Informant (M) is a student at USC who plays the trumpet.
M: So the way that conductors used to conduct was like with a big stick, and they used to bang it against the ground to conduct, literally, like for the beats, and someone hit the stick, and it hit his foot, and contracted like, a disease and died from it—
I: Like tetanus?
M: It was probably tetanus, and yeah they stopped doing that.
I: So I guess that’s why they wave it now?
M: I guess, yeah, I think so.
“That’s also I think something I recall from a story told by my conductor…”
I asked my informant whether she knew of any composer-related folklore, which she couldn’t think of, but did know about this story.
This folk narrative gives explanation as to why a baton, perhaps the most symbolic object tied to conductors, is used in conducting, which is an essential part of any orchestra. As a legend, it is very much based in the real world, with the exact specifics of who this conductor is and what disease they contracted remaining as unknowns. As a simple narrative, this story has been passed down to my informant orally, and the conductor that told my informant this story most likely had a different performance. Since the story deals with conducting, it makes sense that my informant heard it from a conductor. While this story probably isn’t the singular reason why conductors now use batons, the aspect of death would be enough to convince people it is, or at least a primary reason why.
Why Conductors Use Batons