Stokowski, Leopold (Anthony)
Stokowski, Leopold (Anthony)
Stokowski, Leopold (Anthony), celebrated, spectacularly endowed, and magically communicative English-born American conductor; b. London (of a Polish father and an Irish mother), April 18, 1882; d. Nether Wallop, Hampshire, Sept. 13, 1977. He attended Queen’s Coll., Oxford, and the Royal Coll. of Music in London, where he studied organ with Stevenson Hoyte, theory with Walford Davies, and composition with Sir Charles Stanford. At the age of 18, he obtained the post of organist at St. James, Piccadilly. In 1905 he went to America and served as organist and choirmaster at St. Bartholomew’s in N.Y.; he became a naturalized American citizen in 1915. In 1909 he was engaged to conduct the Cincinnati Sym. Orch.; although his contract was for 5 years, he obtained a release in 1912 in order to accept an offer from the Philadelphia Orch. This was the beginning of a long and spectacular career as a sym. conductor; he led the Philadelphia Orch. for 24 years as its sole conductor, bringing it to a degree of brilliance that rivaled the greatest orchs. in the world. In 1931 he was officially designated by the board of directors of the Philadelphia Orch. as music director, which gave him control over the choice of guest conductors and soloists. He conducted most of the repertoire by heart, an impressive accomplishment at the time; he changed the seating of the orch., placing violins to the left and cellos to the right. After some years of leading the orch. with a baton, he finally dispensed with it and shaped the music with the 10 fingers of his hands. He emphasized the colorful elements in the music; he was the creator of the famous “Philadelphia sound” in the strings, achieving a well-nigh bel canto quality. Tall and slender, with an aureole of blond hair, his figure presented a striking contrast with his stocky, mustachioed German predecessors; he was the first conductor to attain the status of a star comparable to that of a film actor. Abandoning the proverbial ivory tower in which most conductors dwelt, he actually made an appearance as a movie actor in the film One Hundred Men and a Girl. In 1940 he agreed to participate in the production of Walt Disney’s celebrated film Fantasia, which featured both live performers and animated characters; Stokowski conducted the music and in one sequence engaged in a bantering colloquy with Mickey Mouse. He was lionized by the Philadelphians; in 1922 he received the Edward Bok Award of $10, 000 as “the person who has done the most for Philadelphia.” He was praised in superlative terms in the press, but not all music critics approved of his cavalier treatment of sacrosanct masterpieces, for he allowed himself to alter the orchestration; he doubled some solo passages in the brass, and occasionally introduced percussion instruments not provided in the score; he even cut out individual bars that seemed to him devoid of musical action. Furthermore, Stokowski’s own orch. arrangements of Bach raised the pedantic eyebrows of professional musicologists; yet there is no denying the effectiveness of the sonority and the subtlety of color that he succeeded in creating by such means. Many great musicians hailed Stokowski’s new orch. sound; Rachmaninoff regarded the Philadelphia Orch. under Stokowski, and later under Ormandy, as the greatest with which he had performed. Stokowski boldly risked his popularity with the Philadelphia audiences by introducing modern works. He conducted Schoenberg’s music, culminating in the introduction of his formidable score Gurrelieder on April 8, 1932. An even greater gesture of defiance of popular tastes was his world premiere of Amériques by Varèse on April 9, 1926, a score that opens with a siren and thrives on dissonance. Stokowski made history by joining the forces of the Philadelphia Orch. with the Philadelphia Grand Opera Co. in the first American performance of Berg’s masterpiece Wozzeck (March 31, 1931). The opposition of some listeners was now vocal; when the audible commotion in the audience erupted during his performance of Webern’s Sym., he abruptly stopped conducting, walked off the stage, then returned only to begin the work all over again. From his earliest years with the Philadelphia Orch., Stokowski adopted the habit of addressing the audience, to caution them to keep their peace during the performance of a modernistic score, or reprimanding them for their lack of progressive views or for coughing during the music; once he even took to task the prim Philadelphia ladies for bringing their knitting to the concert. In 1933 the board of directors took an unusual step in announcing that there would be no more “debatable music” performed by the orch.; Stokowski refused to heed this proclamation. Another eruption of discontent ensued when he programmed some Soviet music at a youth concert and trained the children to sing the Internationale. Stokowski was always interested in new electronic sound; he was the first to make use of the Theremin in the orch. in order to enhance the sonorities of the bass section. He was instrumental in introducing electrical recordings. In 1936 he resigned as music director of the Philadelphia Orch.; he was succeeded by Eugene Ormandy, but continued to conduct concerts as co-conductor of the orch. until 1938 and then occasionally until 1941. From 1940 to 1942 he took a newly organized AU-American Youth Orch. on a tour in the U.S. and in South America. During the season 1942–43 he was assoc. conductor, with Toscanini, of the NBC Sym. Orch.; he shared the season of 1949–50 with Mitropoulos as conductor of the N.Y. Phil.; from 1955 to 1960 he conducted the Houston Sym. Orch. In 1960 he made a triumphant return to the Philadelphia orchestra after an absence of nearly two decades, prefacing his concert with remarks that began “As I was saying 19 years ago…” In 1962 he organized in N.Y. the American Sym. Orch. and led it until 1972; on April 26, 1965, at the age of 83, he conducted the orch. in the first complete performance of the fourth Sym. of Charles Ives. In 1973 he went to London, where he continued to make recordings and conduct occasional concerts until his death; he also appeared in television interviews. He died in his sleep at the age of 95; rumor had it that he had a contract signed for a gala performance on his 100th birthday in 1982. Stokowski was married 3 times: his first wife was Olga Samaroff , whom he married in 1911; they were divorced in 1923; his second wife was Evangeline Brewster Johnson, heiress to the Johnson and Johnson drug fortune; they were married in 1926 and divorced in 1937; his third marriage, to Gloria Vanderbilt, produced a ripple of prurient newspaper publicity because of the disparity in their ages; he was 63, she was 21; they were married in 1945 and divorced in 1955. Stokowski publ. Music for All of Us (N.Y., 1943), which was translated into the Russian, Italian, and Czech languages.
E. Johnson, ed., S.: Essays in Analysis of His Art (London, 1973); P. Robinson, S. (N.Y., 1977); A. Chasins, L. S.: A Profile (N.Y., 1979); O. Daniel, S.: A Counterpoint of View (N.Y, 1982); P. Opperby, L. S. (Tunbridge Wells and N.Y, 1982); W. Smith, The Mystery of L. S. (Rutherford, N.J., 1990).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire