Leopold Stokowski (born Leopold Anthony Stokowski though on occasion in later life he amended his middle name to Antoni and added the family names Stanisław Bolesławowicz) (April 18 1882 – September 13 1977) was a famous orchestral conductor, well known for his free-hand performing style that spurned the traditional baton and for obtaining a characteristically sumptuous sound from many of the great orchestras he conducted.
Stokowski performed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony of the Air. He was also the founder of the All-American Youth Orchestra, the New York City Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra and The American Symphony Orchestra. He conducted the music for and appeared in Disney’s Fantasia.
However, his birth certificate (signed by J. Claxton, registrar at the General Office, Somerset House, London, in the parish of All Souls, County of Middlesex) gives his birth on April 18, 1882, at 13 Upper Marylebone Street (now New Cavendish Street), in the Marylebone District of London. He was named after his Polish grandfather Leopold, who died in the county of Surrey on January 13, 1879, at the age of 49.
Stokowski trained at the Royal College of Music, which he entered in 1896 at age thirteen, making him one of the youngest students to do so. In his later life in America he would perform six of the nine symphonies composed by fellow organ student Ralph Vaughan Williams. He sang in the choir of St. Marylebone Church and later became Assistant Organist to Sir Henry Walford Davies at The Temple Church. At the age of 16, he was elected to membership in the Royal College of Organists. In 1900 he formed the choir of St. Mary's Church, Charing Cross Road, where he trained the choirboys and played the organ. In 1902 he was appointed organist and choir director of St. James's Church, Piccadilly. He also attended The Queen's College, Oxford, where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree in 1903.
Stokowski was a great success in Cincinnati, introducing the idea of "pop concerts" and conducting the United States premieres of new works by such composers as Edward Elgar whose 2nd Symphony was given there on November 24 1911. However, in early 1912, he became sufficiently frustrated with the politics of the orchestra's board that he tendered his resignation. There was a dispute over the resignation, but on April 12 it was finally accepted.
In 1914, he was elected to honorary membership in Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music.
Stokowski rapidly garnered a reputation as a showman. His flair for the theatrical included grand gestures such as throwing the sheet music on the floor to show he did not need to conduct from a score. He also experimented with lighting techniques in the concert hall, at one point conducting in a dark hall with only his head and hands lighted, at other times arranging the lights so they would cast theatrical shadows of his head and hands. Late in the 1929-30 season, he started conducting without a baton; his free-hand manner of conducting became one of his trademarks.
On the musical side, Stokowski nurtured the orchestra and shaped the "Stokowski" sound, or what became known as the "Philadelphia Sound". He encouraged "free bowing" from the string section, "free breathing" from the brass section, and continually altered the seating arrangements of the sections as well as the acoustics of the hall in order to create better sound. Stokowski is credited as being the first conductor to adopt the seating plan used by most orchestras today with first and second violins together on the left, violas and cellos on the right. But he was also known for tinkering with the orchestration of famous works by such composers as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, J.S. Bach and Brahms. In one instance, he even revised the ending of a work, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, by Tchaikovsky, so that it would end quietly, taking his notion from Modest Tchaikovsky's Life and Letters of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (translated by Rosa Newmarch: 1906) that the composer had provided a quiet ending of his own at Balakirev's suggestion. He made major revisions to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, making significant alterations to Rimsky-Korsakov's adaptation of the work, and making it sound, in some places, similar to the original. In the film Fantasia, however, Stokowski did not end the work with a big climax, but allowed the last measures of it to segue right into the beginning of Schubert's Ave Maria.
Many serious music critics have been horrified at the liberties Stokowski took—liberties which were common in the nineteenth century, but had since mostly died out, as faithful adherence to the composer's score became more common. However, Stokowski often left scores completely unretouched, particularly those many hundreds of new works which he was conducting for the first time. On the other hand, he was by no means alone in his alterations to more familiar scores. Toscanini, for example, who had a reputation for "doing as written", was equally adept at making similar changes to composers' scores, as in Tchaikovsky's Manfred symphony, where he added tam-tam crashes to the end of the first movement, rewrote the wind, brass and string parts here and there, and cut 100 bars out of the finale. Toscanini's alterations, however, nearly always tended to be much more subtle, and much less frequent than Stokowski's.
In 1939, Stokowski also made his own orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, in which he omitted two the movements "Tuileries", and "The Marketplace at Limoges" from the score. The composer and arranger Lucien Cailliet, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra who also acted as "house arranger", had assisted Stokowski in the copying of many of Stokowski's transcriptions, something which led to the incorrect assumption that they were Cailliet's work and not Stokowski's. In fact, many of Stokowski's penciled manuscripts still survive in the Stokowski Collection at the University of Pennsylvania. It was from these that Cailliet made good ink copies in his excellent calligraphic hand, and thus started the unfounded rumour that Stokowski's transcriptions were not his own work. Cailliet had actually created his own orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1936, and as Ormandy's RCA Victor recording show, it is quite different from Stokowski's arrangement.
