Leopold Stokowski

1882 1977

Leopold Stokowski

Composer • Conductor


Leopold Stokowski was a legendary 20th century conductor and innovator. He dedicated himself to a lifetime of orchestral conducting and was adamant about programming works by living composers, giving many American premieres. He was also very heavily involved with early recordings, conducting recordings of many major orchestras including the Philadelphia Symphony, NBC Symphony, All-American Youth Orchestra, the New York City Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra. His contribution to Disney’sFantasia is certainly his most well-known achievement to the general public.

While Stokowski was born and raised in England, he spent much of his career in America before returning to his home country, where he died.

Stokowski’s musical training included singing in the church choir at St Mary’s, along with his brother Percy. In January 1896, at the young age of 13, Stokowski was accepted into the Royal College of Music, becoming the youngest student to be admitted up until that point.

Several years later, in the summer of 1898, Stokowski was admitted to the Royal College of Organists. Around this time, he was also employed at London’s Temple Church as assistant organist to Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941).

Stokowski’s innovative and enterprising nature was already evident from a young age. In 1900, in addition to serving as organist at the St Mary the Virgin Anglican church at Charing Cross Road, he also took the initiative to form a church choir. Between 1902 and 1905 he worked as both organist and choirmaster at St James’ Anglican Church in Piccadilly, London.

His reputation at St James’s became known in New York, leading the St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City to offer him a position as organist at their church. Readily accepting this new post, Stokowski set out for his American adventure.

While in New York Stokowski’s musical career flourished. He was especially known for his transcriptions of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and works from Byrd and Palestrina. Though he was successful, he began to bore of his position as an organist, craving the excitement of orchestral conducting. Despite his lack of experience or training, he was determined to conduct an orchestra and quit his job as organist in 1908.

During a holiday in Europe with his wife, Stokowski was called upon to replace the ill conductor of the Colonne Orchestra for a Paris concert in May 1909. The fact that he was chosen also had much to do with the fact that he refused a payment. Amazingly, this first experience conducting turned out very well for Stokowski.

Following this performance, he also appeared with the New Symphony Orchestra at Queens’ Hall in London.

Back in the United States, in Cincinnati to be exact, news of Stokowski’s triumph had spread. It was also at this time that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was searching for a new conductor, approaching Stokowski with an offer to conduct the 1909-10 season.

As conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Stokowski was an immediate celebrity and developed his skills as a conductor. Setting him apart from other conductors of his day, was the fact that Stokowski programmed works from living composers. He also worked to extend the orchestral season and was in favour of tours.

Stokowski encountered much resistance from the board of the orchestra in regards to his desire to expand the season and take the orchestra on tour. As a result, he asked to be released from his contract two years early, resulting in a public spectacle captured by the press. Finally, he was able to leave in the spring of 1912. These types of problems were to re-emerge frequently throughout his career.

Soon after the unfortunate ending in Cincinnati, Stokowski accepted a position with the Philadelphia Orchestra. While in Philadelphia, he replaced many of the orchestral members with younger players. He even recruited students from the Curtis Institute of Music.

Stokowski established a suppler and more free manner of playing, which included the method of free bowing in the strings. These ingredients followed him to each of his future orchestral endeavours.

Monumental moments during his tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra include the 1916 US premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, a huge and risky financial undertaking for the orchestra. The concert was sold out, and tickets went for as much as 100 US dollars, a tremendous sum of money at the time. The success of this concert led to follow-up concerts in New York, which firmly established Stokowski’s growing reputation.

Beginning in 1917, Stokowski and the orchestra embarked on their first recordings. They recorded the Brahms Hungarian Dances nos. 5 and 6, orchestrated by Albert Parlow for Victor Acoustic Records. In total, they would record 450 78 RPM sides with Victor between 1917 and 1925. These recordings were all-the-more impressive as they were among the first recordings with a large symphony orchestra.

Stokowski also expanded the orchestra’s repertoire to include ballet and opera, leading to performances of Schoenberg’sDie glückliche Hand and Stravinsky’s riot-inducingLe Sacre du Printemps.

Stokowski left the orchestra in 1936, fed up with his constant struggle with the board members of the orchestra. He was replaced by Eugene Ormandy. His final accomplishment with the orchestra was a trans-continental tour financed by RCA Victor, which included 33 concerts in 27 cities in 35 days.

Stokowski moved on to Hollywood, after having been approached by Disney. Together they worked on the score toFantasia, which Stokowski conducted and, in many cases, arranged. For this project, he first formed an orchestra of 85 musicians.

With Stokowski’s encouragement, Disney also agreed to have the Philadelphia Orchestra record the music for the film, which was first released in 1940.

The next steps in Stokowski’s career included the formation of the All-American Youth Orchestra in 1940. After RCA refused to sponsor a Philadelphia tour with Stokowski, they later agreed to a tour with Toscanini. This enraged Stokowski, leading him to record many of the works RCA Victor had been wanting to record with their rival Columbia. The orchestra also recorded new works by American composers, includingTales of our Countryside by Cowell and a movement from Paul Creston’s Symphony no. 1.

Stokowski then went on to conduct the NBC Symphony in 1941, replacing Toscanini. The public enjoyed Stokowski’s adventurous programming, which Toscanini would never have done. He gave US premieres and promoted the works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Holst, George Antheil, Stravinsky and many others. He also orchestrated the works of Bach and Chopin. Again, many of these performances were recorded on the RCA Victor label.

Between 1944 and 1945, Stokowski led the New York Symphony Orchestra, which made three recordings and regularly played to sold out concert halls, before returning to Hollywood. He was replaced in New York by the up-and-coming conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Back in Hollywood, Stokowski formed the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, which included many young players. The orchestra performed many new works and also many works by Hollywood composers.

He returned to New York to conduct the New York Philharmonic between 1947 and 1950, during which time they recorded a large amount of works for Columbia, including works from Copland, Khachaturian, Wagner, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Messiaen and Schoenberg.

During the final years of his career, Stokowski conducted the Houston Symphony Orchestra before returning briefly to the Philadelphia Orchestra and eventually ending up with the American Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 1972.

He returned to his home country in 1972, where he continued to record until 1977. During this period he recorded for CBS-Columbia, Decca London, Desmar, Pye and RCA. His final recording was the 1977 recording of the Bizet Symphony in C and Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 4, an album that is still considered unmatched.

Stokowski died at the age of 95 in his home in Nether Wallop, Hampshire on 13 September 1977. He left behind a legacy of orchestral innovation and a plethora of recordings, essentially helping to form the modern orchestral traditions and standards. Furthermore, he ensured that orchestral music was accessible to the public.