These thoughts on conducting by one of its greatest practitioners are as apposite today as the day they were written, and could be read with profit by armchair music-lovers and practicing professionals alike.
The whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right TEMPO. His choice of tempi will show whether he understands the piece or not. With good players, again, the true tempo induces correct phrasing and expression, and conversely, with a conductor, the idea of appropriate phrasing and expression will induce the conception of the true tempo.
I am persistently returning to the question of tempo because, as I said above, this is the point at which it becomes evident whether a conductor understands his business or not.
If I try to sum up my experiences, regarding performances of my own operas, I am at a loss to distinguish with which of the qualities of our conductors I am concerned. Is it the spirit in which they treat German music in the concert rooms, or the spirit in which they deal with the opera at the theatres? I believe it to be my particular and personal misfortune that the two spirits meet in my operas, and mutually encourage one another in a rather dubious kind of way. Whenever the former spirit, which practices upon our classical concert music, gets a chance — as in the instrumental introductions to my operas — I have invariably discovered the disastrous consequences of the bad habits already described at such length [on prior pages]. I need only speak of the tempo, which is either absurdly hurried (as, for instance, under Mendelssohn, who, once upon a time, at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert, produced the overture to Tannhäuser as an example and a warning), or muddled (like the introduction to Lohengrin at Berlin, and almost everywhere else), or both dragged and muddled (like the introduction to Die Meistersinger, lately, at Dresden and at other places), yet never with those well-considered [unnotated] modifications of the [main] tempo upon which I must count as much as upon the correct intonation of the notes themselves if an intelligible rendering is to be obtained.
If any conductor wishes to prove to his audience or to his directors, etc., what an ambiguous risk they will run with Die Meistersinger, he need take no further trouble than to beat time to the overture after the fashion in which he is wont to beat it to the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach (which fashion suits the works of R. Schumann fairly well); it will then be sufficiently obvious that he is dealing with a very unpleasant kind of music. Let anyone imagine so animated yet so sensitive a thing as the tempo which governs this overture, let this delicately constituted thing suddenly be forced into the Procrustus-bed of such a classical time-beater, what will become of it? The doom is: "Herein shalt thou lie! Whatsoever is too long with thee shall be chopped off, and whatsoever is too short shall be stretched!," whereupon the band strikes up and overpowers the cries of the victim. Safely bedded in this wise, not only the overture, but, as will appear in the sequel, the entire opera of Die Meistersinger — or as much of it as was left after the Capellmeister's cuts — was presented to the public of Dresden.
I know of no-one to whom I would confidently entrust a single tempo in one of my operas.
—Richard Wagner,* from, Über das Dirigieren (On Conducting), 1869, Translation: Edward Dannreuther
* For those unaware of the fact, Wagner was considered as perhaps the greatest conductor of his time, and is in large measure responsible for the conductor's role as we know it today.