Commentary Magazine

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.

To a considerable extent, Stokowski himself was responsible for this view of him as nothing but a musical showman. At a time when the infernal engine of publicity that now drives the classical-music industry did not yet exist, he behaved like a tabloid celebrity, and he has not been forgiven for it.

To be sure, classical-music virtuosi of Stokowski’s generation were expected to act like stars, but they usually did so in a more or less dignified manner. Stokowski, by contrast, did exactly as he pleased. Wishing to project an air of mystery, he affected a bizarre homemade syntax that, according to one colleague, was part Slavic, part German, and part cockney; he lied shamelessly about his age, his family background, and his professional experience; he promoted himself aggressively, trading on his striking physical appearance to get his picture in the papers. And worst of all—at least in the eyes of high-minded contemporaries—he went to Hollywood.

As it happened, Stokowski reached the peak of his personal flamboyance at the most difficult moment in his long career. According to Charles O’Connell, who produced his RCA recordings, Stokowski quit the Philadelphia in order to escape

the strenuous labor of thirty weeks of concerts per year; he wanted time for research, for travel, for musical activities in fields other than the concert hall, and for relaxation. He said that he looked forward to the time when he could conduct four or six concerts a year, make a sound film annually, and conduct a few important broadcasts. But Stokowski’s well-laid plans went badly astray. Fantasia was a box-office dud, and he was subsequently fired from the NBC Symphony (which he co-conducted with Toscanini from 1941 to 1944) for programming too much modern music. No other major orchestra would hire him as its music director, in large part because he was too independent-minded to be controlled by a board. His sojourn in Hollywood, though it made him a household name throughout America, convinced already-suspicious critics that he was simply not serious.

It was not until the late 60’s that Stokowski regained anything remotely approaching critical respectability, and by then he was too old to capitalize on it. Though he continued to conduct in public and make recordings until shortly before his death, his great days were long behind him. When he died, the celebrity of his later years quickly dissipated, to be revived only in 1991 when the Disney studios released a painstakingly restored version of Fantasia to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, and a new generation encountered Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time.



But the eclipse of Leopold Stokowski was not solely due to his erratic behavior and bad professional luck. It was also the product of changing musical tastes.

Stokowski’s musical training had been utterly conventional. Born in London to a Polish father and an Irish mother, he studied at the Royal College of Music and Queen’s College, Oxford, and began his career as a church organist and choirmaster. But as soon as he started to conduct orchestras in 1908, he departed in every imaginable way from the musical conventions of his time and place.

In the early years of the 20th century—and especially in the United States, where Stokowski was based from 1909 onward—most symphony orchestras were led by German-born conductors and gave straightforward performances of the German classics. By contrast, Stokowski’s “canon” (except for Brahms and Wagner) bore no resemblance to the then-standard repertoire. Conceiving orchestral sound in terms not of line but of color and mass, he evinced little or no interest in music unsuited to his kind of treatment. He rarely programmed Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven, and played pre-classical music only in richly scored transcriptions of his own.

Instead, Stokowski favored the Franco-Russian romantics, the French impressionists, and the early modernists, and he performed their music in an intensely personal style. That style has been memorably described by the pianist Glenn Gould:

Stokowski was, for want of a better word, an ecstatic. He was involved with the notes, the tempo marks, the dynamics in a score, to the same extent that a filmmaker is involved with the original book or source which supplies the impetus, the idea, for his film.



When Stokowski began to make electrical recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1925, his high-handed brand of romanticism, though individual even by the standards of the day, was not unprecedented. In the 20’s, many conductors took a laissez-faire approach to tempos, and did not regard the printed score as sacrosanct. By the 40’s, however, the influence of “objective” performers like Toscanini and the pianist Artur Schnabel had grown immeasurably in the United States. No less influential were their repertoire choices, which were heavily weighted toward the traditional classics.

Thus, Stokowski’s style no sooner had a chance to establish itself than it began to be seen as anachronistic. Worse, this happened just as he was choosing to sever his ties with the Philadelphia Orchestra, an institutional affiliation which had conferred on him a degree of professional respectability and done much to offset the peculiarities of his personal behavior. In this respect as in others, his timing in mid-life was devastatingly bad.

Since Stokowski’s death, however, musical tastes have changed greatly once again; the classicism of a Toscanini or a Schnabel, though still popular, is no longer seen as the sole and only road to musical wisdom. And the increased availability of recordings by such “subjective” conductors as Wilhelm Furtwângler, Willem Mengelberg, and Serge Koussevitzky has opened the ears of younger listeners to a range of interpretative possibilities wide enough to encompass the Stokowski style.

Moreover, certain aspects of Stokowski’s personal style may also have become more palatable. In particular, his willingness to use every available media outlet to bring classical music to the largest possible audience (and, admittedly, to enhance his own personal popularity) should not shock anyone at a moment when the record industry looks upon classical music as a “product” to be “marketed” by any means necessary, including cheesecake photos and rock-style promotional videos. A recent CD anthology of “seductive classics by eight of the world’s greatest composers who just happen to be gay,” Out Classics, features on its cover a high-gloss photo of the chest of a sweat-soaked man. Next to this, Stokowski’s joint appearance with Mickey Mouse in Fantasia is positively virtuous.



But now we come to still another reason why Stokowski’s reputation has sunk so low: the heart of his musical legacy—the recordings he made with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1917 to 1940 for RCA Victor—has been largely inaccessible to the public for well over three decades.

These recordings, many of which were best-sellers when originally released on 78, were later “replaced” by LP remakes done by Stokowski in his old age with a variety of orchestras. Many of the remakes are interesting, and some are exceptional, but even the best ones are fundamentally beside the point. It is Stokowski’s prewar recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra that represent one of the most significant bodies of work to be preserved for musical posterity, and virtually none of these was reissued by RCA, either on LP or, later, on compact disc.

In the absence of these old recordings, it was inevitable that Stokowski’s brand of music-making would be dismissed as the work of a publicity-hungry poseur; the best evidence to the contrary was locked away in RCA’s vaults. Fortunately, however, all this has now changed, thanks to an anomaly of international copyright law.

In Europe, published recordings pass into the public domain after 50 years, and several European record labels have been launched that specialize in the reissue of classics of the 78 era. Two of them, Biddulph and Pearl, have undertaken large-scale Stokowski reissue projects. Five years ago, CD’s by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra were unheard-of; today, it is possible for modern listeners to hear Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra at their best and most characteristic, and to answer for themselves the question of whether he was a charlatan or an interpretative genius.

What happens, then, if one makes the effort to listen to Stokowski’s recordings with an ear uninfluenced by fashion? The first thing to be said is that the music is sharply at variance with the image that has come down to us from several generations of scandalized critics.

This is not to deny the famous “Stokowski sound.” It exists, and it is as distinctive now as it was seven decades ago. Under Stokowski, the strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra played with fast vibrato, generously applied portamento (the note-to-note slides characteristic of 19th-century string playing), and long, unbroken phrasing; the winds, led by oboist Marcel Tabuteau and flutist William Kincaid, emphasized tonal richness and variety of color to a degree unprecedented in the 20’s and unrivaled since then. The orchestra’s dynamic range—clarified on records by the superior engineering that was a by-product of Stokowski’s pioneering interest in audio technology—was extraordinarily wide, and its tempos flexible to a fault.

Stokowski rarely recorded music that was entirely incompatible with this “sound,” and he sometimes laid on his trademark mannerisms too thickly; his recordings of the music of Tchaikowsky, for example, often border on the hysterical. Other Philadelphia performances come across more as fascinating period pieces than as interpretations fully convincing to a contemporary ear: Stokowski’s prewar recordings of the Dvorak “New World” Symphony and the four Brahms symphonies, which by his own extravagant norms were direct to the point of baldness, are nevertheless unlikely to satisfy listeners accustomed to the tauter approach of Toscanini or Herbert von Karajan.

