Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 September 2020
HISTORIES of conducting sometimes start in all seriousness with an extraordinary event, a performance by 800 musicians during the Olympic games at Corinth in 709 BC. The 800, playing instruments of all types, were supposedly conducted by Pherekydes of Patrae, the ‘giver of the rhythm’, ‘placed on a high seat, waving a golden staff’. Needless to say, the ultimate source of this information, an article published in 1824 by Adolf Bernhard Marx, is an elaborate hoax in the form of a pseudo-scholarly article reporting on the discovery of ancient metal scrolls, with an edition of their supposed contents. Marx clearly devised it to show that the symphony orchestra of his time and its baton conductor had been prefigured in ancient Greece; according to Mark Evan Bonds, the first person to realise the article was a hoax and to identify the culprit, it exemplifies ‘the inclination of early nineteenth-century Germans to identify themselves with the ancient Greeks’, which ‘played a key role in the formation of their national identity’. Marx was an influential writer on music, interested in the revival of the music of J.S. Bach and Handel, and was involved with Mendelssohn and his performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829 (Ch. 8).
This cautionary tale has several important lessons for anyone interested in the history of conducting. First, the subject has received remarkably little scholarly attention, so we need to be even more careful than usual about taking the information in the secondary literature at face value. For example, its best-known ‘fact’, the circumstances of Jean-Baptiste Lully's death, is misleading at best as told even in supposedly scholarly books, as we shall see. A particular problem is that most writers on the subject have been concerned with other things: the literature divides into practical treatises with a little – mostly highly inaccurate – historical context, and histories of the orchestra concerned only peripherally with conducting. Unfortunately, the only large-scale treatment of both aspects, Elliott Galkin's History of Orchestral Conducting in Theory and Practice, is bedevilled by an uncritical approach to sources, by frequent errors of translation, by a lack of relevant context and by too great a reliance on eighteenth-century German treatises.