The Great Conductors - Whom were They?


History of Conducting

The Great Conductors - Whom were they?

This is a sister article to my other article entitled: “The Great Pianists - Whom were They?” Ah, the typical concept of the mad genius conductor, usually with unruly long hair, though some have no hair these days..., well, nothing could be further from the truth. A conductor is usually the most educated and trained of all the musicians. A conductor has to know orchestration, composition and much more.... Additionally, a conductor’s work is mainly done during rehearsal, not while the actual performance of the piece is taking place. Actually, few people know this, but by the time the concert takes place, an orchestra can play the composition on its own without a conductor - there are some orchestras that play without conductors, but I don’t want to stray away from the main topic of great conductors.

Subsequently, conducting became a big deal with the rise of the Romantic Period in music. Before the Romantics came along, conducting was considered a second rate art. During the Baroque and Classical eras, orchestral compositions were either conducted by the first or concert violinist (this is the reason why today the concert violinist is the second most important person in the orchestra after the conductor - he/she is in charge of tuning the orchestra, etc ), or from the harpsichord - orchestras were also very small back in those days.. The conductor at the podium with a baton was not yet heard of in those days. Furthermore, conductors sometimes get overly dramatic for no apparent reason but to put on a good show for the audience - acting, hand gestures and facial expressions are just some of the things conductors like to do. Nevertheless, this is fun and a good reason for you, the audience to go and see a symphony orchestra at play....

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770 - 1828
Not only the official progenitor of the Romantic Period per se, but also the unofficial father of the modern art of conducting. With music as emotionally charged up as Beethoven’s is, a person was needed at the podium to transcend this massive energy to the audience, and more importantly to the players. Additionally, orchestra size started to grow around the end of the 18th century - modernity was on the horizon!...

Carl Maria von Weber 1786 - 1826
Weber, nor anyone else has been able to hold a candle to Beethoven in composition; nevertheless, Weber was arguably a greater conductor than Beethoven could have ever hoped to be. Weber was also an exceptional orchestrator. Additionally, and unlike Beethoven, Weber conducted the works of other composers as well as his own.

Hector Berlioz 1803 - 1869
The granddaddy of them all - hands down! Berlioz was a writer as well, and wrote the first - some have said, most important book ever written on the field of orchestration: Treatise on Instrumentation. Berlioz was also infamous for being the first to use mammoth size orchestras for his compositions: Romeo and Juliet, Damnation of Faust, and Les Troyen (opera based on Virgil's Aeneid) are among a few of them. To date, he’s to conducting and orchestration what Isaac Newton is to science.

Felix Mendelssohn 1809 - 1847
Mendelssohn was all in one - great composer, great pianist, great organist and great conductor - no wonder he died so you - well, who knows?... Mendelssohn was quite restrained and conservative, and by so, he greatly influenced modern conducting and performance to a great extent.

Franz Liszt 1811 - 1886
Liszt was not only one of the greatest pianist of all times, but he was also an exceptional conductor..., and, to top it all off, a great lover - so they say!?

Richard Wagner 1813 - 1883
Has been called by some (very few) - greatest musical genius of all times, and greatest conductor of all times. He was Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Strauss and Mahler all rolled up into one.

Hans von Bulow 1830 - 1994
One of the greatest conductors of the 19th century and a personal friend of Wagner, as well as Liszt’s son in law.

Arthur Nikish 1855 - 1922
A rival of Mahler, and one of the greatest conductors that has ever lived.

Gustav Mahler 1860 - 1911
Mahler was a nitpicking and fastidious workaholic who stopped at nothing until he got it right. One of the true greats of conducting and, an icon to modern day composers and conductors.

Richard Strauss 1864 - 1949
Richard Strauss, like his contemporary Mahler, was an exceptional conductor. Unlike Mahler and Wagner, Strauss’ approach to conducting was cool and sedated - he was a very calm individual, so they say.

Leonard Bernstein 1918 - 1990
One of the greatest conductors in the history of the USA. Bernstein loved Mahler’s music very much; Mahler and Bernstein were both of Jewish background, and Bernstein always felt a personal attachment towards Mahler’s music throughout his life....

Zubin Mehta 1936

One of the great conductors of Romantic Period music today....

Final Thoughts

Conducting is loved and revered by many music lovers today. It's exciting to see a person on the podium doing all sorts of acrobats, bodily and facial expressions. Last but not least, Gustavo Dudamel, though young, has been hailed by many today as one of the true greats in the art of conducting...only time will tell.... 

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Comments 19 comments

prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

Very inspiring hub. I had never heard about them before. But thanks for share with us. Rated up and useful!


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KatrineDalMonte 4 years ago

John, although I love music I have never taken enough time to explore the real gems of music of past centuries in more depth. Your hubs about famous composers and musicians of by gone era are very useful and handy, for I can learn so much just by reading your informative articles. So I applaud you for keeping us posted on this topic. Thanks and take care :-)

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John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Thanks prasetio30 for stopping by and commenting.

