America’s Musical Pioneer: Homage to Leopold Stokowski

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Fame and success in one’s lifetime do not necessarily ensure respect. Neither do they secure the prospect of a positive posthumous revisionism. The career of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) is a case in point. In his own day, Stokowski was idolized by audiences–particularly in Philadelphia, where he built a legendary ensemble as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He elicited a distinctly silken string sound. He innovated on the style of performance and mesmerized his listeners with the expressive painterly gestures of his hands (he used no baton), his dashing profile, his shock of flowing hair, and his elegant presence.

Stokowski was a showman and a born entertainer. He was a man addicted to the theatrical. He collaborated with Walt Disney and shook hands with Mickey Mouse on the silver screen. He became a world-famous media figure. For all this he was branded by critics and many rivals as a charlatan and a mere popularizer. He was rarely taken seriously as an interpreter. Toscanini, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Walter all were held in higher regard. For connoisseurs of a particular bent, Reiner and Mitropolous were considered, in contrast to Stokowski, musicians’ musicians with a profound command of musical texts.

In our day, record collectors and listeners take an interest in the performance traditions of the past. All the conductors listed above have had their discography re-released in modern formats. Their work has been poured over by critics and emulated by young conductors. The posthumous reputation of Stokowski, however, has lagged behind. Whether it was his penchant for the life of a socialite (including a marriage to a Vanderbilt) or his wide popularity, his work is still denigrated. It remains less known than it should be. Self-conscious sophisticates and those with pretensions to profound insight still continue to dismiss his work, much as Stokowski’s contemporaries once did.

Among the performers of the past who have gained a nearly fanatical posthumous following and authority, few can rival the respect and awe now associated with the work and career of Glenn Gould. Gould was a genuine iconoclast. He was consummately a musician of ideas, whose writings deserve study and rereading, and we still mourn his untimely death. To his credit, Gould was not afraid to differ from his contemporaries. He admired and understood Stokowski. He recorded Beethoven with Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra. At a minimum, Gould’s judgment should lead us to question received wisdom concerning the artistry and achievement of Stokowski.

Leopold Stokowski was a great conductor, an inspired musician, and a tireless advocate of new music. The list of works introduced to the United States and premiered by Stokowski in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Houston, and New York is staggering. It includes Berg’s Wozzeck, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. No other major conductor, not even Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, was as adventuresome, as fiercely eclectic, and as tirelessly innovative. Stokowski rivaled Toscanini in the popular imagination and exceeded Koussevitzky and Mitropolous in his advocacy of new and experimental music.

Stokowski loved life. His vitality was inexhaustible. He lived well into his nineties, conducting concerts in England and making recordings. He founded a new orchestra in New York in 1962–the American Symphony Orchestra–and kept it alive with his own funds. He sought to fill the vacuum created when the New York Philharmonic left Carnegie Hall. He also wanted to show that an orchestra made up of young Americans trained here could match European orchestras and American ensembles dominated by Europeans. He encouraged young American conductors and composers during the 1960s. He premiered Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony with the ASO. At the ASO he developed a program of concerts with low ticket prices in an effort to broaden the audience for concert music.

Stokowski the conductor not only cultivated a lush and rounded sound, but also took risks in creating excitement, showing how music functioned dramatically and utilizing often unexpected (but not capricious) shifts in tempo, color and mood. His ASO performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is a case in point. He tinkered with scores, but he always elicited a distinct and alluring line and sound, and his performances were never boring. Above all, he made many transcriptions, including an innovative version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which the ASO took on tour to Japan in 1994. Perhaps because he had started his career as an organist, he conceived of the orchestra as a single organic instrument, as capable of flights of unique, soloistic timbres as it was of producing huge, integrated sonorities.

This concert pays homage to Stokowski’s legacy and contribution by presenting four works associated with him and reflective of his range of interest. Today’s ASO seeks to honor his example of innovation and his embracing of new audiences. All the works on this program were first performed by him in the United States. Two of them, both by Americans, were given their world premieres by Stokowski. The opening work on the program, the Bach-Stokowski D minor Toccata and Fugue, is perhaps the most famous of his many transcriptions. It was his signature piece.

Stokowski’s example and contributions to twentieth-century musical life in America ought to be an inspiration to future generations of performers and listeners.