From Blindingham Hall: how to conduct an orchestra

From the blog of Blindingham Hall, jointly written by Catherine Rose and me… I recommend reading from the beginning…

Letters the Ninth and Tenth:
From Rogers to Lady Effingham; and from Lady Effingham to Rogers

Dear Lady Effingham,

Thank you for being so clear about what conductors do. It seems most apt to compare Mr Dawson to the conductor of an orchestra, as most late evenings when I pass his room there appears to be swishing and grunting going on. How exciting it would be if he were to become a conductor. How firm his baton could be. Unlike Bernard Haitink, though, I can’t imagine Mr Dawson tickling your hanging baskets with a feather duster.

If I may try your patience a little further – you have already been so kind – I will ask you two more questions about conductors. Firstly, does changing the conductor make any difference to the music?

While you compared Mr Dawson to the conductor of an orchestra, and Lord Effingham to the composer of the music, I can’t imagine Blindingham Towers changing a great deal if a different Head Butler took over (God forbid!) from Mr Dawson.

However, when I was at the last Royal Symphony Philharmonia concert, with the Italian conductor Don Follomi, I heard members of the audience saying he wasn’t as good as other conductors like von Carry-On and John Eliot (who is a gardener, I think they said – like me!). So does it matter who wields the stick?

Would you be able to manipulate 50 men and a few women at the same time? I’m sure you could inspire the men, but exactly how you would bend the women to your will is something I can only imagine. Perhaps another time I might be allowed to ask why there are so few women in the orchestras.

The second question I have goes back to Mr Dawson and how he runs Blindingham Hall. He’s English, and he speaks English (mostly – although I have heard some very strange language coming from his room. It’s a sort of grunt that’s as clear as Welsh, but not as warm and tender as German). If he only spoke a foreign language, we would have no idea of his wishes. How did Don Follomi speak Italian to his orchestra and yet run a rehearsal? I’m sure you can only imagine the effect a strange tongue would have on your ability to concentrate.

Thank you again, Lady Effingham, for your listening suggestions. I was so inspired by Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, that I checked on Spotify for other pieces by Strauss. I found this piece, which is very different – what a versatile composer Strauss must have been! Thunder and Lightning Polka is such a descriptive name, as I can hear the flashes and bangs just like in the storm that crashed over Blindingham Hall last week.

Daisy the pastry-maid was clearly terribly frightened – so much so that she sheltered all night in Vauxhall’s room. He was so enthusiastic at comforting her that she emerged the next day with a broad smile and he spent all day complaining about his bad back. He really is so kind, unlike his rough demeanour.

I look forward to your reply, and I remain,

Yours, Rogers the Third Under-Gardener


Dear Rogers,

It has been a very long time since I’ve been able to grasp a pen as I have been temporarily disabled by a freak accident involving a performance of the Webern Five Pieces for Orchestra. It seemed that my pen-grasping days might have been over, but my health was restored by a magnificent surgeon at the spa in Marienbad and the nightly ministrations of the spa orchestra, whose vigorous attention to their duty was a balm to my troubled soul.

During the period of my convalescence, I gave much thought to your question about different conductors. I recall the story of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, who was held to be able to create a particular orchestral ‘sound’ which was much admired. His successor in the post tried in vain, alas, to re-create this ‘sound’. One day in rehearsal, a sudden change came over the orchestra – the Furtwängler ‘sound’ had come back! The conductor, bringing the music to a close with tears in his eyes, turned towards the almost-empty auditorium, only to see the tall, gangling figure of Furtwängler himself lurking at the back, having returned for a short visit.

So; it could be the quality of gesture, the force of personality, the ability to translate the sound in one’s head to the sound in the concert hall – or possibly the quality of one’s pheromones. Listen to a Furtwängler performance, of Beethoven’s 9th symphony for example – and you will perhaps perceive a glimmer of what I mean.

It’s certainly nothing to do with language – Italian, French and German musical terms are understood the world over. Many orchestras are happy to be rehearsed in English, German, French or Italian. In my view, a conductor should be able to say the bar numbers or rehearsal figures (e.g., ‘let’s start from five bars after figure B’) in the local language, and convey everything else by physical gesture. Ah – body language! I’m sure Mr Dawson will agree with me on its crucial importance.

Speaking of Mr Dawson, I hope he has warned you about the chestnuts. I was experimenting with roasting fresh chestnuts in the microwave, after I had come in late and the servants had gone to bed. Mr Dawson returned even later than I, with a friend who happily turned out to be a fireman. So Effingham Hall survives for one more New Year.

And incidentally, the Strauss work which you mentioned in your last letter is in fact from a different family from Richard Strauss. The Johann Strausses are very much associated with New Year, so I will leave you with best wishes for all the servants’ hall for 2014.

Yours sincerely

Ophelia Effingham
Lady Effingham of Blindingham


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