The Marks of a Maestro

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Written by: Stephen Mould

The Marks of a Maestro is a book co-authored by Raymond Holden and Stephen Mould, just published in hard copy by Cambridge University Press. This article by co-author Stephen Mould introduces the book, an unusual source of information about the art of orchestral conducting based on the practices of ten iconic conductors.

The book was first published online on 13 February 2021 in the series:  Elements in Twenty-First Century Music Practice.  This recent publication is here introduced by Stephen Mould, who provides a background to its genesis.


The Marks of a Maestro: The ‘Jupiter’ Symphony

This co-authored book began as a series of interviews which took place in Sydney, where we discussed the significance of the marked scores and related musical materials which form the working tools of master conductors.  We have both worked with such materials for several decades during our professional conducting careers.  The study of such scores has long been an integral part of standard working practice for emerging assistant conductors who imbibe performance and stylistic traditions from more established colleagues. It is only in relatively recent times that the value of these scores has been recognised and employed as a wider educative tool for young conductors generally.

Raymond Holden is currently Emeritus Professor and Honorary Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and has played a significant role in enlarging and promoting through his teaching, the Academy’s unique collections of conductors’ marked scores, some of which are discussed in this publication. The authors set out to explore how such material – marked scores, orchestral parts, recordings and treatises – may be employed to educate the conductors of the future and assist them in developing their own interpretations. The Marks of a Maestro offers a model for how these resources may be studied, compared and contextualised, and how the interpretive choices of past generations of interpreters may inform and enrich current practice.

Stephen Mould

For this investigation, one of the most iconic works, the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony by Mozart, K 551 was chosen. Ten iconic conductors were selected, based upon their pre-eminence as interpreters of the works of Mozart. A further criterion was that a rich selection of source material – scores, recordings etc. could be located and presented. The earliest conductors represented are Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, who were pioneers of the ‘Mozart Revival’ that occurred in Vienna and Munich around 1900. The other conductors who are discussed can all trace a lineage back to one or other of these figures: Felix Weingartner (who succeeded Mahler in Vienna), Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer (erstwhile assistants of Mahler), Sir Thomas Beecham, Erich Leinsdorf, Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein and Sir Charles Mackerras.

A composite score was created (see the three pages of orchestral score further down the article) that gathered the individual markings of the conductors for comparison. Based upon those findings, the markings are compared and discussed under the follow subheadings:  orchestral size, textual fidelity, repeats, tempo integration and tempo modification, bowing, phrasing and articulation, dynamics and expression.  Recordings are analysed to provide metronome speeds for the conductors, as well as giving overall durations of movements and indicating where repeats are observed.  The book aims to provide developing conductors with a resource that shows in detail the performance choices of some of the leading conductors of the twentieth century and conductors associated with the development of the notion of ‘Mozart style’. Such a process could be applied to most of the works of the orchestral canon.

Here is a more detailed outline of the background to this emerging area of study.

Why conductors mark scores

During the course of their career, a conductor will typically spend thousands of hours studying musical scores in preparation for rehearsals and performances. This preparation differs significantly from that of an instrumentalist, whose study will usually involve direct interaction with their instrument at an early stage. The rehearsal phase is a concentrated, labour-intensive process, which consumes an expensive commodity -orchestral time. That circumstance places a complex range of expectations upon the conductor, some of which – such as the ability to achieve the best results in the shortest possible time – are not inherently ‘musical’ but are certainly crucial attributes when working professionally. During a preparatory period of private study and reflection, the conductor’s personal interpretation emerges, and an overall concept of the character and sound-world of the work is crafted. Arriving on the podium, the conductor must articulate the architecture of the musical work, allowing it to emerge from the deepest layers of the music, and clarifying the (at times arcane) notation of the composer. An orchestra will respond to the gestures and words of the conductor in rehearsal, although there are more profound layers of communication, harder to describe, that are the result of the individual mind-mapping practices of the conductor.

There are conductors (for example Herbert von Karajan and Christian Thielemann) who can achieve their interpretative aims without making a single mark in a score; they may also be able to not only perform, but also rehearse a work from memory. A prodigious musical memory of this kind, however, is by no means a necessary attribute of a master conductor. It is more usual for the conductor to work with a personal library of marked scores, often annotated with pencils of different colours, which highlight and elaborate the details of their interpretative choices. A score may be marked as a kind of a road map, charting how the various musical lines translate into the topography and geography of both the work and the orchestra that is assembled before the conductor.  Such marks may confirm important cues for the players, note which instrumental lines should dominate in the texture, and highlight where unexpected events – such as sudden changes in dynamics or tempo – occur.  Fairly universal symbols are employed to make these annotations (though local variations exist), and numerous conducting treatises provide guidance to young maestri in this area. Such preparation, however, deals only with the foreground level, the mechanics of conducting. There is no guarantee that marking a score in a particular way will produce a performance of quality, nor that an expert marker of scores will necessarily develop into a skilled conductor.

Gustav Mahler

Sir Georg Solti

Leonard Bernstein, 1963. Photo by George Talbot/ANL/REX/Shutterstock (1988066a)

Sir Charles Mackerras

The ability to work with marked scores and decipher the codes contained within the them is an important element of conducting practice. In opera houses, ballet and opera conductors often conduct from a ‘house score’ in which much of the work of preparation and orientation is already complete, including indications of cuts, and other score modifications which result from a particular production.  Such a resource allows the conductor to analyse and process the enormous amount of information which emanates from the orchestra in rehearsals, and to test their preconceived ideas concerning a work’s balance, shape, expression and form.

Beyond these concerns, conductors also dig deep into what may be termed the ‘geology’ of the musical work, its underlying structures, formations and connections, identifying thematic units and their transformations, measuring (or intuiting) deeper structural divisions, including fault lines, and determining strategies to blend these elements into an integrated performance. Conductors mark these divisions, working from smaller phrases to larger paragraphs in order to articulate the main structural points of a work.  Conductors will also typically mark their preferred bowings and articulations, allowing them during the process of rehearsal to enter into detailed technical discussions with their players on these matters. In the wider picture, a single, evocative word from a conductor about a stylistic matter can quantifiably alter the sound and character of an orchestra.  Bruno Walter used to exhort his players to ‘sing’, particularly in Mozart, and the results he achieved are clearly audible on his recordings. Today, a conductor may be more likely to ask an orchestra to ‘dance’ in such a context.  Many conductors write descriptive, even poetic phrases into their scores in order to unlock the character of the music. In the works of the Austro-German masters in particular, conductors from central Europe have been known to note connections and synergies within the oeuvre of the composer, or to discover links with earlier masters from the same tradition. Some conductors notate warnings to themselves in sections where they may be inclined to either rush or drag the tempo – ‘Nicht eilen’ was a favourite term of Mahler’s, whose verbal annotations in his compositions resemble an ongoing masterclass for conductors.

Fundamentally, there are no rules when marking scores, although there are a number of generally accepted signs and symbols which conductors are likely to employ, and which can be easily learned in any music conservatory. How they are used can reveal much about the taste and musical choices of the conductors themselves. A marked conductor’s score may contain many types of information – the seemingly trivial may reside in close proximity to the profound – like the profane marginalia that can sometimes be found in hand-copied medieval religious texts. The personality and individual psychology of the conductor may be revealed in their approach to marking their scores. The scores of Sir Georg Solti, for example are marked using carefully chosen brands of red, blue and lead pencil. A glance at a page of a Solti score presents an expressionistic struggle, during which enormous amounts of mental energy has been expended, in a hand that cannot easily be deciphered, though text in German and occasionally English and Hungarian gradually emerges. An obsessive concern with tempo is revealed, with multiple metronome markings being annotated, including the indication of tiny fluctuations during the course of a movement, reflecting the conductor’s equally obsessive concern to document his ever-developing interpretative approach with different orchestras during the course of his career. These scores create the impression that Solti is determined to subdue the work to his own musical will and logic, while retaining at all times the energy and drive that the music requires. Leonard Bernstein’s scores display a similar energy, although he frequently appears to be entering into some kind of composerly communion with the musical masters he interprets. Poetic descriptors and literary illusions frequently appear in his annotations, along with private notes suggesting other, extra-musical associations. These and many other conductors marked their scores with great determination and intent, and the documents often reflect the private struggles and ruminations that they faced along the road to arriving at a musical interpretation. The scores they used in rehearsal and performance played a central role in crystallising their musical concepts into gesture and projecting them into a performance.

