25 Best Conductors Of All Time

To be a conductor is to be the director of a musical performance played by an orchestra or an ensemble involving many singers or choral members. These movements by the conductor, often aided by a small baton, are used to interpret the score, which includes the tempo, and makes sure musicians or singers join in time. Without further ado, here are the 25 best conductors of all time:

1. Leonard Bernstein

Mahler Symphony No. 7, movement IV (excerpt) | Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic

Born in 1918 in Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein remains one of the most important American conductors of his time and the most prodigiously talented musicians ever. In addition to international acclaim, he has garnered many awards, such as Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, and a Lifetime Achievement under the Kennedy Center Honors as one of the best conductors of all time. Bernstein is recognized to be the first American-born conductor to lead a major symphony orchestra in the United States.

Next: Our list of the best composers in history

2. Arturo Toscanini

Arturo Toscanini - Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries

Arturo Toscanini is one of the most influential musicians and best conductors of all time. Born in Italy in 1867, he was a perfectionist with an eidetic memory and a natural gift for orchestral details and music. He first studied cello in a music conservatory and then held honored positions as the director of music for the New York Philharmonic and La Scala in Italy.

Next: Top pianists in all of music history (our picks)

3. Carlos Kleiber

Carlos Kleiber conducting comparison: Die Fledermaus (two orchestras simultaneously)

Carlos Keiber, born in 1930, remains among the most renowned international conductors. He was the son of a well-known Austrian conductor and an American woman from Iowa. He preferred to remain outside the public eye and is known to have only given one interview during his professional career. Kleiber, who ranks amongst the world’s best conductors of all time, was married to a ballet dancer, and they had a daughter and son.

4. Johannes Brahms

Brahms - Hungarian Dances No. 5 & 6 conducted by Maciej Tomasiewicz

Born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, Johannes Brahms is an eminent and innovative conductor, composer, and pianist. He primarily conducted in Vienna and soon made the city his home. When he was 30, he was appointed Wiener Singakademie’s conductor, and as he aged as a conductor and musician, he began to receive many honors, including the 1984 Maximillian Order for Science & Art.

5. Sir Thomas Beecham

Sir Thomas Beecham Leads English Orchestra

Sir Thomas Beecham was born in 1879 in Lancashire to a well-to-do industrial family in Britain. In his teens, he wanted to attend a music conservatory but studied the classics at Wadham College. Fascinatingly, he studied music composition but was self-taught as a conductor. The first public concert he conducted was in 1899. About a decade later, he established the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, which includes many musicians who later became celebrated in their own right.

Next: The best symphonies of all time (our full featured list)

6. André Prévin

Lieutenant Kijé, Symphonic Suite - Prokofiev - André Prévin

André George Prévin was born in Berlin in 1929. While he dabbled in the world of jazz and Hollywood feature films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was also a talented conductor, arranger, and composer of classical music. He garnered fame on TV by creating a legacy as a composer of Artistic Music. He has won many awards, including four Academy Awards and ten Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement.

Next: Greatest jazz musicians of all time (our full featured list)

7. Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 | Daniel Barenboim & the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (complete symphony)

Ludwig Van Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany, and was a well-known and preeminent composer, pianist, and conductor. His legacy continues for centuries; his work is defined by three periods—the first, middle, and latter periods of his musical career. To honor his legacy, the city of Bonn hosts Beethovenfest, a musical celebration that has been happening for more than 150 years.

Next: The top Beethoven pieces and works

8. Sir Simon Rattle

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 / Rattle · Berliner Philharmoniker

Born in Liverpool in the mid-1950s, Sir Simon Rattle is an internationally famous British conductor. He was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was the principal conductor of many symphony orchestras in Birmingham, Berlin, and London, among others. He has been honored with several British awards for his contribution to the world of music and art. His European debut was in 1950 in Bergamo, and his American debut was in 1979 in Los Angeles.

9. Carlo Maria Giulini

Mozart - Symphony No. 40 - Carlo Maria Giulini

Born in 1914 in Brescia, Italy, Carlo Maria Giulini is a musical virtuoso who began to play the violin at five. He studied at the country’s foremost musical conservatory in Rome at sixteen. Giulini, whose musical career was sidelined by World War II, eventually led some of the globe’s most famous orchestras in London, Vienna, and Chicago.

10. Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss Documentary - At the End of the Rainbow

Born in 1864 in Munich, Richard Strauss remains among the leading conductors and composers in what was called the late Romantic era as it evolved into the modern era. He began composing at age six and continued until he died eight decades later. He was heavily involved in conducting in both Western Europe as well as the Americas and was even elevated to a bit of quasi-celebrity status.

Next: The best romantic composers

11. Claudio Abbado

Young Performers: Claudio Abbado / Abbado · Bernstein · New York Philharmonic

Born in 1933 in Milan as the son of an Italian violinist, Claudio Abbado was a student at the Milan Conservatory, studying composition, piano, and conducting. He ranks among the best conductors of all time. In the late 1960s, he was honored and became the principal conductor at La Scala, eventually taking over the reins as its music director a few years later. He brought La Scala to the United States for its 1976 bicentennial celebration in the nation’s capital. Abbado went on to be a guest conductor in London, Berlin, and Vienna, among others.

12. Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninov Conducts Symphony No 3 (1939)

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in 1873. He is considered among the finest pianists, composers, and conductors of his day. He was born into a musical Russian aristocratic family and began playing the piano by age four, representing the last of Russian classical music’s romantic period. He began his career as a conductor in 1904 at the Bolshoi Theater, and then, a few years later, he and his family moved to Dresden and toured the United States.

