The Conductor’s Baton is a stick used by conductors primarily to enlarge and enhance the manual and bodily movements associated with directing an ensemble of musicians.
Before the use of the baton, orchestral ensembles were conducted from the harpsichord or the first violin lead. Conductors first began to use violin bows or rolled pieces of paper before the modern baton was introduced.
Batons have normally varied in length from about 25 to 60 cm (10 to 24 inches) though a range of between 30 and 65 cm (12 and 26 inches) is more commonly used – Henry Wood once requested the use of a 60-cm (24-inch) baton.
Modern batons are generally made of a lightweight wood, fiberglass or carbon fiber which is tapered to a comfortable grip called a “bulb” that is usually made of cork, oak, walnut, rosewood, or occasionally aluminium and that may be tailored to a conductor’s needs.
Visibility is key. A baton sprayed white is more visible than a wood one sprayed with lacquer. In an operatic setting, the baton is likely to be painted white. Musicians in the dark orchestra pit and the singers on stage need to be able to see it.
Ancient Greeks refer to rhytmical guidence of huge ensembles of eight hundred people. In 709 BC, “Pherekydes of Patrae, giver of rhythm” waved with his golden staff up and down in equal movements as he sat on a high chair surrounded by players. These movemants kept veryone together.
In the middle ages, the leader of a schola (vocal ensemble) had a stick which symolized his profession. He could use it to show musical notes in gradual, found on a music stand in front of the whole choir.
Different eyewitnesses to the premiere performance of Joseph Haydn’s Creation in April of 1798 indicate that Haydn used a baton to conduct with his hands. Said Princess Eleanor von Liechtenstein, “Hayden [sic] gave the tempo with his two hands;” and wrote a Swedish relative of Franz Berwald, “on a higher level stood Haydn himself with his baton.
Composer and conductor Louis Spohr claimed that he was the first person to introduce a conducting baton to England in the 1820, but reports indicate that Daniel Turk conducted the Halle Orchestra with a baton in 1810. However, Turk was apparently so exuberant that he collided with a chandelier above his head.
Louis Spohr introduced the baton to England on 10 April 1820, while conducting his second symphony with the Philharmonic Society in London. Witnesses noted that the conductor “sits there and turns over the leaves of the score but after all, he cannot, without … his baton, lead on his musical army”. It is more likely that he used his baton in rehearsal than in concert. It was 1825 when George Smart reported that he sometimes ‘beat time in front with a short stick’.
The baton began to gain in popularity between 1820 and 1840. The first batons were narrow and conical wooden wands that had an engraving of three rings near the bottom that indicated the handle. The Halle Orchestra reported that Daniel Turk used a baton in 1810, with motions so exuberant that he occasionally hit the chandelier above his head and showered himself with glass.
When Felix Mendelssohn returned to London in 1832, despite objections from violin leaders, he was encouraged to go on with his baton. Despite the initial disagreement, the baton was in regular use at the Philharmonic a year later.
In the early 1940s, while big band jazz music was on the rise, the use of a conductor became paramount to the success of the ensemble. To accommodate this, these conductors started using specialized “jazz batons.”
Conductors view their gestures as the primary means to communicate musical ideas, whether or not they choose to use batons. Leonard Bernstein is quoted as saying, “If one [the conductor] uses a baton, the baton itself must be a living thing, charged with a kind of electricity, which makes it an instrument of meaning in its tiniest movement.
It is to be noted that not all conductors use a baton, and some of the greatest conductors of all times either never used it or used it very rarely (like Boulez or Masur) or conducted without it for a certain period of time (like Bernstein or Ozawa).
The largest conductor’s baton measured 4.25 m (13 ft 11 in) and was manufactured by the Harmonie Amicitia Roggel (Netherlands). The baton was used by conductor Bas Clabbers (Netherlands) during a concert in Heythuysen, Netherlands, on 30 October 2010. The original baton was 45.2 cm (1 ft 5 in) long.