Stokowski's repertoire was broad and included many contemporary works. He was the only conductor to perform all of Schoenberg's orchestral works during the composer's own lifetime, several of which were world premieres. He gave the first American performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in 1932. It was recorded "live" on 78 rpm records and remained the only recording of the work in the catalog until the advent of the LP. Stokowski also gave the US Premieres of four of Shostakovich's symphonies, nos 1, 3, 6 and 11. In 1916, he conducted the United States premiere of Mahler's 8th Symphony. He added works by Rachmaninoff, giving the world premieres of his 3rd symphony, the 4th piano concerto and the Paganini Rhapsody; Sibelius, whose last three symphonies were given their US premieres in Philadelphia in the 1920s; and Igor Stravinsky, many of whose works were also given their first American performances by Stokowski. In 1922, he introduced The Rite of Spring to the USA, gave its first staged performance there in 1930 with Martha Graham dancing the part of The Chosen One, and at the same time made the first US recording of the work. Seldom an opera conductor, Stokowski did give the US premieres in Philadelphia of the original version of Mussorgky's Boris Godunov (1929) and Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1931). Many works by such composers as Bliss, Bruch, Busoni, Chavez, Copland, Enesco, Falla, Hindemith, Holst, Malipiero, Miaskovsky, Piston, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Respighi, Roussel, Scriabin, Szymanowski, Varese, Villa-Lobos, Webern, and Weill, amongst countless other lesser names, received their US Premieres under Stokowski's direction in Philadelphia.
In 1933, he started "Youth Concerts" for younger audiences, which are still a Philadelphia tradition, and fostered youth music programs. He was famous for transcribing many of the major organ works of J. S. Bach, sometimes for a Wagnerian-sized orchestra, but also just for strings alone, his goal being to bring this magnificent music to a wider audience. Much admired in their day, these transcriptions are again being played now, and conductors such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Matthias Bamert, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Seiji Ozawa, Erich Kunzel and Jose Serebrier are among many who have performed and recorded Stokowski's Bach transcriptions. Even so, they are still considered by some to be bastardizations of the works, though as Stokowski pointed out, Bach himself was an inveterate transcriber of the music of others, notably Vivaldi. Today the organ works of Bach are widely heard in their original form via recordings and concerts, much more so than during Stokowski's time. Whether his transcriptions encouraged this resurgence of interest in Bach's organ music is a matter of debate.
After disputes with the board, Stokowski began to withdraw from involvement in The Philadelphia Orchestra from 1936 onwards, allowing co-conductor Eugene Ormandy to gradually take over. He shared principal conducting duties with Ormandy from 1936-1940 and did not return until 1960.
Stokowski appeared as himself in the motion picture The Big Broadcast of 1937, conducting two of his Bach transcriptions. That same year he also conducted and acted in One Hundred Men and a Girl, with Deanna Durbin and Adolphe Menjou. In 1939, Stokowski collaborated with Walt Disney to create the motion picture for which he is best known: Fantasia. He conducted all the music (with the exception of a "jam session" in the middle of the film) and included his own orchestrations for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segments. Stokowski even got to talk to (and shake hands with) Mickey Mouse on screen, although he would later say with a smile that Mickey Mouse got to shake hands with him. Most of the music was recorded in the Academy of Music, using multi-track stereophonic sound. Stokowski also appeared in the 1947 film Carnegie Hall along with Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Ezio Pinza and other great classical musicians of the day.
On his return in 1960, Stokowski appeared with Philadelphia Orchestra as a guest conductor. He also made two LP recordings with them for Columbia Records, one including a performance of Manuel De Falla's El amor brujo, which he had introduced to America in 1922 and had previously recorded for RCA Victor with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra in 1946, and a Bach album which featured the 5th Brandenburg Concerto and three of his own Bach transcriptions. He continued to appear as a guest conductor on several more occasions, his final Philadelphia Orchestra concert taking place in 1969.
In honor of Stokowski's vast influence on music and the Philadelphia performing arts community, on February 24, 1969 he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Beginning in 1964, this award "established to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression."
During this time, Stokowski also became chief conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra on a three-year contract (1941-1944). The NBC's regular conductor, Arturo Toscanini, did not wish to undertake the 1941-42 NBC season though he did accept guest engagements with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski conducted a great deal of contemporary music with the NBC Symphony, including the US premiere of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky in 1943, the world premieres of Schoenberg's Piano Concerto (with Eduard Steuermann) and Antheil's 4th Symphony, both in 1944, and new works by Hovhaness, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Milhaud, Howard Hanson, William Schumann, Morton Gould and many others. He also conducted several British works with this orchestra, including Vaughan Williams' 4th Symphony, Holst's The Planets, and George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad. Stokowski also made a number of recordings with the NBC Symphony for RCA Victor, including Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, a work which was never in Toscanini's repertoire. Toscanini then returned as co-conductor of the NBC Symphony with Stokowski for the remaining two years of the latter's contract.
