I’m reading about patronage of orchestras in preparation for a study session. This was in “The Birth of a Symphony Orchestra,” by John K. Sherman in Minnesota History, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn 1952:
A huge cluster of chrysanthemums, an exclamatory blob of pink, shared the stage’s center with the dark, svelte figure of the conductor on the platform. Above and around the half-hundred seated musicians was festive green that rebuked the November chill outside, with potted palms tracing waxy curves and a festoon of yellow blooms making a blithe border around the stage
People don’t wax so poetic about conductors anymore, really. And yet, there are also descriptions of the role of the conductor and his relationship to the ensemble that could ring true even in a ensemble of today:
At rehearsals he was both a witty wooer and despotic taskmaster. He could make sly asides, once alluding to a suave passage from a French composer’s work: “Catch a Frenchman writing anything hard.” Then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, he would break out in a blistering tirade against his erring and perspiring singers. A trembling Philharmonic alto one night returned to her home and wrote in her diary: “At rehearsal Mr. Oberhoffer maligned, browbeat, ridiculed and all but bodily attacked the basses and tenors. He got more quiet about 10 o’clock and let us all leave in safety.”
The weekly Philharmonic rehearsals were… often turbulent sessions, seasoned with sarcastic humor… The choristers rallied for new and keener effort after such attacks; they accepted the scathing rebukes as part of their training from a man who intensely wished them to be as good as they could be, and they relished his wit, which was as often playful as destructive. After rehearsals they were wont to crowd around his stand for what further insights and suggestions he might offer. He offered much, and not all of it was technical instruction. His learning and interests leaped musical boundaries; by the time the choristers had mastered “Samson and Delilah,” most of them felt they had taken a course of instruction in biblical history.
I cringe when I read this. It evokes slightly scary images in my mind of cult-of-personality dictators. Again, we see the unquestioned patriarchy, the condescending affection of a snob for his admirers, the conditional love of a manipulative despot. Maybe. Or maybe I’m reading more into it than is there. But it bothers me.
This culture is so old–this article described a community ensemble during Victoria’s reign!–maybe it’s archetypal. The worship of a student for the teacher, the search for approval from our betters… maybe it’s deeply rooted in the our earliest relationships. Maybe we’re always looking for new surrogate parents to please.
And maybe there isn’t anything wrong with that, and it’s my own personal issues that prevent me from being able to enjoy that kind of discipleship.
Or maybe I’m just bitter that I may never share the stage with an “exclamatory blob of pink.”