They have the sort of earnings and legions of fans you might normally associate with a pop star, and spend their busy lives jetting first class from one cultural honey pot to another. They are garlanded with lavish praise wherever they go, but with just one slip, their public can suddenly turn critical and unforgiving. Certainly the life of a top conductor is a strange and wonderful thing. From humble beginnings, these masters of the orchestra have risen to become the classical music world's greatest figureheads, giving this complex, rarefied sphere a human face. Maestros like the Berlin Philharmonic's Simon Rattle or the Vienna Philharmonic's Zubin Mehta (performing in Al Ain on Friday the and on Saturday at Emirates Palace), have come to represent as central a part of the western tradition as writers or artists - beacons of elite culture in a fog of commercialism.
This isn't bad going for a profession that, to the uninitiated, looks like scarcely more than dressing up as a penguin and wiggling a little stick. So how did conductors come to enjoy the huge prestige they have today? Personally, I blame Beethoven. If the composer hadn't made his musical scores so bewilderingly complex, professional conductors might never have come into being. Initially, the job of making sure an ensemble stayed together and in tempo was a fairly rudimentary business. Most early orchestras, it seems, simply weren't very good by the standards of today, and with manuscripts on their music stands showing only individual parts, musicians needed help to know when to come in. Composers generally performed this duty by leading their own music, by beating the floor with a staff or waving a paper scroll. When they were absent, the orchestra would simply follow basic gestures made by the first violinist's bow, and the violinist would not uncommonly stamp loudly on the floor to fix the tempo. With little finesse, conductors were more like the tom-tom players in a military band than the revered maestros of today. And just like in the military, the role was not without its casualties: Louis XIV's court composer Lully actually died after skewering himself in the foot while conducting; the wound eventually turned gangrenous.
That cruelly tragicomic moment aside, early conducting served its purpose well enough. With the baroque music of the time generally played at a uniform tempo throughout a piece, such simple techniques enabled even the most slapdash of ensembles to rattle through their scores more or less in unison. With the advent of the classical period, however, things got far more complicated. While classical composers like Haydn eschewed the complex use of counterpoint typical of the baroque (ie two or more independent musical voices within the same piece), their music was far less regular in tempo. As this new music incorporated many moods within the space of a single piece, the conducting style of the earlier period needed refining to be of use.
Things got only more complicated with the arrival of the romantic era, when yet more complex orchestration, variation of mood and tempo in music such as Beethoven's meant that old-style orchestra leading became obsolete. Of course, with Beethoven, the composer was often on hand to lead the orchestra himself. However, when he became deaf in later life, he also became odder by the minute, his conducting style bizarre (he jumped in the air, for example, to signify forte) and full of wild gestures prone to dangerously upsetting the lamps lighting his score. Clearly, when composers became as complex and unreliable as Beethoven, they were going to need substitutes. Enter Louis Spohr, the world's first professional conductor. Though respected as a minor composer in his day, Spohr has gone down in history as the first orchestra leader to use a baton, and his fame as a musical interpreter steadily opened up a new role as an intermediary between composers and musicians.
From Spohr's time, the conductor's significance grew fast, but until the late 19th century, composer-conductors like Mendelssohn and Wagner still dominated the business, in terms of prestige at least. Since then, the balance has tipped the other way. There have still been composers who conducted brilliantly: Mahler was arguably more famous in his time as musical director of the Vienna Opera than as a writer of music, while after the Second Word War Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez retained equal credibility as both composers and musical interpreters.
Nonetheless, since the early 20th century, men famous solely as conductors (for men they invariably were) have become as famous as composers - indeed, with the development of recording, they sometimes overtook composers as classical music's best-known living representatives. Conducting, however, was no longer the same racket as back when poor Lully stabbed himself in the foot. With scores detailing every part now available to orchestral players, the basic necessity of watching a conductor to keep time was no longer strictly necessary - indeed, conductors like the German Furtwängler were famous for beating off-time: the revered figure was called the "puppet on a string".
