Ah, the concertmaster. That confident violinist who strides across the stage after everyone else, lifts her bow, waits for an oboe to sound ‘A’ and tunes the orchestra. When the conductor strides out, the concertmaster is the only one who gets to shake her hand. And when everyone is seated, the conductor raises the baton and lets the beat drop. You try to enjoy the music, but you have all these questions gnawing at the deepest roots of your brain. What’s the relationship between the concertmaster and the conductor? Did I leave the pastry balls for my Saturday night croquembouche in the oven? And why is the concertmaster always a violinist?
We can’t help you with the logistics for preparing extravagant desserts, but we can try to get to the bottom of why the concertmaster is always a violinist. We’re also getting a little help from University of Louisville School of Music professor Acton Ostling, who in 1973, wrote a fascinating article about the evolution of the conductor. And yes, we have to discuss conducting because, as you’ll learn, you can’t talk about concertmasters without talking about baton-masters.
During the Baroque era, harpsichords were a staple of orchestral ensembles. As a chordal instrument, they could fully realize the harmony of the piece. So composers began to sit at the harpsichord bench to keep things running smoothly as best they could. It was an amazing development, and composers like C.P.E. Bach swore by its effectiveness. But this method of directing did have some problems. Namely, playing the harpsichord well requires keeping both hands on the keys, and nodding one’s head in lieu of conducting can only get your point across so far. But it was the best the orchestra had, at least until the violins came along.
Toward the end of the 17th century, there was a wave of talented violinists, who also happened to be masterful composers. Think of composers like Corelli:
They weren’t just bringing the big hair, they were bringing wild and fresh violin sound. Like their harspichording counterparts, the best of these virtuoso violinists (i.e., the ones sitting in the first chair) also conducted as they played their instruments. And it was a lot easier than doing so from a keyboard. They could move with their violins to mark time without breaking up their playing. If things got really out of hand, they could even use their bows — like, I don’t know, a baton? — to set the record straight.
When it came to some (read: non-French) opera or orchestral work that employed choirs, concertmasters and harpsichord-directors split responsibilities. The composer at the harpsichord would provide the figured bass and assistance to the singers, while the concertmaster would lead the instrumentalists. This might seem like a perfectly fine arrangement, but imagine the most devilishly diva conductor out there, and then double it. Having two conductors inevitably led to some clashes, in part because the male ego can be an embarrassingly fragile thing. Orchestras could be divided, with some members connecting with the concertmaster and others hanging with the harpsichord.
Spoiler alert: The concertmasters won out. A major reason for this was because composers began to write more harmonically robust music that didn’t require lugging a harpsichord around. And since violinists weren’t going anywhere, the concertmaster became the orchestra’s player-coach. You’d see the concertmaster strike up the orchestra, get the party started and then settle into a playing role.
But the road to becoming a player-coach was a long one, so let’s get back to the history of that decision. Back in the 18th century, as the violinist and Cardiff University professor Robin Stowell notes, the concertmaster had to be not only talented, but charismatic (so as to gain the allegiance of the other musicians) and capable of realizing the emotional nuances of a composer’s work (a conductor's job), maintaining tempo and developing the skills of the orchestra’s other musicians. Oh, and they were dismally compensated for their work.
Toward the end of the 18th century, concertmasters were finding themselves in the same predicament as the old klavierists: it was getting harder to play well and conduct at the same time. Orchestras were getting bigger, music was getting more complex and they found themselves relying on the bow to direct musicians more and more. The fix? Relieve the concertmaster of conducting duties entirely and appoint a dedicated director to lead the orchestra, so that the principal violinist could focus on the music.
Today, we still have the concertmaster, although its role is quite different than its baroque counterpart. Today, the concertmaster tunes the orchestra, plays solo passages and specifies how the violin parts should be played, and acts as a liaison between the conductor and musicians. They may also assume the role of conductor in circumstances call for it.
To complicate things further, I should add that violinists aren’t always the concertmasters. There are exceptions. Stowell points to the words of composer Johann Joachim Quantz, who said that concertmasters weren’t violinists “by right,” but that appointing a violinist was preferable to most other musicians. Composer, conductor and Columbia University professor Carl Bettendorf agrees. “Since Baroque orchestras consisted largely of strings,” he said in a message to WQXR, “it makes sense that in most cases, the first violinist would lead.” Bettendorf also noted that if a piece doesn’t require violins, then there wouldn’t be a violinist concertmaster. He cited Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and Brahms' second serenade as two works that omit violins, and therefore in which the principal violist assumes the role of concertmaster.
If you are lamenting the fact that you were born a few centuries late to see a concert led purely by the concertmaster, don’t worry. It’s not as common, but it does still happen. Here’s a peek at the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, David Kim, leading a rehearsal for Grieg’s “Holberg” Suite, in 2014.
So there you have it. The concertmaster has long history that laid the work for the principal violinist to shine. But if the concertmaster were chosen on basis of instrument coolness, I think we can all agree it would be the contrabassoon leading the way.