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As a composer, Igor Stravinsky knew many conductors. Later, he wrote an essay about them. What could
he write about them? What would your typical composer have to say about conductors? Surprisingly, when
Stravinsky wrote about conductors he became very critical. Sarcasm and mockery permeate throughout the
passage when he discusses them. Stravinsky uses a few schemes to convince his reader of the conductor’s
First, the language Stravinsky uses in his passage is very caustic. In a few places, he goes beyond his
arguments into simple denunciations and attacks on the conductors. “The conductor is encouraged to
impose a purely egotistical, false, and arbitrary authority, and that he is accorded a position out of all
proportion to his real value in the musical, as opposed to the music-business, community,” he says in one of
such places. It is obvious that Stravinsky holds a personal grudge against the conductors; being a musician,
he must have come across them many times. He says, “conducting, like politics, rarely attracts original
minds.” Stravinsky uses the word “original” in a different way than it is normally used. In English,
“original” means first, or new. In Russian, however, to call a person original means to say that he is smart,
that he comes with resourceful ideas. Since Stravinsky was Russian, that is what he probably meant.
Therefore in his first sentence, Stravinsky say!
s that, more or less, almost all conductors are stupid. The whole passage is more of an insult to all
conductors, rather than an informative text.
Secondly, Stravinsky uses comparisons to politicians in order condemn the conductors. “Conducting, like
politics, rarely attracts original minds ? His [the conductor's] first skill has to be power politics,” he says
in the first paragraph. Politicians are always thought to be corrupt, dishonest, and insidious. In fact,
politician is a word that is always associated with something evil. This method of attacking is effective,
though primitive; there is a bit of politics in practically every job. Furthermore, Stravinsky fails to note
exactly how a conductor is similar to a politician, apart from saying that conducting, like politics, is not a
profession for the exact and standardized disciplines. In another quote, he compares the effect of the public
on the conductor’s ego to the effect the sun has on a tropical weed. Again, this is based more on emotion
than cold logic; yet, it manages to convince the reader that conducting is not a profession to be admired. It
is clear that St!
ravinsky is not appealing to the logic of the reader, but to his emotions.
Another strategy Stravinsky uses is sarcasm. He shows a quote naming a conductor to be a “titan
of the podium, and is such very nearly the worst obstacle to genuine music making.” Furthermore, he
names the conductors to be “great,” and he discusses the “cult of the great conductor.” These names, as
opposed to his entire passage, are ironic. After spending an entire passage criticizing conductors and their
so–called “greatness,” praising them seems satiric. As we have seen from his language and comparisons, it
is part of Stravinsky’s strategy to undermine the conductors in any way he can, and sarcasm fits well into
his plan. The sarcasm is an effective way of criticizing the conductors: Stravinsky even finishes the essay
with it in his last sentence “If you are unable to listen to the music, you watch the corybantics, and if you
are able, you had better not go to the concert.”
Most of Stravinsky’s argument is based on the fact that people mistake the conductors gestures for
the meaning of the music, and place more emphasis on the conductors looks rather than the way he makes
music sound. This makes the people think the conductor is “great” while the conductor is actually unfit for
his role. This is part of a human tendency to “judge a book by its cover,” to formulate an opinion based on
what something appears to be, while a closer examination may reveal something different.
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