Long ago, the leader of the instrumental ensemble at a court or large church was called the concert master.
Orchestras came later. Nowadays, orchestras still have a concert master.
The public notices this person mostly because he or she is the last member of the orchestra to come on stage. The conductor comes next.
The earliest orchestras had no conductor the way we think of conductors.
Conducting as we know it, was well known by the fairly small choirs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In fact, some choirmasters held a rolled up sheaf of paper in their hand (or in both hands if need be) as they did so.
Usually, though, instead of simply moving their hands, they tapped on something to make an audible sound.
Violinists would lead instrumental ensembles with gestures, and possibly tapping sounds, from their bow. By the beginning of the 1600s, violinists were the leaders, or concert masters, more often than not.
As ensembles got larger and more spread out, hand gestures and tapping with the bow no longer seemed to work. Some leaders even resorted to pounding a large stick on the floor to make a louder sound, although no one really liked the racket it presented to the audience.
Divided responsibility in early orchestras
The orchestra emerged in the last half of the 1600s, or the middle Baroque period. By that time, the practice of basso continuo was well established. So who would lead? The concert master with his violin? Or the keyboard player, who was often the composer of the piece? Or somehow both?
In a treatise of 1752, C.P.E. Bach advocated leading instrumental ensembles from the keyboard.
The following year, his colleague Johann Joachim Quantz wrote a treatise that recommended the violinist as leader, although not necessarily if the keyboard player was a distinguished composer.
Anecdotes abound of violinists and keyboardists trying to wrest control of a performance from each other.
At least in part because of the chaos surrounding the French Revolution, public concert life ceased for more than 20 years in the three major capitals of Europe: Paris, London, and Vienna.
By the time public concert series resumed, the continuo had become obsolete. In most of Europe, therefore, leadership of the orchestra was firmly in the hands of the principal violinist. When the Philharmonic Society of London was formed in 1813, though, they adopted a very strange kind of divided leadership.
Someone known as the “leader” played violin while standing in front of the orchestra, but he only had his own part to read from. Most of the rest of the orchestra stood to play, too. They stood so far apart, that it was difficult for the leader to keep them all together.
The person presiding at the piano had the score. He did not play constantly. His most important leadership role was to play when the ensemble fell apart enough that the leader could not keep them together. Or whenever else it suited his fancy.
Neither the violinist designated leader nor the pianist held that position permanently. Usually a different pair took responsibility for each concert. Individually, therefore, the orchestra consisted of excellent players, but they did not play well together as an ensemble.
Conducting with a baton
Except for the very odd leadership participation of the pianist with the score, the role of the English “leader” was not unusual in the rest of Europe. The principal violin gave time with his bow and had only the first violin part in front of him.
His part had important cues for other parts, and he did not actually play during the performance unless it seemed necessary. The best of these violinist/conductors must have studied the score and prepared the orchestra in rehearsal.
Some conductors chose, at least part of the time, to roll up paper instead of using their bows. Something shorter than the bow would obviously be easier to handle. A few actually adopted a wooden baton before the end of the 1700s. It caught on slowly, and many orchestras resisted it.
Portrait by Franz Adam Schröder, 1850
Louis Spohr claimed to have introduced the baton to the London Philharmonic Society when he was invited to be guest leader in 1820:
So numerous an orchestra, standing so far apart from each other at that of the Philharmonic, could not possibly go exactly together, and in spite of the excellence of the individual members, the ensemble was much worse than we are accustomed to in Germany. I had therefore resolved when my turn came to direct, to make an attempt to remedy this defective system.
Fortunately at the morning rehearsal on the day when I was to conduct the concert, Mr. Ries took the place at the Piano, and he readily assented to give up the score to me and to remain wholly excluded from all participation in the performance.
I then took my stand with the score at a separate music desk in front of the orchestra, drew my conducting baton from my coat pocket, and gave the signal to begin. Quite alarmed at such a novel procedure, some of the directors would have protested against it; but when I besought them to grant me at least one trial, they became pacified.
The symphonies and overtures that were to be rehearsed were well known to me, and in Germany I had already directed at their performance. I therefore could not only give the tempi in a very decisive manner, but indicated also to the wind instruments and horns all their entries, which ensured to them a confidence such as hitherto they had not known there.
I also took the liberty, when the execution did not satisfy me, to stop, and in a very polite but earnest manner to remark upon the manner of execution, which remarks Mr. Ries at my request translated for the orchestra.
Spohr went on to claim that the orchestra played with a spirit and correctness never before heard in London. He further claimed that the orchestra was so pleased with the result of the way he conducted that “no one was seen any more seated at the piano during the performance of symphonies and overtures.”
In fact, the traditional divided leadership in London lasted for several more years before the orchestra finally changed to a permanent conductor with a baton.
Over the next twenty years, though, baton conductors became the norm everywhere. Mostly, they remained violinists, although Felix Mendelssohn, a pianist, notably conducted with a baton.
All that remained to arrive at the orchestral leadership we know today was for orchestra conducting to become known as a separate discipline–and for conductors to become stars and virtuosos in their own right.
Source: an 1865 English translation of Spohr’s Autobiograph, in Music in the Western World: a History in Documents, selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), pp. 345-6. I substituted the word “translated” where the original translator used “interpreted.”
Portrait credit: Speer portrait. Public domain.
Source of conductor’s hands not determined.