When the wild-haired Leopold Stokowski took command of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912, his theatricality was greatly at odds with his proper Philadelphia patrons. Tall, dapper, charming with the ladies, and more than a little vain, he was the epitome of European cosmopolitanism. The London-born son of a Polish father and an Irish mother, Stokowski received his education at Britain’s Royal College of Music and Queen’s College, Oxford, where he had the good fortune to study under Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, respectively. Spurning the traditional baton, Stokowski used his hands alone to lead the orchestra. He also used them to grab Philadelphia by the scruff of its neck and drag its musical taste into the twentieth century.
Since its founding in 1900, the Philadelphia’s Orchestra specialized in the classicism of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Beethoven, with occasional forays into the chromaticism of Wagner. The Quaker City’s elite dutifully listened from their plush seats. Or at least some did. Many prattled or even knitted. Fritz Scheel, the Orchestra’s first conductor, went apoplectic when one patron suggested that he should add a Strauss waltz to sweeten his solemn, Teutonic programs. Scheel eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and died in a sanitarium. His successor, Karl Pohlig, lasted only a year before resigning under the cloud of a sex scandal.
Stokowski was not only a superb musician, but also fearless confronting this lack of respect from the audience, especially from those who left early. During Friday matinees, some left their seats in middle of the concert to catch the 4:00pm train back to the Main Line. One Friday, Stokowski was fed up. Just before conducting the opening bars “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, he heard the typical chatter and the rustling of shopping bags.
Stokowski turned around, faced the audience, and intoned:
Try as hard as we can, we cannot make a divine music amid so much untranquility. There is constant walking in and out. You know you cannot live the material life alone. You must have something else. All the rest of the week you are immersed in your worldly affairs. On Friday you come here. Will you not say to yourselves: ‘I will give to the other side of life the two hours or less that the music requires?’ You will gain enormously, and so shall we.
Some welcomed Stokowski’s standing up to his own audience. Others thought him extremely impertinent and disrespectful. Yet Stokowski was not intimidated. He had the support of many members of the Orchestra’s board, including the powerful and very wealthy Alexander van Rensselaer. A frequent traveler, Stokowski was entranced by the revolutionary music of Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, and Claude Debussy. He also created his own lush, unashamedly Romantic orchestrations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ works.
Only three years into his tenure, Stokowski decided to really shock his audience by introducing one of Europe’s most progressive composers to the American stage. He asked the Orchestra board to front $140,000 for the production of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #8, popularly known as the “Symphony of a Thousand.” An Austrian Jew who had converted to Catholicism, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) had been famous as the conductor of the Vienna Opera, but his compositions languished in relative obscurity. Stokowski, who had heard the Eighth Symphony’s premiere in Munich, proclaimed it was ”one of the greatest compositions of the twentieth century.” He also assured the skittish board that Philadelphians would passionately embrace Mahler’s music if they gave it a chance.
On March 2 , 1916, over 2,000 people packed the sold-out Academy of Music, anxiously awaiting what promised to be the greatest musical event in the city’s history. Among the luminaries in the audience were pianist Josef Hoffmann. According to The Public Ledger: “The scenes at the Academy set the nerves tingling…The curtains rose and the audience gasped. The 958 singers filled the great stage from footlights to roof and the orchestra was upon the an apron which had been built into the house. The first twelve rows of singers were women, dressed in white. Above them were twelves rows of men, with a gardenia-like spot of girls, members of the children’s chorus, pinned, it seemed in their midst.”
Stokowski stepped onto the stage, bowed, and flung his arms. The string basses growled, a mighty organ chord sounded, followed by the chorus singing “Veni, Creator Spiritus!” fortissimo, and then a mighty blast of the brass section.
For the next hour, Stokowski bathed his audience in waves of sound they had never heard before: gripping, transcendent, awe-inspiring, tender enough to draw tears from even the most hardened listener. Nearly a century later after that memorable night, Joseph Horowitz of The New York Times compared the orchestra under Stokowski to a great pipe organ: “its soft-edged attacks and majestic swells and recessions, its smooth textures and lavish colors were all derivative of the Romantic organ of Stokowski’s youth. Its ‘rolled’ chords (at different speeds!) even fabricated a reverberant cathedral acoustic.”
There was no talking, knitting, or rushing out to catch the next Paoli local. So transfixed was the audience by Mahler’s music.
When the last chords died away in the Academy of Music that evening, a new age for the Philadelphia Orchestra had dawned.
An historic recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.”
Marc Geelhoed, “A Thoroughly Modern Orchestra,” Great Performances: Carnegie Hall Opening Night, 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/shows/carnegie04/essay1.html
Marjorie Hassen, “American Premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (‘Symphony of a Thousand’) Leopold Stokowski Conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Academy of Music, Philadelphia 2 March 1916.” Leopold Stokowski: Making Music Matter. Otto E. Albrecht Music Library, University of Pennsylvania. http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/stokowski/mahler.html
Joseph Horowitz, “Spring Music/Orchestras: A Window on Stokowski’s Greatness,” The New York Times, March 5, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/03/05/arts/spring-music-orchestras-a-window-on-stokowski-s-greatness.html?ref=leopoldstokowski
Joseph Kupferberg, Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969). pp. 20, 31, 25 ,42-44, 54.