Conducting with One’s Back to the Orchestra
RIPM’s “Illustrations of the Week”
Today, opera conductors are positioned between the audience and the orchestra, so as to visually lead both those singing on stage and the instrumentalists accompanying them. In the 19th century, however, engravings frequently depict conductors in what would be viewed today as a most unusual position—right in front of the stage, with their backs to the orchestra! See if you can spot the conductor in the following series of images.
A production of Fromental Halévy’s Charles VI at the Théâtre de l’Opéra.
L’Illustration, Vol. I (18 March 1843): 41.
L’Illustration, Vol. I (1 April 1843): 72.
An engraving from an 1848 production at the Théâtre de Trianon
L’Illustration, Vol. XI (22 April 1848): 128.
Another image of a Fromental Halévy opera production, this time of La Juive
L’Illustration, Vol. X (18 September 1847): 37.
A view from the stage at the Théâtre royal de Berlin
L’Illustration, Vol. IX (21 August 1847): 388.
A similar view, this time from the Grand-Théâtre in St. Petersburg
A horse race scene from Monréal and Blondeau’s Paris port de mer at the Parisian Théâtre des Variétés
L’Illustration, Vol. XCVII (14 March 1891): 236.
This collection of iconography captures a particular performance practice at a specific time in musical history. And as in the case of the final image above, which was featured in a recent post about the use of machinery to create scenic illusions at the opera, these illustrations also demonstrate the many different research inquiries that can be formulated from a single piece of iconography.
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RIPM is an international non-profit organization preserving and providing access to music periodicals published in more than twenty countries between approximately 1760 and 1966, from Bach to Bernstein. Functioning under the auspices of the International Musicological Society, and the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and Documentation Centres, RIPM produces four electronic publications: Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals, Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals with Full Text, European and North American Music Periodicals (Preservation Series), and RIPM Jazz Periodicals (Preservation Series, forthcoming).