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8.557645 - MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / Boris Godunov (Stokowski Transcriptions)
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Symphonic transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski

One of the reasons Leopold Stokowski decided to make his own orchestral version of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain was to get closer to the original, bolder and wilder version, as opposed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s cleaner, westernized revision. In fact, Stokowski’s version is actually close to Rimsky-Korsakov’s in content and form, while faithful to the original Mussorgsky in the orchestration. The 1940 Disney film was a perfect vehicle for Stokowski’s grandiose vision of the work. Mussorgsky worked on it in one way or another throughout his short life. In 1866 it was his first large-scale orchestral work, St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain based on Gogol’s story St John’s Eve (twenty years later Rimsky-Korsakov made his famous revision and orchestration). Mussorgsky had been commissioned to write an opera based on a drama by Mengden, called The Witch, and while he never fulfilled the commission, the motives he sketched for it were used several times, finally as a choral piece in one of his last, unfinished operas, Mlada. This composite project would have employed several composers, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Cui, Minkus and Mussorgsky, but this collaborative effort never quite materialized. But this Witches’ Sabbath music haunted Mussorgsky, perhaps because he never heard a performance of his orchestral version during his lifetime. Mussorgsky also used these motives in his last stage work, the comic opera The Fair at Sorochintsï, from 1877.

Stokowski’s version of the Khovanshchina fragment transforms it into a moving, heart-breaking statement. His own words, printed in the published score, say it best:

Of all the inspired music of Mussorgsky, this is one of the most eloquent in its intensity of expression. A man is going to his execution. He has fought for freedom – but failed. We hear the harsh tolling of bells, the gradual unfolding of a dark and tragic melody, with under-currents of deep agitated tones, all painted with somber timbres and poignant harmonies.

In 1913 Toscanini conducted the U.S. première of the opera Boris Godunov in the Rimsky-Korsakov version; Stokowski gave the U.S. première of the original version in 1929. Over the years, Stokowski experimented with several concert versions with singers, eventually leading to the present orchestral synthesis, following the order of the opera. He links them together with sequences using only deep chimes and low gongs, two of his favorite instruments. Strangely, these bridges sound more like Ives than Mussorgsky. Stokowski confessed to me that he was never entirely satisfied, and kept changing the sequences and the ending, sometimes adding choirs, all of which seems appropriate when dealing with Mussorgsky, as he himself left most of his music in disarray, and was constantly changing and re-arranging Boris and other works, making new versions, adding and removing entire acts. Boris was not that well known in the first part of the twentieth century, and Stokowski felt that a symphonic version would help in bringing this great music to the attention of a wider audience.

The piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in 1874. There were already several orchestral versions of it by the time Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Maurice Ravel in 1922. His marvelous orchestration was based on the Rimsky-Korsakov revision of the piano score, which contained errors and omissions. Stokowski felt that Ravel’s was a great orchestral work, but not sufficiently Russian, and too subtle to do justice to Mussorgsky’s coarser idiom. Indeed, since then there have been numerous other orchestrations in search of a more Russian approach. Stokowski’s version is shorter than Ravel’s, because he eliminated two pictures, Tuileries and The Market Place at Limoges, presumably because he felt they sounded too French, and/or he thought they were actually written by Rimsky-Korsakov. There is little point in comparing the value of the Ravel and Stokowski orchestrations, as they both serve the work wonderfully, albeit in different ways. I sense that the Stokowski version will gain more devotees as time goes by. Stokowski introduced it with the Philadelphians on 17th November 1939.

The two Tchaikovsky fragments become mini symphonic poems in Stokowski’s palette. Solitude is Stokowski’s own title; the original title was Again, as Before, Alone, Op. 73, No. 6, the final song from a set of Six Romances, on poems by D.M. Rathaus, a student who had sent his poems to Tchaikovsky, asking for advice. Stokowski’s version reaches a pathos of great intensity in just a few moments, and manages to express a wordless feeling of desperation and sadness, much more than the original song. In effect it becomes Stokowski’s own. He uses one of his recurrent “tricks”, to have only the last stands of violins play in the opening and closing passages, conjuring a distant, disembodied sound of mysterious quality. Stokowski gave the first performance of his arrangement in 1936 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Humoresque, from Deux morceuax, Op. 10, No. 2 for piano, was written in 1872. The middle section is based on a street song which Tchaikovsky heard in Nice during a Mediterranean holiday. Rachmaninov used to play it as an encore, and Stravinsky used it in his ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Stokowski’s own Traditional Slavic Christmas Music is based on Ippolitov-Ivanov’s In a Manger, which in turn is based on a traditional Christmas hymn. Stokowski’s bare orchestration, which he first performed in Philadelphia on 19th December 1933, interpolates string and brass choirs (no woodwinds in this score), and has a certain magic, and not surprisingly, an organ-like quality.