Next: Greatest film composers of all time (our picks)

13. Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 / Harnoncourt · Berliner Philharmoniker

Nikolaus Harnoncourt remains among the best conductors of all time, although he began his musical career as a classical cellist. He was born in Berlin in 1929 as an Austrian citizen and is recognized as a pioneer of the 1960s to 1970s Early Music Movement. He eventually conducted both operas and orchestras and even authored a few books on the topic of performance music history. His conducting debut took place at La Scala in 1970, leading a Monteverdi production.

14. Lorin Maazel

Wagner: Götterdämmerung (final scene) / Maazel · Berliner Philharmoniker

Born in 1930 to American parents of Russian Jewish heritage in France, Lorin Maazel came from a musical family, with his grandfather being a violinist for the Met Opera for twenty years. He grew up primarily in Pittsburgh and was considered a child prodigy with perfect pitch. His conducting debut at the University of Idaho was at age eight in 1938, followed by eleven concerts at the 1939 NYC World’s Fair. He conducted orchestras internationally, with tenures in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, among others.

15. Mariss Jansons

Mahler - Symphony No. 2 'Auferstehung' - Mariss Jansons | Concertgebouworkest

Mariss Jansons was born in 1943 and remains among the best conductors of all time. He was born in 1943 in Latvia, with a career that took him across the world. He is best known for his interpretations of works by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, among others. His mother was a singer while his father was a conductor. Jansons led orchestras in Oslo, London, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; his last performance was with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Next: Best Tchaikovsky pieces

16. George Széll

George Szell - Beethoven Symphony No. 5

George Széll was a Hungarian composer and conductor who is widely ranked among the best conductors of all time. He grew up in Vienna and was born in Budapest to a family of Jewish origin. His music career began as a pianist, and he was touring Europe by the time he was eleven. When he realized that conducting offered him more artistic control, Széll moved in that direction with the help of his mentor, Richard Strauss.

17. Sir Charles Mackerras

Leoš Janáček - Taras Bulba (Česká filharmonie, Sir Charles Mackerras)

Sir Alan Charles Mackerras was born in 1925 in upstate New York to Australian parents but grew up primarily in Australia after age two. He studied several instruments and wrote a concerto for the piano at twelve. Four years later, he attended the NSW State Conservatorium of Music. Mackerras was the principal conductor for several years of the BBC Concert Orchestra. In 2008, he became an honorary president of the Edinburgh International Festival.

18. Ferenc Fricsay

Dvořák - Symphony No.9 "From The New World" / Moldau (c.r.: Ferenc Fricsay, Berliner Philharmoniker)

Born in Budapest in 1914, Ferenc Fricsay studied music at the city’s Academy of Music, learning to play several instruments and studying conducting and composition. He went on to perform in London, Basel, Berlin, Budapest, Amsterdam, Boston, Israel, and Buenos Aires, among others. He remains one of the best conductors of all time.

19. Evgeny Mravinsky

Beethoven - Symphonies n°6 Pastoral & 4,1,3,5,7 + Presentation (reference rec. : Evgeny Mravinsky)

Evgeny Mravinsky was born in 1903 in Saint Petersburg. He is widely considered amongst the best conductors of all time. He was the nephew of well-known soprano singer Evgeniya Mravina. In addition to being an accomplished pianist, he was a conductor and a professor at Leningrad’s state music conservatory. His first public conducting was in 1929, followed by performances at the Kirov Ballet and Bolshoi Opera. His international career began in the mid-1940s in Finland.

20. Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink was born in the Netherlands in 1929. In addition to being one of the world’s best conductors of all time, he was an accomplished violinist. He has been a primary conductor or music director at the Royal Concertgebouw and the London Philharmonic, among others. His last performance was at the Vienna Philharmonic, and he was a recipient of the Gramophone Award in 2015.

21. Wilhelm Furtwängler

Berliner Philharmoniker’s Furtwängler Edition – on 22 CD/SACD

Born in 1912 in Berlin, Wilhelm Furtwängler was a composer and conductor of German descent. His style is considered unique and original and often the inspiration for those who came after his professional work, with a list of impressive proteges. Many argue that he is one of the best conductors of all time and the ultimate in Germanic conducting style.

22. Sir Georg Solti

Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta Sz. 106: I. Andante tranquillo

Hungarian-born Sir Georg Solti was an opera and orchestral conductor who also served as the long-time musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was born in Budapest to Jewish parents and has performed across the world in London, Munich, and Frankfurt, among others. After graduating, he was appointed to the state opera in Hungary. In 1962, he worked as the music director of the LA Philharmonic.

23. Leopold Stokowski

Leopold Stokowski conducts Tchaikovsky (vaimusic.com)

Born in the 1880s in London, Leopold Stokowski remains among the best British conductors of all time, with his debut in 1909. He is well known for his musical work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which created the music for Disney’s Fantasia. He also worked in Cincinnati, Houston, New York, and Hollywood, among others. His last public performance was in 1975, at age 93.

24. Sir Colin Davis

Haydn: Die Schöpfung (The Creation), Stimmat an die Saiten (Sir Colin Davis, LSO)

Born in Weybridge, Surrey to a musical family, Sir Colin Davis attended the Royal College of Music on a scholarship. While he studied the clarinet, he always had intentions of conducting. After initially struggling, he worked for the BBC Scottish Orchestra, and then, he was a guest conductor over the next fifteen years across the world in Dresden, Boston, and New York, to name a few.

25. Pierre Monteux

Scheherazade, Op. 35: III. The Young Prince and the Young Princess

Pierre Monteux was born in Paris to his parents, who were descendants of Sephardic Jews. He played the violin and viola but regularly received conducting engagements. He was the principal conductor at the Met in New York as well as performed in Boston, San Francisco, Amsterdam, and London, among others. In 1942, he became an American citizen. He later founded a school for conductors and musicians in Maine.

Read Next:

The greatest college marching bands

Leave a Comment