This site offers various education, education info and links, kids stuff, health info and tips, book reviews, cooking tips and recipes, business info and references, travel advisory another related information.homesite mapcontact us
Leopold Stokowski


From Life of Leopold Stokowski

By Harriette Brower

Many years ago this reporter was traveling, as a non-fiddling, non-tooting member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, on a train that carried the organization on one of its Pennsylvania-Maryland-Ohio tours.

It was 2 o'clock in the morning, Mr. Stokowski, the conductor, was secluded in his drawing room, perhaps asleep, but more likely trying to digest three helpings of creamed oysters in which he had indulged at the home of an effusive Harrisburg hostess. Mr. Stokowski in those days couldn't let creamed oysters alone, but neither could he take them.

In the Pullman smoker sat the handsome gentleman who was then manager of the orchestra and your correspondent. "Tell me," said the reporter, "just between you and me—where did Stoky get that juicy accent?"

The manager removed his cigar to reply:

"God alone knows."

Mr. Stokowski then had been in this country nearly twenty years. He has been here now more than thirty years, and still no one on earth, with the possible exception of Mr. Stokowski himself, can tell you where he dug up his rich luscious accent that trickles down the portals of the ear as the sauce of creamed oysters trickles down the gullet.

Surely he didn't get it in London where, on April 18, 1882, he was born. Nor did he learn it in Queens College, Oxford, where he was considered a bright student, or on Park Avenue, New York, where he landed in 1905 to play the organ at St. Bartholomew's.

Mr. Stokowski's dialectic vagaries are among the mysteries in which, for his own good reasons, he has chosen to wrap himself. Another one concerns his name and origin. Is he really Leopold Antoni Stanislaw Stokowski? Was his father one Joseph Boleslaw Kopernicus Stokowski, a Polish emigre who became a London stockbroker? Was his mother an Irish colleen and the granddaughter of Tom Moore, who wrote "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms"? Or is Stoky just plain Lionel Stokes, the sprout of a humble cockney family?

Nobody knows. But everybody knows that Leopold Stokowski is one of the world's really great orchestra conductors, a true poet of the stick (though he has dispensed with the baton in recent years), and that he has made the name of the Philadelphia Orchestra synonymous with superb singing, beauty of tone and dazzling brilliance.

Everybody knows, too, that he has few peers as an interpreter of Bach, many of whose compositions he unearthed from the organ repertoire and gave to the general public in shimmering orchestral arrangements, and that critics trot out their choicest adjectives to praise his playing of Brahms and all Russian composers.

Everybody knows, further, that he and his orchestra have made a larger number of phonograph recordings of symphonic music than any other conductor and band, and that the Philadelphia organization was the first of its kind to dare the raised eyebrows of the musical tories by going on the air as a commercially sponsored attraction.

The list, here necessarily condensed, is one of impressive musical achievements, which many an artist of a more placid temperament than Mr. Stokowski's would have considered ample to insure his fame.

But the slender, once golden-locked, now white-thatched Leopold is and always was a restless fellow, a bundle of nervous energy, an insatiable lover of experiment, innovation and—the limelight.

Those traits began to come to the surface in 1922, when he had been bossing the Philadelphia band for ten years. About that time he seemed no longer satisfied with merely playing to his audiences—he started talking to them.

There were (and still are) two groups of Philadelphia Orchestra subscribers—the Friday afternoon crowd, consisting largely of stuffy dowagers, and the Saturday night clientele, composed mostly of persons genuinely interested in music.

The old society gals went to the Friday matinees because it was the thing to do. While "that dear, handsome boy" and his men on the platform were discoursing Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner, the ladies swapped gossip, recipes and lamented the scarcity of skillful, loyal but inexpensive domestics.

It was at one of those whispering bees (your reporter, who was there, swears it really happened) that, during the playing of a gossamer pianissimo passage, a subscriber informed her neighbor in a resonant contralto:

"I always mix butter with MINE!" Mr. Stokowski did not address the audience on that occasion. He gave his first lecture at another concert, and then he scolded the women not for talking but for applauding.

Many of the Friday afternoon customers were in such a rush to catch trains for their Main Line suburbs that they seldom remained long enough to give conductor and orchestra a well-deserved ovation. So nobody ever quite knew whether the dead-pan Stoky was in earnest or moved by an impish sense of humor when, following the usual thin smattering of applause, he said:

"This strange beating together of hands has no meaning, and to me it is very disturbing. I do not like it. It destroys the mood my colleagues and I have been trying to create with our music."

Shortly afterward, the Philadelphia Orchestra and its blond, romantic conductor invaded New York. Their Tuesday night concerts at Carnegie Hall became the rage. The uninhibited music lovers of this town not only applauded Stoky but cheered, yelled and stamped to express their frenzied approval. He never lectured THEM.