But while conductors' most basic function as a human metronome became less essential, their influence on an orchestra's sound became ever more important, especially once recording made direct comparisons between different maestros easy. The advent of master conductors improved orchestral standards greatly, with excellence more rigidly striven for and a lively culture of debate developing around musical interpretation.
Anyone who doubts the remarkable effect a conductor's influence can make on a work would do well to compare recordings by the 20th century's main competitors in the field, Toscanini and Furtwängler. While Toscanini was known for insisting on complete fidelity to the original score, Furtwängler celebrated the conductor as the master, not the servant, of the manuscript, responsible for bringing it to life anew with each performance. This opposition was partly exaggerated: Toscanini did sometimes change orchestration while Furtwängler's supposed innovations were often returns to the original score.
Nonetheless, listening to the introductory passages of each conductor's Beethoven's ninth symphony reveals a marked difference. In Toscanini's 1952 version with the NBC Orchestra, the first violins are crisp and clear, the notes brisker and the intensity of light and shade both in volume and tempo more moderated, giving the music a restraint that is arguably slightly closer to the sound of Beethoven's great predecessor, Mozart. Furtwängler's 1954 version with the Philharmonia orchestra starts by contrast with an eerie, almost Wagnerian swell, with the first violins slower far quieter. The orchestra behind them has a warmer, fuzzier glow of sound to it, with individual instruments harder to pick out, and shifts from very quiet to boomingly loud coming more abruptly. Toscanini's version is quite possibly closer to the sound made by Beethoven's contemporaries, while Furtwängler's version is more dramatic and arguably more emotionally intense.
Such distinctive musical personalities helped conductors rank among the 20th century's great cultural heroes, public figures whose influence extended far beyond the orchestra pit. Arturo Toscanini, for example, was revered not just for his immaculate interpretations of the classics but also for his principled stand against Mussolini in his native Italy. More recently, Daniel Barenboim has gained considerable attention as a vocal critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, setting up the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a Jewish-Arab orchestra in 1999 in conjunction with the Palestinian writer Edward Said. From being merely the composer's helpmeet, conductors moved to becoming the public face of art music and, by extension, pillars of the western tradition.
The effects of this adulation were two-fold. The creation of orchestral superstars may well have aided the leap in popularity of classical music after the Second World War, giving the public recognised figures under whose tutelage they could more easily approach the repertoire. At the same time, conductors became sacred cows, fawned upon to sometimes remarkable degrees, their mistakes ignored, their financial rewards vast and their shady pasts disregarded.
As the music writer Norman Lebrecht has pointed out, although figures like Herbert von Karajan remained controversial (though always in work) due to their close association with the Nazis, other conductors like Karl Boehm were rehabilitated without demur despite having shown active enthusiasm for Hitlerite rule. Toscanini's notorious bullying tantrums, meanwhile, were never seen by an adoring public as incongruous in a man well known for his loathing of dictatorship, but as the unquestionable trappings of creative genius.
To be fair, however, it is not unreasonable to allow some indulgence to people whose over-the-top characters have been integral to their success. A central part of the conductor's role is to enthuse players with a sense of their own potential, using charisma, charm or hectoring to prise the best performance possible out of an ensemble. Personality and bearing is clearly essential to success: it's a not uncommon truism that classical musicians can recognise a great conductor just by the way he (or nowadays, she) walks to the podium and picks up a baton. The effort needed to impose a vision of a piece upon a disparate (and occasionally hostile) group of players means that large personalities are often what the profession needs. Inevitably, these personalities have become part of the mythology of classical music.
Much like the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Disney's musical cartoon Fantasia (the first place I ever witnessed classical music), the greatest conductors really can summon amazing forces out of the ether, bringing a series of little dots on a page magically to life in one of the most powerful sensual experiences the word can offer.