His early recordings were made at Victor's Camden, New Jersey studios but then, in 1927, Victor began recording the orchestra in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra later participated in long playing, high fidelity, and stereophonic experiments, during the early 1930s, mostly for Bell Laboratories. (Victor even released some LPs at this time, which were not commercially successful because they required special, expensive phonographs that most people could not afford during the Great Depression.) Stokowski recorded prodigiously for various labels until shortly before his death, including RCA Victor, Columbia, Capitol, Everest, United Artists, and Decca/London 'Phase 4' Stereo.
His first commercial stereo recordings were made in 1954 for RCA Victor with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, devoted to excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet and the complete one-act ballet Sebastian by Gian Carlo Menotti.
From 1947-1953 Stokowski recorded for RCA Victor with a specially-assembled 'ad hoc' band of players drawn principally from the New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony. The LPs were labelled as being played by 'Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra' and the repertoire ranged from Haydn (his Imperial Symphony) to Schoenberg (Transfigured Night) by way of Schumann, Liszt, Bizet, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Vaughan Williams. His Capitol recordings in the 1950s were distinguished by the use of three-track stereophonic tape recorders. Typically, Stokowski was very careful in the placement of musicians during the recording sessions and consulted with the recording staff to achieve the best possible results. Some of the sessions took place in the ballroom of the Riverside Plaza Hotel in New York City in January and February 1957; these were produced by Richard C. Jones and engineered by Frank Abbey with Stokowski's own orchestra, which was typically drawn from New York musicians (primarily members of the Symphony of the Air). The CD reissue by EMI included selections originally released on two LPs -- The Orchestra and Landmarks of a Distinguished Career -- and included music of Paul Dukas, Samuel Barber, Richard Strauss, Harold Farberman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Vincent Persichetti, Peter Tchaikovsky, Modeste Mussorgsky, Claude Debussy, Johann Sebastian Bach (as arranged by Stokowski), and Jean Sibelius. Although he officially used the Maurice Ravel orchestration of the finale to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in his 1957 Capitol recording, he did add a few additional percussion instruments to the score.
All of the music that Stokowski conducted in Fantasia was released on a 3-LP set by Disneyland Records, in the 1957 soundtrack album made from the film. After stereo became possible on phonograph records, the album was released in stereo on Buena Vista Records. With the advent of compact discs, it appeared on a 2-CD Walt Disney Records set, in conjunction with the film's 50th anniversary.
Other labels for which Stokowski recorded in the late 1950s included Everest, noted for its use of 35mm film instead of tape and the resulting highly vivid sound. The most notable of these was a coupling of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini and Hamlet with Stokowski conducting the New York Stadium Symphony Orchestra (the summer name for the New York Philharmonic).
After he had achieved international fame with the Philadelphia Orchestra, unsubstantiated rumours circulated that he was born "Leonard" or "Lionel Stokes" or that he had "anglicized" it to "Stokes"; this canard is readily disproved by reference not only to his birth certificate and those of his father, younger brother, and sister (which show Stokowski to have been the genuine Polish family name), but also by the Student Entry Registers of the Royal College of Music, Royal College of Organists, and The Queen's College, Oxford, along with other surviving documentation from his days at St. Marylebone Church, St. James's Church, and St. Bartholomew's in New York City. Upon his arrival in America, however, he briefly spelled his name as Stokovski to ensure that people could pronounce it correctly.
After Stokowski's death, Tom Burnam writes, the "concatenization of canards" that had arisen around him was revived--that his name and accent were phony; that his musical education was deficient; that his musicians did not respect him; that he cared about nobody but himself. Burnam suggests that there was a dark, hidden reason for these rumors. Stokowski deplored the segregation of symphony orchestras in which women and minorities were excluded, and, so Burnam claims, the bigots got revenge by slandering Stokowski.
Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the claims made by Tom Burnam, attitudes towards Stokowski have changed dramatically over the years since his death. In 1999, for Gramophone magazine, and quoted again in his notes for the Cala CD of Stokowski's recording of Elgar's Enigma Variations, David Mellor wrote: "One of the great joys of recent years for me has been the reassessment of Leopold Stokowski. When I was growing up there was a tendency to disparage the old man as a charlatan. Today it is all very different. Stokowski is now recognised as the father of modern orchestral standards. He possessed a truly magical gift of extracting a burnished sound from both great and second-rank ensembles. He also loved the process of recording and his gramophone career was a constant quest for better recorded sound. But the greatest pleasure of all for me is his acceptance now as an outstanding conductor of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music, including a lot that was at the cutting edge of contemporary achievement."
Mellor's words have been echoed by many other modern writers, such as Robert Matthew-Walker of International Record Review, whose comments fairly represent the opinions of many critics today: "That Stokowski was a great musician is beyond doubt; that he was a great conductor is self-evident; that he always placed himself at the service of the music may be more contentious to some ears, but in keeping with the established norms of the age into which he was born and musically nurtured, Stokowski remained loyal to those precepts from which we, in an era far removed from their prevalence, can still learn and draw aesthetic sustenance."