© 2005 José Serebrier

Stokowski’s Sound

The sound of the orchestra would change within moments of the first encounter with Stokowski. There was nothing that he had said or done to make such an obvious change, other than to start rehearsing after a minimal greeting. One explanation could be that Stokowski had a special sound in his mind, and his gestures and facial expressions had the ability to communicate this sound to any orchestra. This was not a talent unique to Stokowski. It is not unusual for the sound of a professional ensemble to acquire some of the characteristics of a student group when working under the direction of a school orchestra conductor. This has nothing to do with the technical aspects of performance. It has to do with the sound the conductor has imprinted in his ear, and the conductor’s ability to produce that same sound from any orchestra. Almost every conductor has that ability. The degree to which that produces a dramatic influence is related, partially, to the sound that has become imprinted in the conductor’s memory. It seems logical that if a conductor who has spent years directing the Vienna Philharmonic has an encounter with a school orchestra, this group will soon sound smooth and refined. While it can be argued that the students would sit up, concentrate, and do their best when confronted with a known personality, the change in the actual sound quality they produce would be involuntary. It would be a natural reaction to the conductor’s idea of sound, acquired after years of listening to a specific quality of sound. This theory works in both extremes and also in the present reality of music-making around the world. There was a time when orchestras had a distinctive quality that set them easily apart. These differences were partially the result of conductors spending long decades with their orchestras. But conductors were not the only decisive factors. Some ensembles, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, had very few changes in personnel, and a vast majority of the musicians had been trained by the same teachers, in the same school. Sadly, most orchestras today have acquired a similarity of sound. While technique and performance standards seem to have improved, there is a world-wide unanimity of approach that makes many performances copies of each other. What has happened? Do performers listen to each other’s recordings and unconsciously imitate one another? Are today’s performers afraid to take chances, and want to be literal to the point of excluding personal approach? Why has the sound quality of many orchestras become so similar?

Stokowski’s idea of sound was unmistakable and special, and it remained with the Philadelphia Orchestra for many decades after Stokowski’s departure. It became known as the “Philadelphia sound”. In fact, with Eugene Ormandy, this sound continued in the same tradition, but naturally acquired some changes over the years. Part of what Stokowski did to obtain his kind of sound must have been unconscious, a reflection of his gestures and approach. But he also made conscious efforts to request specific playing from his orchestras. One of his most famous habits was to demand that the strings play with free bowings. When guest- conducting, this request caused orchestras much grief and displeasure. I remember Stokowski’s rehearsals in the U.S. and in Europe, and the resistance he encountered when requesting each stand of strings to play with opposite bowings. Orchestras such as the Philadelphia, and later on the Houston and the American Symphony, which played all the time with Stokowski, understood the principle and learned to use this technique to advantage. Stokowski’s explanation was rather simpler than the fact, but it helped the string musicians to realize there was a method at work. Because bows naturally lose in power as they descend, and similarly gain in power as they ascend, combining bows simultaneously in both directions would in principle produce a more even sound. In my opinion, Stokowski carried this good idea too far, using it in every instance rather than for specific effects or particular passages. In any case, it did play a great part in obtaining a lush and unmistakable string tone. Balancing the woodwinds was another Stokowski landmark. As Rimsky-Korsakov had noted in his orchestration book, a flute or an oboe have a hard time competing against sixty strings. Stokowski experimented with changing the traditional placement of woodwinds to try to enhance their volume. He felt that having to play behind the large body of strings, the winds were hidden to the audience, and their sound had to pass across the string barrier. For a while Stokowski experimented by placing the woodwinds to his right, in place of the cellos or violas. This drastically changed their sound, and the over-all balance. Sometimes Stokowski lined up the basses in back of the stage on high podiums, with the horns directly in front, to produce a soundboard for the horns and for the entire orchestra. It also gave the basses an organ-like quality. Stokowski would often make the brass softer than indicated in the score, to balance the strings and winds. This, added to his specification not to use podiums for the brass, contributed to form the smooth “Philadelphia sound”, with a glorious string tone and audible woodwinds. Stokowski made sure that the sound had beauty, sometimes by smoothing the edges. There was logic to everything he did to obtain a rounded, warm tone from the orchestra. Some of it can be explained, but much of it can only be called magic.

© 1997/2005 José Serebrier

Stokowski the Transcriber

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was not only one of the twentieth century’s greatest conductors, he was also an inveterate transcriber of music for the symphony orchestra. In addition to his sixty-year legacy of recordings, he made some two hundred orchestral arrangements of works which had started life in other forms – piano solos, songs, organ music, chamber works, and so on. During Stokowski’s lifetime, his orchestral transcriptions were, for the most part, only heard when he himself conducted them. In the years following his death, however, other conductors have increasingly taken an interest in performing his colourful arrangements. When the Leopold Stokowski Society was formed in 1979, one of its chief aims was to encourage performances of the Maestro’s transcriptions. In 2003 its Committee decided to approach José Serebrier with the suggestion that he too should take them into his repertoire, and record them. He was an obvious choice because, as a young conductor, he had been Associate Conductor to Stokowski at the American Symphony Orchestra. Most notably, in 1965 he featured as Associate Conductor in the world première recording which Stokowski made of Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony, a work that Serebrier himself recorded to great acclaim with the London Philharmonic several years later. Stokowski had given first performances of several of Serebrier’s own compositions, including his First Symphony, when Serebrier was a seventeen-year-old student. Serebrier was delighted with the Stokowski Society’s proposal and planned a CD of Stokowski arrangements, choosing a brilliant all-Russian compendium which, in orchestrations both dramatic and glittering, embraces a wide variety of moods and sounds. At the start of the sessions, which we attended, Serebrier told the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that he was not intent on copying Stokowski’s own recordings of these pieces but instead wished to approach them from a fresh perspective. He has succeeded admirably – and since Stokowski himself had an ever-inquiring, ever forwardlooking mind, there is no doubt that he too would have approved of the wonderful results.

Edward Johnson – The Leopold Stokowski Society

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