LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI (1882 - 1977)
Leopold Stokowski’s father was a cabinet-maker of Polish descent, and his mother was of Irish origin. As a child he learnt to play the violin and piano, sang in a church choir, and discovered the organ when he was eleven years old. He became a student at the Royal College of Music in 1896, where his tutors included Stanford and Walford Davies. Two years later he enrolled at the Royal College of Organists, gaining his diploma in 1900. In that year he became choirmaster and organist at St Mary’s Church, Charing Cross, two years later moving to a similar post at the more prestigious St James’s Church, Piccadilly. While there he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford, gaining his Bachelor of Music degree in 1903; in addition he conducted small orchestral concerts in London. On the recommendation of one of his former teachers, Sir Hubert Parry, he was appointed in 1905 as choirmaster and organist at St Bartholomew’s Church, New York, whose parishioners included the wealthy Vanderbilt and Morgan families. Here Stokowski, as well as developing the musical prowess of the church, inaugurated a series of organ recitals, often including in the programmes his own transcriptions of works by composers such as Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.
He is believed to have studied conducting with Nikisch in Leipzig during the summer of 1906 and left his New York post in 1908, determined to develop a career as a conductor. Stokowski moved to Paris to undertake further study. Here, learning that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was to be revived, with the help of his future wife, the pianist Olga Samaroff, Stokowski put himself forward as conductor of the new orchestra. A representative of the orchestra was present at his conducting debut, which took place in Paris on 12 May 1909 with the Colonne Orchestra, and despite his inexperience Stokowski was offered the post he sought, with effect from the autumn of 1909. His appointment turned out to be a great success with both the orchestra and audiences: attendances increased, the season was expanded and several American premières took place, for example of music by Elgar and Glière. However during his third season with the orchestra Stokowski was unsettled by internal disputes at board level and at the same time was attracted by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s search for a new conductor. He resigned in April 1912, two months before the announcement of his new appointment as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
During the twenty-four years in which Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra (1912–1936) he established it as one of the finest in the world, its reputation significantly enhanced by the numerous recordings which conductor and orchestra made together. Stokowski managed to combine several self-reinforcing characteristics for success: he trained the orchestra into a virtuoso body of musicians, developed the repertoire with a consistent policy of performing new and unusual works, and managed popular opinion and the local media with great expertise, exploiting his own flamboyant personality (which was always however placed at the service of music), its presentation in concert, and the inherent interest of major musical events such as the first local performances of Mahler’s vast Symphony No. 8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, and Wagner’s Parsifal. In addition Stokowski immersed himself in the social and cultural life of his adopted city, and participated in the founding of the Curtis Institute of Music, formed by Mary Louise Curtis, the wife of Edward Bok, a member of the orchestra’s board of directors. He initiated concerts not only for children but planned by them (they were enormously successful); was sensitive to the plight of the unemployed at the time of the Great Depression, especially unemployed musicians; and experimented constantly with new technologies, especially in the fields of broadcasting and recording.
This remarkable period of cultural and musical development came to an end during the mid-1930s as a result of financial pressures, essentially caused by the difficult general economic environment, but experienced by Stokowski in terms of pressure upon his artistic, and specifically programming, decisions. Between 1936 and 1941 he gradually withdrew from his involvement with the orchestra, while pursuing interests in other fields, such as film. One of his lasting achievements in this field was his collaboration with Walt Disney in the creation of the animated film Fantasia, the soundtrack of which was conducted by Stokowski. It included works such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which were central to the conductor’s philosophy of bringing music of the ‘masters’ to as many people as possible.
Having elevated the musical life of Philadelphia to a national level, for the remainder of his career Stokowski led a much more varied pattern of existence, divided between guest-conducting and various short stints as a chief conductor, all of which were underpinned by a constant programme of recordings. With the sponsorship of the American Columbia Record Company he formed the All-American Youth Orchestra in 1940, which toured South America with great success and made several fine recordings. This group continued until 1942, and was briefly revived in 1948. Between 1941 and 1944 he conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra alongside Toscanini, but his preference for contemporary music caused NBC to terminate this relationship. At the invitation of the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, he formed in 1944 the New York City Symphony Orchestra, aimed at a mass audience with low priced tickets. The orchestra’s concerts were very successful, but Stokowski resigned in July 1945 because of conflicts once again with the organisation’s board. During 1945 and 1946 he conducted the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, and from the end of 1946 was conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. For the 1949–1950 season he shared the musical direction of the New York orchestra with Mitropoulos and might have been expected to have been appointed chief conductor in 1950, but the orchestra’s management in fact selected the perhaps more malleable Mitropoulos instead.
In 1951 at the invitation of Beecham Stokowski conducted in England for the Festival of Britain (his first appearance in that country since 1912), and also conducted at the Salzburg Festival. Between 1955 and 1961 he was chief conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, resigning because of the management’s refusal to permit mixed-race choral forces for a performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. He made his only appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1960, conducting Puccini’s Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli in the leading roles. In 1962 he formed the American Symphony Orchestra at his own expense, and led this orchestra for ten years in a distinguished annual series of concerts presented at Carnegie Hall, New York. Among the many high points of the orchestra’s activities were the first public performance in 1965, and subsequent recording, of the Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives. In 1972 Stokowski settled in England, where he continued to record to the very end of his life. He was due to record the Symphony No. 2 by Rachmaninov for the first time the day after he died peacefully in his sleep, at the age of ninety-five.
Stokowski was a truly remarkable conductor, one of the very finest of the twentieth century. He had the extraordinary ability to create his own unique sound with an orchestra entirely through gesture and facial expression, even without any rehearsal at all, as is attested by a video recording of him conducting the London Symphony Orchestra for his sixtieth birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall, when there had been insufficient time to rehearse the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Many orchestral players have commented upon his strange ability to enable them to play beyond their normal capabilities. No matter what the repertoire, his performances may generally be characterised as possessing a strong sense of atmosphere, achieved through a mastery of orchestral colour, shape, and drama. On the podium he conducted without a baton, and employed very fluid gestures combined with a penetrating and hawk-like gaze. Stokowski was a life-long advocate of the music of his time, seeking to include new works in as many of his programmes as possible; and as part of his crusade to increase the accessibility of music he made numerous transcriptions for orchestra, most notably of keyboard works by J. S. Bach. He recorded constantly throughout his lifetime, maintaining a consistently high standard of execution. Virtually any recording conducted by Stokowski, be it a studio recording or of a live performance, will contain music-making of the highest order and many points of interpretative interest.
In 1943 Stokowski published his only book, which was entitled Music for All of Us. This contains what may be seen as his musical credo, by which he lived throughout his whole life: ‘I believe that music can be an inspirational force in all our lives – that its eloquence and the depth of its meaning are all-important and that all personal considerations concerning musicians and public are relatively unimportant – that music comes from the heart and returns to the heart – that music is a spontaneous impulsive expression – that its range is without limit – that music is forever growing – and that music can be one element to help us build a new conception of life in which the madness and cruelty of wars will be replaced by a simple understanding of the brotherhood of man.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).