But when conductor, orchestra, and composer were compatible, the results, even heard in early electric sound, are still remarkable by any standard. Today’s orchestras may play the music of Wagner, for example, with greater outright virtuosity, but the unbridled sensuality of Stokowski and the Philadelphia—especially as heard in the conductor’s own “symphonic synthesis” from Tristan und Isolde, recorded in 1935—retains its power to astonish and arouse. No less breathtaking is a previously unpublished 1940 performance of Debussy’s Prélude à I’après-midi d’un faune, in which William Kincaid’s flute-playing shimmers and glows like a candle in the dark.

Of particular interest in our austere age of Baroque performance-practice is a two-CD set of Stokowski’s Bach organ transcriptions. Hearing these once-infamous arrangements 60 years and more after the fact, one is struck not by their outrageousness but by the simplicity, even plainness, of Stokowski’s scoring, in which string and wind choirs are typically played off against each other like the manuals of a 19th-century organ. True, the interpretations are a different story—Stokowski is at his most unabashedly romantic here—but those who find today’s period-instrument specialists too dry and unadventurous will thrill to the headlong vitality of Stokowski’s version of the Bach D Minor Toccata and Fugue and C Minor Passacaglia, or the dark solemnity of the chorale preludes “Ich ruf, zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” and “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.”1



The appeal of the Stokowski Philadelphia Orchestra recordings goes deeper than their gorgeous sound. Even the least satisfactory of them remind me of a remark of Edmund Wilson’s about F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I have said that This Side of Paradise commits almost every sin that a novel can possibly commit: but it does not commit the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.” These are, above all, documents of a matchlessly vital musical personality, an artist who saw himself not as an interpreter but as a collaborator, and who believed that music has a role in man’s life greater than that of mere entertainment.

It is as easy to make fun of Stokowski’s vaporous pronouncements on the meaning of music (“When we reach its ultimate essence, music is the voice of the All—the divine melody—the cosmic rhythm—the universal harmony”) as it is to criticize his more eccentric recordings. But before dismissing those pronouncements out of hand, one should give thought to their implications. Certainly Stokowski’s subjectivism was, at least to his mind, more than a matter of vanity. As he told Glenn Gould in a 1969 radio interview:

We write black marks on white paper—the mere facts of frequency; but music is a communication much more subtle than mere facts. The best a composer can do when within him he hears a great melody is to put it on paper. We call it music, but that is not music: that is only paper. Some believe that one should merely mechanically reproduce the marks on the paper, but I do not believe in that. One must go much further than that. We must defend the composer against the mechanical conception of life which is becoming more and more strong today.

Classicists may seize upon this statement as proof of Stokowski’s arrogance, just as prigs seize upon his films as proof of his essential vulgarity. But the test of every musical idea is to be found in the immediate experience of performance: great performances, no matter how idiosyncratic, justify themselves by their power to seize the ear and animate the soul. Judged by that standard, Leopold Stokowski was among the greatest conductors of the century, and no one should feel ashamed to say so—Mickey Mouse or no Mickey Mouse.


1 The Dvorák “New World” Symphony, recorded in 1927, is available on Biddulph WHL 027; the Brahms symphonies, recorded between 1927 and 1933, on Biddulph WHL 017-18, a two-CD set. Stokowski's Tristan “symphonic synthesis” is coupled on Pearl GEMM CD 9486 with orchestral preludes from Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin and three of the Wesendonck Lieder sung by Helen Traubel, plus additional material from Tristan. An album entitled Leopold Stokowski Conducts Music from France, Vol. 3 (Biddulph WHL 013) contains the unreleased 1940 Faune, coupled with other works by Debussy and Ravel. Pearl GEMM CDS 9098 contains one version of every Bach transcription recorded by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 78's (several were recorded more than once). All of these CD's have been meticulously transferred from the original 78's by engineers Ward Marston and Mark Obert-Thorn, and the sound, here as on the many other Stokowski CDs available from Biddulph and Pearl, is outstanding.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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