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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Charles Mackerras

In their own words

Recorded 1971

Charles Mackerras
Audio: 2 minutes

Strangely enough, it’s very difficult to answer exactly why the conductor has such an extraordinary big influence on the playing of an orchestra but it cannot be denied that it is so. There are many of the greatest conductors that one can tell even by listening to a few chords on a gramophone record who is conducting. And even the lesser conductors really make their mark on every orchestra, not so much by the rehearsals, even by their talking and telling the orchestra how they want it performed, but simply by the way they beat. It’s a most extraordinary psychological phenomenon for which there’s no real explanation. But I always believe that when I’m conducting I try and express the composer’s wishes as much as possible. I try to influence the musicians to play the music my way, hoping that they are willing to be influenced in that direction themselves, already. In other words, that the art of the conductor is making the orchestral player convinced for the moment that your way, that the conductor’s way, is right.

I think it is necessary to not only study the piece of music that one has to perform but it’s most necessary to get the background of the composer’s life and indeed the kind of life that people led in the period in which he lived and the country in which he lived. And indeed all these things, these backgrounds, are necessary to study if one’s going to give a really first-class performance of the composition. It’s also necessary that the conductor really knows the music, otherwise the musicians, who are very sensitive to a conductor who does not know his job, otherwise things will go wrong. In fact, it’s always said that the conductor must have his score in his head and not his head in the score.

Acknowledgements

This oral history of Charles Mackerras is from the De Berg Collection in the National Library of Australia. For more information, or to hear full versions of the recordings, visit the National Library of Australia website.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency