Why are orchestra conductors called maestro?

Head of an orchestra What does a conductor do?

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During the concert, a conductor always has his back to the audience. Only at the end can he turn around. What is he doing there? What do his funny movements mean? Why is the conductor important to the musicians?

By: Markus Vanhoefer, Uta Sailer and Veronika Baum

Status: 02/07/2020

Compared to a violinist or organist, the profession of conductor is still very young. Conductors have only existed for about 150 years.

From the hand signal to the baton

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In 1817, the composer Carl Maria von Weber was the first to always conduct with a baton. Until then, most conductors had sat at the piano and only showed the beat by hand in particularly difficult passages. The thin, small stick was probably invented by the Braunschweig musician Louis Spohr.

As new as the full-time conductor is, his activity, "leading a music group", is as old as making music itself. The monks of the Middle Ages directed their choirs with fixed hand signals. Later in the Baroque era, the time of Bach and Handel, the first orchestral violinist indicated the entries with his violin bow or the harpsichordist with a piano roll. Sometimes there were also large "broom-style" batons that were stamped on the floor. The French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully injured his foot with such a baton. He got blood poisoning from which he died.

Conducting was more of a sideline for a long time. Many composers, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, enjoyed directing the performances of their works themselves. It was only when the orchestras got bigger and bigger and the scores got thicker and more confusing in the 19th century that conducting changed to a task that only a specially trained "expert" could handle. This created a new profession, that of conductor. With the founding of the great symphony orchestras and the invention of radio and records, they became the real superstars of classical music. Full of awe and admiration, she was called "master", in Italian "maestro". That is why the 20th century is also called the "century of the maestri".

The hands are the tool of every conductor. With them he shapes the sound of a choir or orchestra. Every movement means something. That is why the conductor has to be careful not to make any senseless movements, for example picking his nose ... Every single singer or instrumentalist looks at the hands of the conductor and translates what he is doing into his voice or his instrument.

The list of famous conductors is long: there are, for example, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Mariss Jansons, who was head of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for many years. The greatest maestro of all time is the Italian Arturo Toscanini, feared by all orchestras for his outbursts of anger. Toscanini, who also celebrated triumphs in America, was at least as well known and loved in his time as film actors or sports idols are today.