beating time, employing others to play harpsichord and organ, though in 1735 he acquired a new large organ so that he could entertain his audiences with organ concertos between the acts of oratorios – which would have involved commuting between the rostrum and the organ’s keyboard. A related problem was where to place the organ: in the middle of the performing area would have taken up too much valuable space and obscured sight-lines, but placing it at the back would have given him little or no contact with his soloists and choir (always placed in front of the orchestra at the time) and his orchestra.

The solution Handel eventually came up with, inspired it seems by the example of the organ at Vauxhall Gardens, was to commission an organ with a contraption of trackers connected to a harpsichord in the middle of the performing area. This ‘long movement’, as it came to be called, allowed him to play the recitatives and arias of oratorios on the harpsichord but to switch to the organ to accompany the choruses. We don’t know much about the organs Handel used in his oratorios, but to judge from the ones used by his successors they were substantial instruments, loud enough to be heard by the singers at the front of the performing areas. There is considerable evidence that Handel and his successors did not play continuo in the choruses of oratorios but supported the singers and kept them in time by playing a reduction of the choral lines. Handel seems to have tried out his new system during his season in Dublin in 1740-1, and to have used it in his later oratorio seasons in London. It was used by his successors in the London Lenten oratorio seasons, and by Joah Bates for the great Handel Commemorations in Westminster Abbey in the 1780s, when Bates directed up to about 1000 performers from the harpsichord-organ. It was generally used for oratorios and large-scale choral concerts until the 1830s, when it was replaced by modern-type baton conducting, with Michael Costa again as a decisive agent of change.

1784 Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey, Special Collections of University of Southampton.

In the last chapter of my book, I discuss the implications of all this for the way we direct seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music today. In my opinion the practice of directing early music groups using modern baton technique is not just anachronistic and unnecessary – particularly when the group is made up of highly-skilled professionals – but it also makes it difficult to achieve the collective and collaborative mode of performance that was the norm until the development of baton conducting in the nineteenth century. Time-beating in the eighteenth century was simple and functional, designed to achieve the maximum precision of ensemble while exercising the minimum of control. By all accounts, Handel was abnormally demanding for an eighteenth-century musical director, though he exercised control in rehearsal rather than in performance; although he would have used time-beating in large-scale choral works (such as his coronation anthems), he preferred to play rather than beat time in oratorio as well as opera. I hope that if my book achieves anything, it will be to make the spectacle of the virtuoso baton-wielding early music maestro seem faintly ludicrous.


This guest blog is written by Peter Holman, Emeritus Professor of Historical Musicology at Leeds University. Before the Baton: Musical Direction and Conducting in Stuart and Georgian Britain will be published by Boydell Press in February 2020.

Before the Baton: Musical Direction and Conducting in Stuart and Georgian Britain
by Peter Holman
Hardback, 9781783274567, £32.50 or $58.50