‘Every musician (or rather soi-disant musician) … thinks he can conduct’: Reinterpreting Ideologies of Orchestral Conducting in 1870s Britain
The market for orchestral music in 1870s Britain was in the throes of a continual expansion whose causes and effects created a dynamic and challenging context for musicians and audiences alike. Baton conducting practices were relatively recent and the definition of ‘conducting’ as a function was as yet unsettled. The requirements of conductors in the delivery of orchestral performances thus took shape amidst an unstable web of musical, critical, practical and societal expectations. Ideologies surrounding orchestral conductors and conducting were in flux.
In a departure from previous research in this area, this paper probes the interrelated issues and priorities that shaped the formation of these ideologies. The tensions between internal institutional priorities and external perception and reception are explored through a focussed reassessment of the conductorship of the Philharmonic Society of London, the loftiest provider of orchestral concerts in the 1870s. Drawing on rich archival sources together with an analysis of contemporaneous press and of professional networks, this paper questions the accepted mythology of mediocrity surrounding William Cusins’s seventeen seasons as conductor. It sheds new light on longstanding historiographies attached not only to conducting but also to the British music profession.