Leopold Anthony Stokowski (18 April 1882 – 13 September 1977) was a British conductor of Polish and Irish descent. One of the leading conductors of the early and mid-20th Century, he is best known for his long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra and for appearing in the film Fantasia. He was especially noted for his free-hand conducting style that spurned the traditional baton and for obtaining a characteristically sumptuous sound from the orchestras he directed.
The son of an English-born cabinet-maker of Polish heritage, Kopernik Joseph Boleslaw Stokowski, and his Irish-born wife Annie-Marion (née Moore), Stokowski was born Leopold Anthony Stokowski, although on occasion in later life he altered his middle name to Antoni, per the Polish spelling. There is some mystery surrounding his early life. For example, he spoke with an unusual, non-British accent, though he was born and raised in London. On occasion, Stokowski gave his year of birth as 1887 instead of 1882, as in a letter to the Hugo Riemann Musiklexicon in 1950, which also incorrectly gave his birthplace as Kraków, Poland. Nicolas Slonimsky, editor of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, received a letter from a Finnish encyclopedia editor that said, "The Maestro himself told me that he was born in Pomerania, Germany, in 1889." In Germany there was a corresponding rumour that his original name was simply "Stock" (German for stick). However, Stokowski's birth certificate (signed by J. Claxton, the registrar at the General Office, Somerset House, London, in the parish of All Souls, County of Middlesex) gives his birth on 18 April 1882, at 13 Upper Marylebone Street (now New Cavendish Street), in the Marylebone District of London. Stokowski was named after his Polish-born grandfather Leopold, who died in the English county of Surrey on 13 January 1879, at the age of 49.
In 1905, Stokowski began work in New York City as the organist and choir director of St. Bartholomew's Church. He was very popular among the parishioners, who included members of theVanderbilt family, but in the course of time, he resigned this position in order to pursue a career as an orchestra conductor. Stokowski moved to Paris for additional study in conducting. There he heard that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra would be needing a new conductor when it returned from a long sabbatical. In 1908, Stokowski began a campaign to win this position, writing letters to Mrs. Christian R. Holmes, the orchestra's president, and traveling all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a personal interview.
Stokowski was selected over the other applicants, and took up his conducting duties in late 1909. That was also the year of his official conducting debut in Paris with the Colonne Orchestra on 12 May 1909, when Stokowski accompanied his bride to be, the pianist Olga Samaroff, inTchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Stokowski's conducting debut in London took place the following week on 18 May with the New Symphony Orchestra at Queen's Hall. His engagement as new permanent conductor in Cincinnati was a great success. He introduced the concept of "pops concerts" and, starting with his first season, he began championing the work of living composers. His concerts included performances of music by Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Glazunov, Saint-Saëns and many others. He conducted the American premieres of new works by such composers as Elgar, whose 2nd Symphony was first presented there on November 24, 1911. He was to maintain his advocacy of contemporary music to the end of his career. However, in early 1912, Stokowski became frustrated with the politics of the orchestra's Board of Directors, and submitted his resignation. There was some dispute over whether to accept this or not, but, on 12 April 1912, the board decided to do so.
Two months later, Stokowski was appointed the director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he made his conducting debut in Philadelphia on 11 October 1912. This position would bring him some of his greatest accomplishments and recognition. It has been suggested that Stokowski resigned abruptly at Cincinnati with the hidden knowledge that the conducting position in Philadelphia was his when he wanted it, or as Oscar Levant suggested in his book A Smattering of Ignorance, "he had the contract in his back pocket." Before Stokowski moved into his conducting position in Philadelphia, however, he sailed back to England to conduct two concerts at the Queen's Hall in London. On 22 May 1912, Stokowski conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a concert which he was to repeat in its entirety 60 years later at the age of 90, and on 14 June 1912 he conducted an all-Wagner concert that featured the noted soprano Lillian Nordica. While he was director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he was largely responsible for convincing Mary Louise Curtis Bok to set up the Curtis Institute of Music (13 October 1924) in Philadelphia. He helped with recruiting faculty and hired many of their graduates.
Stokowski rapidly gained a reputation as a musical 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 new lighting arrangements 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 symphony season, Stokowski started conducting without a baton. His free-hand manner of conducting soon 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 orchestra's sections, as well as the acoustics of the hall, in response to his urge to create a better sound. Stokowski is credited as the first conductor to adopt the seating plan that is used by most orchestras today, with first and second violins together on the conductor's left, and the violas and cellos to the right. (Preben Opperby's 1982 Stokowski biography reproduces, on page 127, four of Stokowski's various seating plans, of which illustration No. 2 shows the string sections as here described).
