The Vulgar Virtuoso
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) has a permanent and distinguished place in the history of 20th-century music. During his quarter-century tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1912-38), he turned a provincial ensemble into one of the first modern virtuoso orchestras. Throughout his career, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, he was also deeply committed to the music of his time. He conducted over 2,000 first performances, including the world premieres of Ives’s Fourth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody and Third Symphony, Schoenberg’s Piano and Violin Concertos, and Varèse’s Amériques and Arcana, as well as the American premieres of Berg’s Wozzeck, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, four symphonies by Shostakovich, three symphonies by Sibelius, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Les Noces.
These achievements are a matter of record. But they are also no longer widely remembered. Ironically enough, it is Fantasia (1941), the animated film he made in collaboration with Walt Disney, that has kept Stokowski’s name alive for a generation of listeners far too young to remember the time when he was, after Arturo Toscanini, the world’s most famous conductor. Indeed, for many music-lovers, Stokowski today remains a symbol of unseriousness—the man who spouted platitudes about music in a phony “continental” accent, made movies not only with Mickey Mouse but with Deanna Durbin, had a highly publicized marriage with Gloria Vanderbilt and a no less highly publicized affair with Greta Garbo, and orchestrated Bach’s organ music in the style of Wagner.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.