But in Philadelphia he continued his extra-conductorial antics. When the audience hissed an ultra-modern composition, he told them: "I am glad you are hissing. It is so much better than apathy." Another time, when they booed an atonal piece, he repeated it immediately.

He scolded the audience for coming late. He scolded them for leaving early. Once he scolded them for coughing. They continued the rasping noise. After the intermission, on Stoky's orders, the 100-odd men of the orchestra walked out on the stage barking as if in the last stages of an epidemic bronchial disease.

All those didoes promptly made the front page. Thereafter Mr. Stokowski, who had tasted blood, or rather, printer's ink, came out on the average of once a month with a new notion to astound the Quakers.

He shocked them with a demand for Sunday concerts—then a heresy in Philadelphia. He changed the seating arrangement of the orchestra. He discarded the wooden amphitheatre on which, since the dark symphonic ages, the players had sat in tiers, and put them on chairs directly on the stage. Then he shuffled the men, making the cellos change places with the second violins, the battery with the basses. There must have been some merit in all this switching, for several conductors copied it.

Next he announced that light was a distraction at a concert. Henceforth, the Philadelphia Orchestra would play in darkness. Wails of dismay from the Friday afternoon dowagers. How on earth was any one going to see what her friends were wearing?

At the next matinee the Academy of Music was black as a crypt. On the stage, at each of the players' desks, hung a small, green-shaded light. Then Mr. Stokowski walked out on the podium. The moment he had mounted the dais, a spotlight was trained on his head, turning his hair into a glittering golden halo. The ladies forgot all about their friends' dresses. Why, the darling boy looked like an angel descended into a tomb to waken the dead!

Stoky explained to the press that the spot was necessary to enable his men to follow the play of his facial expressions.

Most conductors make their appearance in a leisurely manner. Carrying the stick, they stride out on the platform, acknowledge the audience's reception with a courtly bow, say a few kind words to the men, and when musicians and listeners have composed themselves, begin the concert.

Leopold changed all that. Leander-like, he leaped from the wings, dashed to the center of the stage, nodded curtly to the customers, then accepted the baton which was handed to him, with a flourish, by one of the viola players, and, before you could say "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," plunged into the opening number.

His audiences, particularly the ladies, doted on his conducting technique. His slim, youthful, virile figure was held erect, his feet remained still as if nailed to the floor, while his arms went through a series of sensuously compelling, always graceful motions. The view from the back was enhanced by the fact that the tailor who cut his morning and evening coats was almost as great as Stoky himself. And his hands! Ah, my dear, those hands——!

There was so much ecstatic comment on those slender, nervous, expressive hands that Mr. Stokowski decided to give the gals a full, unhampered view. He did away with the baton.

About the same time he invented a new way of rehearsing the orchestra—the remote-control method. An assistant conductor wielded the stick while Stoky sat in the rear of the dark hall manipulating an intricate system of colored lights that made known his wishes to his understudy on the platform.

Mr. Stokowski is inordinately fond of gadgets and fancies himself as quite a technical expert. When he first conducted for the radio he strenuously objected to the arrangement whereby the engineers in the control room had the last word as to the volume of sound that was to go out on the air.

Radio executives pacified him by rigging up an elaborate set of dials on his desk. These he happily twirled, completely unaware that the doodads were dead.

Meanwhile—and please don't lose sight of this cardinal fact—he made transcendently beautiful music. His stature as a conductor grew with the years and so did the repertoire of scores he conducted from memory. This feat involved heartbreaking work, for his memory, while good, is not unusually retentive. In the middle years of his career, he devoted from ten to twelve hours a day to studying scores.

In periods when the Stokowski brain was unproductive of new stunts, his private life and his recurrent rows with the directors of the orchestra about matters of salary and control kept him in the papers.

His divorce from Mme. Olga Samaroff, the pianist, a Texan born as Lucy Hickenlooper, whom he married in the dim days when he conducted in Cincinnati, provided Rittenhouse Square with chit-chat for a whole winter. So did his marriage to Evangeline Brewster Johnson, an extremely wealthy, eccentric and independent young woman, who later divorced him.

Mr. Stokowski's doings of the last few years can no longer be classed as minor-league musical sensations. They have become Hot Hollywood Stuff. First, there was his appearance in films. Then his collaboration with Mickey Mouse. Then his friendship with Greta Garbo. Then his five-month sentimental journey over half of Europe with the Duse of the screen. Today he is as big a feature of the fan magazines as Clark Gable and Robert Taylor.

Upon his return from Europe in August, Stoky made the most amusing remark of a long amusing career. He told this reporter:

"I am not interested in publicity."