Take care of yourself


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Thanks Katrine for stopping and and commenting

I'm glad you find my hubs useful; I find your hubs useful and informative. Additionally, thanks for the tip on self-improvement, a topic which you seem to be good at.

Take care of yourself


bethperry profile image

bethperry 4 years ago from Tennesee

You don't often run across articles about the great conductors. So entertained by this one, thanks for posting!

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John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Thanks bethperry, and I'm glad you enjoyed my article.

Take care


SanneL profile image

SanneL 4 years ago from Sweden

You have put together some of the greatest conductors of all time. They are all so well known. I don't think there are anyone that are not known. Well done! Sannel

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Thanks SanneL for stopping by.

I tried to put great conductors who were also composers...since many of these names are well known.

Thanks again and take care


Teylina profile image

Teylina 4 years ago

I'm familiar w/a few, thanks to my mother's love of music, but I've got to check out "pianists" to make sure somebody, if not you, got Chopin in there! Really can't comment on this. I've heard them; but wouldn't dare try to compare! Will have to admit I'm not a Wagner fan, no matter how he's viewed.

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Hi Teylin,a and thanks for commenting.

The point of this hub is for people to see the other side of art. For example, a writer can be a great writer - a painter can be a great painter - but in the old days composer wore different hats: composer, pianist, conductor and even a great organist at times, such as was the case of Mendelssohn, as I explained in my piano hub. You also have composers that did not excel in the performing arts.

Additionally, in my hub about Beethoven and Dostoevsky, I point out how Beethoven mercilessly attacked Salieri and Haydn, whereas Dostoevsky was a bit kinder to his fellow writers. The reason that I state for this, is because Beethoven was a great artist and made money performing as conductor and pianist. Dostoevsky on the other hand, as a writer, if he'd have attacked Pushkin or Gogol, his career would have more than likely be over, because, he'd have had nothing to fall back on.

Take care of yourself and thanks again for stopping by


Teylina profile image

Teylina 4 years ago

I must thank you for the lesson and information. That's what happens when your (or at least my!) brain has been reading and writing at the same time for too long)! I'm still going to check out your pianist hub, and when I do (since I'm more familiar with them by name) I will be interested in reading from this approach. I totally missed the mark, and I will read again, but even if untapped, I have a feeling theses particular men were multi-talented; there just weren't as many ways of venue or even acceptance then. This, I know from experience of growing up with two accomplished artists in multi-fields, that one talent (accomplishment) may often lead that type of mind to move to other things in quest of a new venture. I'm so glad you're hub'g these. I will get them all read someday! And I appreciate your "research?"--can't believe you just remember all this from music schools, but you may. If so, I'm jealous! But so glad you wrote and appreciate the answer. I'll read more carefully (and awake) next time!

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John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Thank you so much again Teylina. I really appreciate you taking the time to re my hubs.

Take care of yourself and have a wonderful day


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Derdriu 4 years ago

John, What a clear, compelling, concise ID of the greats in the fine art of conducting! It's quite surprising to find out just how many great composers and performers also were great conductors. This makes me think of opera singer Placido Domingo's career as a conductor. It also makes me think of actors such as Michael Douglas, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford who end up wearing many film hats. Acting must be as enriching to director/producer-ship as singing is to conducting.

Respectfully, and with many thanks for sharing your knowledge, Derdriu

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Hi Derdriu, and thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Yes, art is all related - it's a so called "right brain" related field. Additionally, many of the greats in literature started out as musicians themselves: James Joyce, Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent Dan Brown (although both Joyce and Nietzsche would have been content eating his leftovers, as he is one of the most successful writers living today).

Take care of yourself and enjoy your day


Andrew Simoes profile image

Andrew Simoes 4 years ago

Great Post.

Interesting that you have Mehta on this list as the only 20th century conductor besides Bernstein. What about Furtwangler and Karajan? Would like to hear your thoughts on them.

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Hi Andrew, and thanks for stopping by.

Great question, I might add! I think a professor of comparitive literature once said that writing is always about "whom you exclude." However, in my defense, I forget a lot...LOL

Awesome question and yes Furtwangler and Karajan were as great conductors as Mehta and Bernstein; nevertheless, I saw Mehta in a performance of Mahler's 2nd and he's increadible to say the least.

Take care and enjoy your day


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

Sometimes it's the conductor with the least facial expressions or dramatic hand movements that really are the most exciting to watch but I think -- now that I think about it -- it must have much to do with the particular piece of music being played and one's own personal reaction to that piece of music.

I never knew a single particle of the information you have given us here. Thank you so much. I loved this hub. Voting up, useful, interesting, awesome and sharing.

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Hi Pamela, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

I'm so glad you enjoyed my article!

Take care,


Kevin Scott 3 years ago

Nice list, but a few are missing (sorry to be a spoilsport), namely Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer, Karl Boehm, Sergiu Celibidache (more of an acquired taste), Eugene Ormandy, Carlos Kleiber, Dean Dixon, Serge Koussevitzky, Sir Adrian Boult, and the three I'm surprised that you omitted altogether - Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan. Those three should be up there with the impressive list you compiled.

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