Many music critics have taken exception to the liberties Stokowski took—liberties which were common in the nineteenth century, but had mostly died out in the twentieth, when faithful adherence to the composer's scores became more common.
Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the 2 March 1916 American premiere of Mahler's 8th Symphony.
Stokowski's repertoire was broad and included many contemporary works. He was the only conductor to perform all of Arnold Schoenberg's orchestral works during the composer's own lifetime, several of which were world premieres. Stokowski gave the first American performance of Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder in 1932. It was recorded "live" on 78 rpm records and remained the only recording of this work in the catalog until the advent of the LP album. Stokowski also presented the American premieres of four of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies, Numbers 1, 3, 6, and 11. In 1916, Stokowski conducted the American premiere of Mahler's8th Symphony, Symphony of a Thousand. He added works by Rachmaninoff to his repertoire, giving the world premieres of his Fourth Piano Concerto, the Three Russian Songs, the Third Symphony, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Sibelius, whose last three symphonies were given their American 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 Stravinsky's score for the ballet The Rite of Spring to America, 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 American recording of the work.
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 Disneyto 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.
A lifelong and ardent fan of the newest and most experimental techniques in recording, Stokowski saw to it that most of the music for Fantasiawas recorded over Class A telephone lines laid down between the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and Bell Laboratories in Camden NJ, using an early and crude version of multi-track stereophonic sound, dubbed Fantasound, which shared many attributes with the later Perspectastereophonic sound system. Recorded on photographic film, the only suitable medium then available, the results were considered astounding for the latter half of the 1930s.
Upon his return in 1960, Stokowski appeared with the 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 24 February 1969, he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Beginning in 1964, this award was "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."
With his Philadelphia Orchestra contract having expired in 1940, Stokowski immediately formed the All-American Youth Orchestra, its players' ages ranging from 18 to 25. It toured South America in 1940 and North America in 1941 and was met with rave reviews. Although Stokowski made a number of recordings with the AAYO for Columbia, the technical standard was not as high as had been achieved with the Philadelphia Orchestra for RCA Victor. In any event, the AAYO was disbanded when America entered the war, and plans for another extensive tour in 1942 were abandoned.
In 1944, on the recommendation of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Stokowski helped form the New York City Symphony Orchestra, which they intended would make music accessible for middle-class workers. Ticket prices were set low, and performances took place at convenient, after-work hours. Many early concerts were standing room only; however, a year later in 1945, Stokowski was at odds with the board (who wanted to trim expenses even further) and he resigned. Stokowski made three 78pm sets with the New York City Symphony for RCA Victor: Beethoven's 6th Symphony,Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, and a selection of orchestral music from Georges Bizet's Carmen.
However, when in 1950 Dimitri Mitropoulos was appointed Chief Conductor of the NYPO, Stokowski began a new international career which commenced in 1951 with a nation-wide tour of England: during the Festival of Britain celebrations he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the invitation of Sir Thomas Beecham. It was during this first visit that he made his debut recording with a British orchestra, the Philharmonia, of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. During that same summer he also toured and conducted in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, and Portugal, establishing a pattern of guest-conducting abroad during the summer months while spending the winter seasons conducting in the USA. This scheme was to hold good for the next 20 years during which Stokowski conducted many of the world's greatest orchestras, simultaneously making recordings with them for various labels. Thus he conducted and recorded with the main London orchestras as well as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Suisse Romande Orchestra, the French National Radio Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, the Hilversum (Netherlands) Radio Philharmonic, et al.
Symphony of the Air, Houston Symphony OrchestraEdit
Stokowski returned to the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1954 for a series of recording sessions for RCA. The repertoire included Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony, Sibelius's 2nd Symphony, Acts 2 and 3 of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and highlights from Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah with Risë Stevens and Jan Peerce. After the NBC Symphony Orchestra was disbanded as the official ensemble of the NBC radio network, it was re-formed as the Symphony of the Air with Stokowski as notional Music Director, and as such performed many concerts and made recordings from 1954 until 1963. The U.S. premiere in 1958 of Turkish composer Adnan Saygun's Yunus Emre Oratorio is among them. He made a series of Symphony of the Air recordings for the United Artists label in 1958 which included Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Shostakovich's 1st Symphony, Khatchaturian's 2nd Symphony and Respighi's The Pines of Rome. From 1955 to 1961, Stokowski was also the Music Director of theHouston Symphony Orchestra. For his debut appearance with the orchestra he gave the first performance of Mysterious Mountain by Alan Hovhaness – one of many living American composers whose music he championed over the years. He also gave the U.S. premiere in Houston of Shostakovich's 11th Symphony (7 April 1958) and made its first American recording on the Capitollabel.
American Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and LondonEdit
In 1962, at the age of 80, Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra. His championship of the 20th-century composer remained undiminished, and perhaps his most celebrated premiere with the American Symphony Orchestra was of Charles Ives's 4th Symphony in 1965, which CBS also recorded. Stokowski served as Music Director for the ASO until May 1972 when, at the age of 90, he returned to live in England. On January 3, 1962, still showing his interest in using technological innovation, he was featured in a telecast for WGN-TV conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has since been recorded on DVD. One of his notable British guest conducting engagements in the 1960s was the first Proms performance of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, Resurrection, since issued on CD.
He continued to conduct in public for a few more years, but failing health forced him to only make recordings. An eyewitness said that Stokowski often conducted sitting down in his later years; sometimes, as he became involved in the performance, he would stand up and conduct with remarkable energy. His last public appearance in the UK took place at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 14 May 1974. Stokowski conducted the New Philharmonia in the 'Merry Waltz' of Otto Klemperer (in tribute to the orchestra's former Music Director who had died the previous year),Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole and Brahms's 4th Symphony. His very last public appearance took place during the 1975 Vence Music Festival in the South of France, when, on 22 July 1975, he conducted the Rouen Chamber Orchestra in several of his Bach transcriptions.
Stokowski gave his last world premiere in 1973 when, at the age of 91, he conducted Havergal Brian's 28th Symphony in a BBC radio broadcast with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. In August 1973, Stokowski conducted the International Festival Youth Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall in London, performing Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Edward Greenfield of The Guardian wrote: "Stokowski rallied them as though it was a vintage Philadelphia concert of the 1920s". Stokowski continued to make recordings even after he had retired from the concert platform, mainly with the National Philharmonic, another 'ad hoc' orchestra made up of first-desk players chosen from the main London orchestras. In 1976, he signed a recording contract with CBS Records that would have kept him active until he was 100 years old.
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 andLandmarks of a Distinguished Career—and featured music of Dukas, Barber, Richard Strauss, Harold Farberman, Vincent Persichetti, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Bach (as arranged by Stokowski), and Sibelius. Although he officially used the 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. His Capitol recording of Holst's The Planets was made with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI, which acquired Capitol and Angel Records in the 1950s, has reissued many of Stokowski's Capitol recordings on CD. All of the music that Stokowski conducted in Fantasia was released on a 3-LP set by Disneyland Records, in the 1957 soundtrack albummade 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 35 mm film instead of tape and the resulting highly vivid sound. The most notable of which 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). Other remarkable Everest's recordings of Stokowski conducting the New York Stadium Symphony Orchestra are Villa-Lobos' tone poem Uirapuru, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Prokofiev's ballet suite Cinderella. Several of Stokowski's televised concerts have appeared on both Video and DVD, including Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Schubert's Unfinished with the London Philharmonic on EMI Classics 'Classic Archive' label; the Nielsen 2nd Symphony with the Danish Radio Orchestra on VAI (Video Artists International); and the Ives 4th Symphony with the American Symphony Orchestra on Classical Video Rarities.
In 1973, aged 91, he was invited by the International Festival of Youth Orchestras to conduct the 1973 International Festival Orchestra, numbering 140 of the world's finest young musicians, in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall, London. The Cameo Classics LP label recorded the concert, and also, by special permission of the maestro, the final rehearsals, which would make up a 2-LP set. Edward Greenfield in The Guardian reported "Stokowski rallied them as though it was a vintage Philadelphia concert of the 1920s". Robert M. Stumpff ll (Leopold Stokowski Club of America) called the performance "The finest ever performance of this symphony". This unique Dolby recording was restored in 2014 by Klassik Haus and is available from Cameo Classics on CD (Nimbus Records Distribution).
His first wife was the American concert pianist Olga Samaroff (born Lucie Hickenlooper), to whom he was married from 1911 until 1923. They had one daughter: Sonya Stokowski, an actress, who married Willem Thorbecke and settled in the U.S. with their four children, Noel, Johan, Leif and Christine.
His second wife was Johnson & Johnson heiress Evangeline Love Brewster Johnson (1897-1990), an artist and aviatrix, to whom he was married from 1926 until 1937 (two daughters: Gloria Luba Stokowski and Andrea Sadja Stokowski).
His third wife, from 1945 until 1955, was heiress and actress Gloria Vanderbilt (born 1924), by whom he had two sons, Leopold Stanislaus Stokowski (born 1950) and Christopher Stokowski (born 1952).
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 polonised Lithuanian family name, original 'Stokauskas' where 'stoka' means 'lack or shortage'), 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.
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 whichwomen and minorities were excluded, and, so Burnam claims, his detractors 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, the noted music commentator 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."