How Gangrene Led To The Conductors' Baton

Conductors and wizards have a lot in common. Both are usually older men, are greatly respected and feared and, most importantly, both use wands to work their magic. But just as the wands of the Harry Potter world have supplemented the staves of J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth-style wizards, so did the modern baton replace an older instrument of symphonic conducting.

In the olden days, conductors conducted with their hands, but this was rightly seen as not macho enough. Then conductors got the idea of hauling out a giant Rod of Thumping, and beating the time for the music in a rhythm on the ground. It was also handy for reaching out and thwacking errant musicians.

The man responsible for changing the mighty rod to the tiny stick was Jean-Baptiste Lully (above right), who would have been 378 years old this week if he hadn't had the little accident we're about to tell you about... and also discovered the fountain of youth.

Lully was born in Italy, but moved to France as fast as he could get there so he could be snarky and French to Italian musicians alike. It's kind of like when people from California move to Texas and wear cowboy hats, but with wigs and stuff. When he wasn't poo-pooing his homeland, he was kicking ass as Louis XIV's composer.

Then, one day, Lully was conducting a Te Deum - a fancy Latin phrase for a hymn; literal translation is "Thee, O God, we praise" - in honor of his patron recovering from an illness when he slammed the mighty rod down on his pinky toe, which developed an abscess.

This abscess showed it was an ambitious little wound that wanted to make it to the big time, and blossomed - if that's the proper word for it -into full-fledged gangrene. Lully refused to have the toe amputated, and the gangrene spread like Lady Gaga.

Two months later, Lully had conducted his final coda. And that is why we only give maestros a tiny sliver of malleable plastic to lead their ensembles. It's for their own good, really.

Jef With One F is the author of The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Other Things I Learned In the Black Math Experiment, available now.

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