It’s safe to say that the best composers usually can handle many different musical tasks. While most were also skilled instrumentalists (see Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, etc.), some found success on the podium as a conductor. Many could handle both composing and conducting duties masterfully (like Mahler and Bernstein), but others probably should have stuck to one or the other. Here’s Ether Game’s list of 8 famous composing conductors (or should we say “conducting composers”?):
- Leonard Bernstein: Beginning in the Romantic era, the public concert hall supplanted both the opera house and church to become the most popular place to hear symphonic music. Professional orchestras became much larger and more elaborate, requiring a more dedicated leader than the first violin to direct the ensemble. Thus, the conductor became the main artistic interpreter of the score. Several conductors achieved a superstar status previously given only to virtuoso musicians. One of these was undoubtedly Leonard Bernstein. Unlike his predecessors, Bernstein did not conduct many operas, gaining fame instead for his interpretation of symphonic works and his own compositions. Bernstein gained fame as the musical director of the New York Philharmonic. He was appointed director in 1957, the same year that his work West Side Story hit Broadway.
- Gustav Mahler: Gustav Mahler’s nine symphonies have made him one of the more famous composers from the turn of the 20th century, but in his day, he was primarily known as a world-class conductor. Mahler held prominent conducting positions in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Hamburg, and New York. He was known as a dynamic conductor, beloved by audiences. There’s even a famous sketch of Mahler displaying his many wild conducting gestures, an image of the quintessential “modern conductor.” His conducting style, however, did ruffle some feathers, namely with the players, singers, stage hands—basically anyone who ever worked under his autocratic and demanding rule. But being in charge had its perks. The composer was able to conduct the premieres of all nine of his symphonies with the top-flight orchestras that he led.
- Richard Strauss: Richard Strauss’s success as a conductor coincided with the rise of radio and recorded sound. He directed many early electrical recordings of large-scale compositions by Austrian and German composers, especially Gluck, Weber and Wagner. Like Bernstein, Strauss’s conducting career was heightened by his own compositions, several of which he premiered and recorded. For many years, his 1929 broadcast of Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks was considered a definitive recording of the tone-poem that he had written thirty years earlier. Unlike Bernstein, who was an emotional and expressive conductor, Strauss gained a reputation for his stoicism at the podium. Some even criticized him of looking down-right bored. His friend and fellow conductor George Szell once commented that when Strauss conducted, he was “waiting for the card game that would come after the performance.”
- George Frideric Handel: The closest parallel to the role of the conductor in the Baroque era was the “Master of the Orchestra.” This appointment was given to Handel by his aristocratic patrons after founding the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. In addition to supplying London with a constant stream of Italian operas, Handel was also responsible for choosing the soloists and musicians for each of his productions, supervising the orchestra, adapting Italian operas for the London stage, and composing new operas. A few years after he was appointed, Handel completed his first set of operas for the Academy as Master of the Orchestra: Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, and Tamerlano.
- Igor Stravinsky: Stravinsky was by all accounts a phenomenal composer. As a conductor, however, most accounts said that he was pretty bad. His gestures were often erratic and unclear. He was self-taught, and it showed. Nevertheless, from about 1928 on, just based on his composing reputation, Stravinsky was given the opportunity to record most of his music as a conductor for Columbia Records. The recordings are all fairly good, which may have more to do with the skill of the studio musicians and the recording engineers rather than Stravinsky’s expertise with a baton.
- Jean-Baptiste Lully: Conducting can be a dangerous job. Just ask Jean-Baptiste Lully. He was Louis XIV’s favorite composer and served on the king’s court of musicians, often leading the ensemble in performances of his own music. It was custom in the 17th century for the orchestral conductor to beat time audibly upon the floor with a large, heavy and very ornate staff. Lully was proudly conducting a performance of his own Te Deum, when he struck himself on the foot with that large conducting staff. While the injury was not fatal, gangrene set in. The king’s own physicians tried to persuade Lully to have the necessary amputation, but Lully was also a skilled dancer. Losing a foot meant ending his dancing career. Unfortunately, the gangrene got so bad, that it ended his life. Lully died on March 22, 1687, from his own conducting accident.
- Wilhelm Furtwängler: Wilhelm Furtwängler was many things: he was one of the most skilled conductors from the 20th century, praised as perhaps the greatest of all time, with an ability to transform an orchestral concert into a spiritual experience. He was also a famed anti-fascist, who bravely stood up to the Adolf Hitler as he took power over Europe in the 1930s and 40s. He was also a composer, but not necessarily a good composer. He was strongly influenced by Beethoven, which made him an excellent interpreter of Beethoven’s symphonies, but perhaps a mediocre imitator of Beethoven’s piano sonatas a century after they were originally composed. Furtwängler originally set out to be a composer. But after his compositions were poorly received, he set his sights on conducting just to make some money. That’s usually what’s called “a wise career move.”
- Henry Mancini: In the world of classical music, composer-conductors abound: Mahler, Bernstein, Stravinsky, Copland, Wagner, Handel, Berlioz, Boulez, Lully, Rachmaninoff, etc., etc. In the world of pop music, however, both composers and conductors usually take a backseat to the performer. Although there are some notable exceptions. Henry Mancini was a composer and conductor who achieved superstar status in the 20th century for his many memorable film and television scores. He started out writing and arranging for Glenn Miller’s Orchestra before moving to Universal Pictures and scoring many monster movies. He achieved more fame with “Moon River,” the Academy-award-winning theme from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, as well as music for The Pink Panther, Peter Gunn, Charade, and The Days Of Wine And Roses. He conducted nearly all of these hits himself.
Copland, Rachmaninoff, Boulez, Berlioz… who else did we miss? Let us know! See the full playlist below. And don’t forget to check out our Follow The Leader Podcast for an extra trivia challenge!