'A "maître d'orchestre"...conducts': New and old evidence on French practice

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Presents a comprehensive account, from sometimes newly-discovered documentary sources, of the developing art of conducting in Paris between c.1745 and c.1810. The main thrust demolishes the notion that audible stick-signals were used habitually at the Opéra during this period. Two of the four illustrations of conducting, representing theatre music in progress, are new to the field. The first section of argument is a close study of the semantics of the field, using multiple sources (several different ones from Rousseau) establishing the co-existence of terminologies such as 'conduire' and 'battre la mesure', which became equivalent. The second and fourth sections discuss practice before and after 1755, when the transition occurred to the period of Pierre-Montan Berton as 'maître de musique'. He reformed orchestral and direction practices. Separate sections follow on the way conductors dealt with (1) the chorus and ballet dancers, using for example sub-conductors in the wings to relay the beat without the habitual need for audible stick signals, and (2) solo singers, who were in fact conducted, especially in slow movements. In 'Rey as a public personality;' the evidence is gathered concerning the excellence as a 'conducteur' of J. B. Rey, who was brought in during 1775-76 from the provinces and worked into the new century, when Sir George Smart reported on him in 1802. His art, and use of a smallish baton, appear to have been wholly modern, in our sense: fluid, subtle, responsive to moment-to-moment needs. The final section discusses direction at the Comédie-Italienne in the light of an engraving dated c.1764 which shows conducting in progress, and remains the only known image of such work at a smaller theatre.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)360-74
Number of pages14
JournalEarly Music
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1993


  • Paris, orchestra, conducting, eighteenth century, J.B.Rey, P.M. Berton, Rousseau.

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