• Holly Mathieson

Embodying Music: The Visuality of Three Iconic Conductors in London, 1840-1940

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

Mathieson, H. (2010). Embodying Music: The Visuality of Three Iconic Conductors in London, 1840-1940 (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago.

Full Thesis available here: http://hdl.handle.net/10523/461


Louis Antoine Jullien by Edward Morton, printed by M & N Hanhart, published by John Mitchell, after Alfred Edward Chalon coloured lithograph, published 1840s 20 3/8 in. x 13 7/8 in. (516 mm x 354 mm) paper size

This dissertation analyses the visuality of three iconic conductors who worked in London between 1840 and 1940: Louis Jullien, Hans Richter and Sir Henry Wood. It investigates the ways in which the public saw, discussed and understood how they moved, dressed, behaved and conceptualised their role, both on and off stage. The primary source material includes portraits and written descriptions of the conductors' posture, gesture, rehearsal and performance technique and behaviour, and elements of the conductors' off-stage personas. The texts and images are analysed using reception, historical and iconographical methods to establish their place within the greater corpus of music criticism and portraiture, and to ascertain whether the observations and images were unique or typical of conductors of the period. The results are then contextualised by relating them to the wider socio-cultural environment in which they were created.


The importance which contemporaries attached to the visualities of Jullien, Richter and Wood was closely related to the increased prominence of conductors in concert life generally. Differences in gesture size and style between the three conductors, and indications of shifts in what audiences and critics considered to constitute good conducting, suggest that expectations of what a conductor did and how it was effective changed in this period. Contemporary conducting theory was likely to have had an influence on modes of depiction and the reception of images and gesture. Different visual aspects dominated the reception and portraiture of each conductor, although musical and non-musical factors could also influence the results. For example, issues of gender and national stereotypes influenced Jullien‘s public persona; perceived Germanic qualities and a personal connection with Wagner framed much of Richter‘s reception; and the influence of wars and national attitudes towards native musicians underpinned much of Wood‘s image.


The metaphors applied to the three conductors and their roles in the music-making process were profoundly influenced by contemporary ideals of creativity, power, masculinity and leadership. Observers compared Jullien to a mesmerist, magician or military hero; Richter's role as a Wagnerian conductor was intellectualised, and his musical knowledge viewed as an intuitive, internal process; and, at the end of his life, Wood was celebrated as a craftsman, his hard work, punctuality and good nature cited as integral factors in the process by which he successfully translated the written score into sound. It is clear that the subjects' visualities were self-consciously fashioned, where possible. While the findings of this study are specific to its particular subject matter, the broader implication of the research is that visuality is likely to have been a pervasive and ongoing factor in the reception of conductors since the beginning of the profession.


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Read the full thesis here.