The marked scores of significant conductors

For many years, the marked scores of conductors have faced an uncertain status following the death of their owners. Some were bequeathed to their disciples and assistants, others were placed in libraries, still others remained in the possession of their families and heirs, in some cases being neglected, dispersed or even discarded. In particular circles, however, the value and significance of the scores of notable conductors has long been recognised, and the Royal Academy of Music, London, for example, has, over the years, acquired the libraries of Otto Klemperer, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Henry Wood, Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Colin Davis, while Sheffield University, U.K. holds the legacy of Sir Thomas Beecham, North Western  University, Chicago retains the library of Fritz Reiner, the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst, Vienna is custodian of Bruno Walter’s archive, and Harvard University houses the score library of Sir Georg Solti.

The first decades of the twenty-first century have seen significant developments in the visibility and status of marked scores that has shifted the traditional view of these collections as possessing a primarily historical or antiquarian significance. Increasingly marked scores are coming to be regarded as important educational and training tools for emerging conductors as well as important source documents for those interested in the history and practice of conducting.

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra has created an online platform, making available the  music scores owned by Leonard Bernstein, along with those of Arturo Toscanini, Gustav Mahler, Zubin Mehta, Erich Leinsdorf and other conductors who have had distinguished associations with the orchestra. In the case of Bernstein, not only are his personal scores available for study, but also a comprehensive collection of orchestral material (individual players parts), which were painstakingly marked for his performances. The archive reveals the level of detail that was transmitted to the individual players of the orchestras that Bernstein conducted, offering insights into the means by which he created his performances. Thus, it is not just conductors’ scores that are valuable to this field of enquiry but also the accompanying orchestral parts that are marked for the players. Some, but by no means all conductors routinely provide their own orchestral material to orchestras for their core repertoire, and this material adds deeper layers to further enrich this field of study. A recent demonstration of the significance – musical, historical and philosophical – of the scores of notable conductors is the recent announcement by the Berlin State Library of the acquisition of the Musical Estate of Claudio Abbado, which includes approximately 1,700 scores. This collection provides a valuable resource through which Abbado’s many recordings, both audio and video, including ‘behind the scenes’ rehearsals can be studied and contextualised.

What marked scores can reveal

While there were undoubtedly precursors, the systematic marking of scores emerged in tandem with the rise of the figure of the conductor during the nineteenth century, as the role came to embody the notion of a custodian of musical taste and authenticity, the progenitor of a specific musical interpretation which was then transmitted to the orchestra. A seminal force in this process was the score of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which was, following the death of the composer, widely regarded as unperformable, particularly the complex and problematic final movement which was often simply omitted. Developments in orchestras, driven by the improved construction of musical instruments and larger performance venues led to a curatorial focus on all the Beethoven symphonies, which were regarded as great though perplexing masterpieces, created by an eccentric composer, whose works required ‘retouching’ (Retuschen) due to either his growing deafness, or sheer miscalculation, as well as  the expanded range and improved technical possibilities of the developing orchestra following the composer’s death.  Leading interpreters, from Richard Wagner to Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner and Igor Markevitch advocated the need for Retuschen and other amendments to the Beethoven Symphonies. While these practices are today officially considered outdated, without advertising the fact, many leading conductors and orchestras retain, to a greater or lesser degree, many of these modifications in their current performance practices.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the symphonies of Schumann were also considered to be problematic from the point of view of orchestration and were routinely rescored by conductors. Gustav Mahler famously created new versions for his own performances and these Retuschen formed the basis of performances by all of the great conductors of the twentieth century who hailed from a Central European background. As is the case with the Beethoven Symphonies, these practices are frowned upon today, although many of the emendations tacitly find their way into modern performances. It says something of our times that although making unacknowledged changes to Schumann’s Symphonies in performance is no longer usual practice, it has become acceptable to perform an amended version, when acknowledged as ‘by Robert Schumann, edited by Gustav Mahler’, for example. By this means, what was previously accepted as acknowledged performance practice, has become something akin to an arrangement or transcription, which occupies an uneasy space in terms of the musical work’s identity.

