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Conducting in the musical sense means: beating time to help a group of musicians to play well together.
If a large orchestra is playing music, it is important that they all play exactly together. They need to know exactly when to start, what speed to go, how loud or quietly to play and what the mood of the music should be. If two, three or four people play music together they can talk about this amongst themselves and one person can nod with his/her head or with a violin bow or flute to help the group to start and finish together. With an orchestra there are so many people that they need a conductor.
In the 17th century orchestras were very small so they did not need a conductor. But as orchestras grew in size it became more and more necessary to have someone in front to lead. The French composer Lully (1632-1687) used to beat time by banging a big stick (like a walking stick) on the floor to the time of the music. One day he banged his stick very hard and it went through his foot and he became ill and died.
Conducting as we know it had become normal by the 19th century. The composer Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a very good conductor. Some conductors in Victorian times were very conceited and behaved like showmen. The conductor Louis Antoine Jullien (1812-1860) was a French conductor who often came to England. He wore white kid gloves which were presented to him on a silver tray at the start of the concert. He dressed in expensive clothes and his long black hair waved all over the place as he conducted. His success was immense, in France at first, in the UK afterwards and then even in the US where he worked with the showman P.T. Barnum. His concerts were a mix of dance and "classical" music, always with the best musicians. his life is so peculiar that a biography (in French) has been published (see http://louisjullien.site.voila.fr). The conductor Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944), who was famous for conducting The Proms was a well-liked man who was respected and loved by orchestras and audiences.
Technique of conducting
Conductors usually beat time with their right hand. This leaves their left hand free to show the various instruments when they have entries (when they start playing) or to show them to play louder or softer. Most conductors have a stick called a “baton”. It makes it easier for people at the back of large orchestras or choirs to see the beat. Other conductors prefer not to use a baton. A conductor stands on a small platform called a “rostrum”.
To be a good conductor is not easy. It is not just a question of giving a steady beat. A good conductor has to know the music extremely well so that they can hear any wrong notes. They need to be able to imagine exactly the sound they want the orchestra to make. They also have to communicate this to the orchestra so that they know what the conductor wants. Some conductors speak very little during their rehearsals. They make everything clear through the way they conduct.
Some of the most famous conductors of the past were: Gustav Mahler, Hans Richter, Arthur Nikisch, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski, Georg Solti, John Barbirolli, Otto Klemperer, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein.
The main conductor who is in charge of an orchestra is often given the title "musical director". This will usually mean that he has a lot of power in the organization of the orchestra. Orchestras may give honorary titles to their conductor such as "conductor laureate". A "guest conductor" is one who conducts an orchestra regularly but is not the main conductor. An "assistant conductor" will often be a young conductor who helps the main conductor and gets the chance to conduct some of the concerts.