Theirs and No One Else’s

The origin of conductors’ music is usually attributed to Beethoven. In her interview, Tár rightly cites the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808) as a locus classicus in the history of modern conducting. The rhythm and rhetorical emphasis of its famous motif is not impossible for an orchestra to play without a conductor, but it’s far more effective with one. And then, as Wagner points out, there’s the question of the fermatas (pauses) – someone has to decide what Beethoven wants.

Like many of his contemporaries, Wagner thought of music history as teleological. Haydn and Mozart were innocent geniuses; it was the music of Beethoven, and, above all, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that blasted open a path to the future where Wagner himself stood. Composed between 1822 and 1824 and first performed in Vienna in 1824, Beethoven’s Ninth shattered existing paradigms of symphonic form, challenging notions of what the nature of music might be. From the outset it was seen as a limit case, and it took decades for European musical culture to digest it. The response of composers was either to regroup and retrench (Mendelssohn, Schumann) or to attempt to strike out into the uncharted territory the symphony gestured towards (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner). For orchestral players, it forced a fundamental revision of technique and performance practice.