I got a t-shirt for my birthday a couple of years ago that says MAESTRO on it in a sort of Broadway playbill style font.  I think it’s funny, so I wear it to the gym and, as below, when I romp my dogs.

Maestro is an Italian word that translates literally to “master.”

A Google search tells me that it’s derived from the Latin magister, which means teacher, tutor, or master.

And magister is derived from magnus, which means great or mighty.

All of these, sayeth the Great and Powerful Goog, are derived from the Proto-Indo-European root meg, which means great.

The leader of music in church used to be called the maestro di capella (the more familiar German term is Kappelmeister).  And maestro is short for that.

But why do we call a conductor “maestro,” even when he no longer has anything to do with the chapel, much less master of it?  My opera singer friend 
John tells me that it’s an American thing.  Europeans don’t address a conductor as “Maestro”–though certainly in our consciousness, we imagine obsequious violinists shaking hands with a man in white tie and tails, lowering his head and saying “Maestro…”

Opera singers, by the way, have a harder job than conductors do.  Opera singers are amazing people, and they will definitely get their own post some day.

In the meantime, why do we call a conductor “Maestro?”

I don’t know.

It used to be common for composers to be conductors.  It was also common for composers to be teachers, so it would make sense to address a teacher as “Maestro,” just as you might address your yogi as “Guru.”  And why would we, in 2010, do  that?

I don’t know.

Perhaps because conducting is such a mysterious art form, practiced by so few, deeply studied by even fewer, that we maintain a specialized title for members of a specialized field.  Further, perhaps we enjoy thinking of the conductor as someone apart from everyday life.  The Maestro.  Or, in my case, Maestra.

This is not the most informative post I’ve written, but I have looked for answers and no one seems to have examined the issue because the practice is taken so for granted.  If anybody else has an explanation, I’d love to know.

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6 Responses to "maestro"

  1. enagoski says:

    Was Buddy holding the camera?

  2. Amelia NP says:

    I told you he's smart.

  3. Do you prefer maestra over maestro?

  4. Amelia NP says:

    I believe in grammatical correctness, so yes. To the extent that it's pedantic and silly to use the term at all, you may as well use it correctly.

  5. No one says maestro except people who are trying to be pretentious. Same goes for flautist.Still, I also have an article of clothing with the word on it (it's a baseball cap, a gift from my mother-in-law). It's good for a laugh occasionally.

  6. Amelia NP says:

    Pretension certainly accounts for some of it, but you hear it from real musicians without irony all the time. At UConn, the opera singers all call our opera conductor "Maestro Waters."In my Na'vi post, there's a link to a recording of the conductor's rant. In it, a member of the orchestra asks "what are you saying, Maestro?" with what sounds like a straight face. So some of it is certainly just… habit? Tradition???A baseball hat would be good, and probably earns an equal number of sidelong glances as a t-shirt.

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