Excerpted from Demaree, R.W and Moses, D.V.(1995). The complete conductor. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
"The earliest conductors are seen in shadow, visible only through mythic recollections, ancient drawings, and modern inferences.
So long as a musical performer is an individual --a priest serving at an altar, a bugler calling troops into action, a minstrel serenading outside milady's window--
there is no need for someone to conduct. In routine chanting of a ritual or in group singing of songs (hymns, perhaps, learned by rote in childhood and kept
familiar by regular repetition), a body of people can make music together without a supervisor...It is when someone is needed to assign specific duties to single
members of the group, to unify the variety of concepts present, to heighten by sensitive judgments the artistic and dramatic impact of the music, and (especially) to manage by signal
the coordinatino of these values in the moment of performance that a central figure --the person we have come to call "the conductor"--emerges.
Hand signs seem to have been part of the discipline from ancient times. The early Christian church acquired from the Mediterranean World techniques of gesture that had served for the
liturgies of the Middle East, applying them to the body of chant now called Gregorian. (These techniques are generally known as chironomy). By the Renaissance, the increasing
complexities of rhythm and polyphonic counterpoint had led those known as maestri di cappelle to begin the use of a simple (vertical) beat pattern that made no effort to
identify strong pulses. (This is the so-called tactus. In this technique, there apparently was no visual signal equivalent to our downbeat.) During the Baroque era,
leadership of an ensemble commonly came from the keyboard player; that convention continued through at least to the time of Joseph Haydn, who directed from harpsichord, we are told,
as late as his London concerts in the 1790's. It was only during the nineteenth century that our modern notion of the conductor --a central authority, working with a baton from the
advantage of a podium--became the standard image."
From Brittanica.com: (http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/1/0,5716,25541+1,00.html)
"Conducting became a specialized form of musical activity only in the early 19th century.
As early as the 15th century, performances by the Sistine Choir in the Vatican were
kept together by slapping a roll of paper (or in other cases, a lengthy pole, or baton)
to maintain an audible beat. This practice continued until it became an actual intrusion
on the performance and was of necessity abandoned. By the time of J.S. Bach and
George Frideric Handel (late 17th to mid-18th century), the role of key musician was
not only to compose music on demand but to conduct it as well, usually from the
composer-performer's chair at the organ or harpsichord. At the Paris Opéra, the
position of the conductor fell to the concertmaster, operating from the first violin desk
and handling his complicated chores as best he could. But throughout this time, the
"conductor" was largely a major functionary, first among equals, whose chief
responsibility was to perform with the ensemble and only secondarily to lead it."
From (wcb.uchaswv.edu/wcb/schools/01/2/ jjanisch/5/modules/page2.html):
The first indication of a conductor is on a Greek tablet from 709 BC. The caption reads: "The giver
of Time beats with his stave up and down in equal movements so that all might keep together."
In 95 AD Marcus Fabius Quintilianus writes that musical leaders "indicate intervals of time by
stamping their feet, also their toes." There are pictures of conductors as early as the 11th Century
that show some conductors at a stand with their right hands free for chironomy (an early method of
indicating pitch by hand position), and a staff in their left hands that was both a token of authority
and an instrument of discipline. Bartolimeo Ramos de Pareia in Musica Practica 1482 indicates that the
choir director beats time with his foot, hand, or finger. There are several references to all three
types of conducting. In the early 15th and 16th Century there are many references to the conductor
keeping the tactus or beat using a roll of parchment or paper. There are also stories of conductors
conducting with great staffs. Perhaps the most famous is of Lully (1632-1687) who was supposed to be
quite the tyrant. In the throws of either passion or anger he impaled his own foot and died of gangrene.
He was the first recorded death by conducting.
During the Baroque Period there were often two leaders of the ensemble. CPE Bach (1740-1788) in his treatise
Versuch über die vahre Art das Clavier zu spielen indicates that the keyboard player performed the conducting
duties. Montiverdi (1567-1643), on the other hand, lead his orchestra from the position of concertmaster. He
would wave his bow as a baton. The keyboard player (KapelMeister) was responsible for keeping all the players
together, and the concertmaster (Maestro) controlled the string players. As one might suspect much dissention
occurred. As the use of continuo decreased, the power of the concertmaster increased. In Mannheim (1746) the
leader of the great Mannheim orchestra was Johann Stamitz, a concertmaster. Change occurs slowly in music and
the evolution of conducting also moved very slowly. As the music became more complicated and required more
interpretation, the presence of a conductor became more prominent. By the time of Beethoven (1770-1827) nearly
all music for large groups required a conductor. Beethoven himself was a notoriously bad conductor often times
indicating a dramatic change of dynamic by crouching under the stand and then leaping up in the air at the
appropriate time. Even though it seems odd to us, it was not uncommon for a conductor to stamp his foot during
the concert to keep tempo. During the portion of history when who would control the tempo of the performers was
changing it was not uncommon for the concertmaster to indicate one tempo while the conductor indicated another.
This happened during the English premier of Elijah where the reviews commented that it was often difficult to
hear the orchestra over the pounding of Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and concertmaster.
The first people who were actually known as conductors came from the ranks of composers including Weber, Spohr,
Spontini, Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Wagner.
From Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Christopher Small. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998.
"It is an odd idea, that of a musician who makes no sound himself and who directs the performance of a group from outside it rather than from within, and
among the world's musical cultures it seems to be unique to the Western concert and operatic tradition....For the modern conception of conducting to take hold--the conductor
in charge of every detail of the performance and the sounds blended into a unified texture that is directed toward outside listeners--it was necessary that the players'
musical autonomy and power of independent action be abolished." --pp 82-83
For brief synopses of conducting practices through the centuries, explore conducting in the online Performance Practice Encyclopedia.