Many musicians are shocked by the extent that a composer’s score can be modified textually in order to render it in performance. The Russian conductor, Serge Koussevitsky, for example, when preparing Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps for performance, found the rhythmic complexity of the work beyond his capabilities. His musical assistant, Nicholas Slominsky created a re-barred version of the most complex passages in the work, for Koussevitsky’s use. One might also dismiss this as an old, outmoded practice, however Leonard Bernstein’s score of Le Sacre du Printemps in the New York Philarmonic archives contains the changes that Slominsky made for Koussevitsky, which Bernstein also utilised in his performances of the work. Even today, many theatres in Germany use a similar system of re-barring works such as Le Sacre and Petroushka, which irons out many of the metrical complexities when those works are given in ballet seasons. In order to make music of the more distant past performable by modern forces, many conductors and/or composers have published arrangements, which are effectively marked scores – Britten of Purcell, Mahler of Bach, Richard Strauss of Mozart and Couperin, Beecham of Handel.

Grey areas and the mystical side of conducting

The art of conducting is often described as a mystery, and many leading exponents propagate that perception, asserting that conductors are not made but born. Sir Charles Mackerras used to describe the unseen element in a conductor’s work as an ‘emanation’, implying a transference similar to charisma – the ability to transmit, via gesture, word and some ‘x’ factor, the essence of a musical work to a large group of musicians. It has often been noted that the sheer physical presence of a conductor can quantifiably change the sound of an orchestra. A timpanist of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra recalled a rehearsal when a workman-like conductor was on the podium. The player’s attention was roused by a sudden change in the sound of the orchestra. He looked up in order to see what had caused this shift, and saw that their chief conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler had just entered the hall.

Conducting is an art where grey areas abound and perhaps it is just those areas that make its study so tantalising and ultimately elusive. Today one can examine a marked score by Leonard Bernstein and gain insights into the workings and thought processes behind his interpretation. If another conductor were to use that score to conduct a performance, however, it would not replicate a performance by Bernstein. An audio or video recording of a performance by an iconic conductor can be listened to and studied, but it is only a part of the wider picture of rehearsal and realisation, a final stage in a complex chain of events. In the case of recordings from the earlier part of the twentieth century, tempos, repeats, cuts and other performance choices may well have been influenced by the limitations of the 78 RPM records that were used at that time. While much important documentary material exists, it required expert analysis to be of use to modern musicians.

The Marks of the Maestro introduces this area of study, demonstrating how this material can illuminate performance practice in one of the most important symphonies in the repertoire. It is envisaged that this book will be followed by a series of others which will consider further iconic works in the light of the markings of the master conductors who have played a part in developing the performance traditions of those works.


Stephen Mould studied music in Sydney and London, subsequently pursuing a career in opera houses, where he has been employed as a coach, musical assistant, conductor and senior administrator in Germany, Belgium, Australia and the USA. For thirteen years he was a member of the staff of Opera Australia, as a musical assistant, conductor and Head of Music. He is currently senior lecturer in conducting and operatic studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney.

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