Sir Adrian Boult on how to be a lazy conductor

Sir Adrian Boult on how to be a lazy conductor


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2016

Fascinating clip from an excavated BBC documentary in the days when not everything had to be explained for a non-existent mass audience.



  • Respect says:

    Wonderful lesson explaining his marvelously flexible stick technique.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Hmm. Right after reading this I just happened upon Anthony Tommasini’s review of Muti conducting the Beethoven 7th last Friday. “He and his players have such good rapport that during certain stretches of the performance Mr. Muti, despite his reputation as an exacting perfectionist, essentially dropped his hands to his sides and just kept a watchful eye on things.”

  • Gerard says:

    Has anyone deciphered what Nikish is conducting?

    • David Osborne says:

      I think we can rule out ‘Le Marteau sans Maitre’…

    • John Borstlap says:

      Nikish is conducting a Beethoven symphony in the way how the composer would have experienced it.

      • Garry Humphreys says:

        The Beethoven is just a random soundtrack attached to the silent film of Nikisch conducting. Clearly it’s not what he’s actually conducting. The general view is that it’s Tchaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony though nobody has been able to identify which bit! (There is a sort of 3+2+2+3 feel about it which suggests the 5/4 movement.)

        Interestingly, in this film clip, Nikisch doesn’t actually seem to be doing any of the things Boult spent his life telling us he did, though it is undoubtedly mesmerising, not least because (as Ollie Knussen points out) he conducts high up so that attention is drawn to the eyes, which are as effective as the hands in eliciting responses from the orchestra. I can’t believe there wasn’t more film – but where is it? (There is a version with a mirror-image, purporting to show Nikisch as seen by both audience and orchestra, but one of them shows him left-handed, which he wasn’t!)

  • John says:

    I only heard Boult conduct live three times. But in those concerts I was lucky enough to hear the Schubert Great C Major, Holst’s Planets, the Elgar Introduction and Allegro and Second Symphony. Forty years on I still have a strong memory of the cataclysm he launched in the third movement of the Elgar symphony with a tiny gesture from his left hand.

    • Peter Phillips says:

      I heard and saw Boult conducting Gerontius when he replaced Sargent at a prom. At the judgement moment in the second part he simply looked at the BBCSO and gave a minimal flick of his baton. John’s word “cataclysmic” aptly describes the devastating crash which ensued. In fact, Boult was the first conductor I saw in the flesh. It was with the LPO in Reading town hall in the late 50s when Boult was in something of a wilderness, I imagine. For the record, they played the Grieg piano concerto with Joseph Cooper and Beethoven 7. I remember marvelling that so much musical energy could result from apparently so little physical effort.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    I’m not sure an Adrian Boult would have much success these days. People are after superficial excitement. It is also a pleasure to hear him speak. Does anybody still speak English like that?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, there are 87 of us, spread over the country. Once a year we get together at the Oxford and Cambridge Club at Pall Mall to complain about contemporary British pronounciation.

  • Erwin says:

    Thank you for highlighting the video I posted on YouTube, and my apologies to the BBC for using/stealing a clip of their excellent documentary!
    I just discovered an extremely amusing interview with another great British conductor on YouTube (the actual interview starts at 8:53):

  • Halldor says:

    Sir Adrian is being marvellously disingenuous, of course – by “lazy”, what he means is extremely efficient. As music director he was energetic, untiring and incredibly diligent, introducing Mahler, Bartok, Bruckner and others to the UK in the 1920s, when this was still regarded as challengingly avant-garde music, as well as championing living British composers.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Those were the times… nowadays, new music is held in the lowest possible esteem, but secretly, to avoid to be seen as impolite. (Thank you, Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbit, Birtwistle.)

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Question to orchestral players: how much does continuous eye contact matter? Judging from the footage in this clip, Nikish doesn’t take his eyes of the orchestra, while Boult looks a lot at his score.

  • Will says:

    The alleged similarities between Nikisch’s and Boult’s ‘techniques’ are nonsensical.
    Nikisch’s baton is an extension of his hand and arm movements, precisely those which Boult advises against! Boult’s baton gestures – most of the time – are an extension of his FINGERS and unfortunately result in the point of the stick ‘swishing’ through the air too fast to see it when you need to see it! That is exactly why his interpretations, although beautifully ‘considered’ and undoubtedly ‘authentic’, particularly of composers such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams, in many instances lack real ‘vertical precision’ – i.e. the orchestra isn’t playing all that ‘well together’!

    • Tom says:

      I agree re: comparison of Nikisch and Boult; but I don’t agree re: Boult’s less-than precise ensemble (or rather, its cause – you’re quite right that Boult’s performances aren’t notable for their precision).

      The cause of that imprecision is actually nothing to do with stick technique at all – Boult’s is actually fabulously clear (and it’s exactly what I’ve always aspired to for the simple reason that it works incredibly well). If you look at many other conductors, they have appalling stick techniques that are a great deal less likely to result in precise ensemble (in no particular order Rattle, Barenboim, Thielemann and going back further Furtwangler and many, many more; for what it’s supposed to look like, look at Haitink). The reason for the imprecision in Boult’s performances is that he just wasn’t that bothered by it. If he’d been more of a stickler for precision (as it, made a habit of stopping the orchestra to insist on cleaner ensemble) then it would have been different. Rattle, for example, does exactly this even though his gestures are far less likely to create precision.

      So it’s a question of a conductor’s priorities, really. This isn’t to say what Boult did in this respect was right – merely that it wasn’t top of his shopping list.

      • Andrew Condon says:

        Another conductor with a pretty mediocre stick technique is Vladimir Ashkenazy – for all its deficiencies I often heard him give some stunning performances with the RPO when he worked regularly with them; Walton 1 and Alexander Nevsky come to mind.

    • Jonathan Brett says:

      What I loved about this video was the criticism about moving from the elbow, one that I make all the time myself when teaching because I am convinced that it generally creates audible stiffness in sound. It is a complex subject but not doing so can, as you say, can cause issues of vertical precision. This is why in my view, just as a violinist may have a number of different options for bowing or fingering for any moment, a conductor should similarly have a wide vocabulary of movement, combined with understanding of the impact of differing gestures on quality of sound and line versus the relative risk concerning quality of ensemble. If one has options then one can use one which seems most likely to provide the best overall result in any particular situation.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In his younger years, Nikish’s frontal hair lock took enthusiastically part in the conducting process, as was described by Debussy in one of his reviews: ‘When the piece stormed heroically forward, the lock rose to the occasion, and in the sad adagio it drooped tragically over the open score.’ When arriving at a sudden sforzando, Debussy compared him to a matador. (‘Monsieur Croche, anti-dilletant’)

      • Garry Humphreys says:

        Pictures of the young Henry Wood (including the famous ‘Spy’ cartoon in Vanity Fair) show him to be a dead ringer for Nikisch. Imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

  • David Osborne says:

    Amazing footage of Nikisch conducting. I had not seen that.

  • Michael Wilkinson says:

    The narrator of this documentary is of course Vernon Handley, who moulded his own technique on that of Sir Adrian, and was perhaps most completely his heir, and so missed. Hence the quality of information and insight.

  • Sue says:

    Perhaps this will shed some light on the art of conducting: