Penn Library

Leopold Stokowski:
Making Music Matter

Curated by Marjorie Hassen

Otto E. Albrecht Music Library
University of Pennsylvania


The Path of a Conductor

Leopold Anthony Stokowski was born in London on 18 April 1882. While the details of his early musical training are unclear, it is known that he sang in a church choir, played both violin and piano as a child, and purportedly discovered the organ at age 11. In 1896 he enrolled in the Royal College of Music, one of the youngest students ever to have been admitted. His skills as an organist developed so quickly that he was elected to membership in the Royal College of Organists by the age of 16. In 1900, he formed the choir of St. Mary's Church, Charing Cross Road, where he trained the choirboys and played organ, and two years later received the honor of an appointment as organist and choir director of St. James Church, Piccadilly. While at St. James, he attended Queen's College, Oxford, earning a Bachelors of Music Degree in 1903.

Upon the recommendation of his former instructor, the composer Sir Hubert Parry, Stokowski was soon engaged as the organist and choir director of New York's St. Bartholomew's Church. In September 1905, with his name spelled STOKOVSKI to facilitate pronunciation (he would not revert to the original spelling until 1911), he took up his official duties at the church, whose wealthy and distinguished parishioners included the Vanderbilts and J.P. Morgan. While at St. Bart's, Stokowski inaugurated a series of organ recitals, expanding his repertory with transcriptions for organ of orchestral works by a number of composers, among them Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Elgar, and Wagner. However, as his reputation and popularity increased, so did his disagreements with the church rector and, by the end of his third season in New York, Stokowski resigned his position.

Stokowski on his
Early Musical Experiences

[RealPlayer required]
Recorded March 1956
Stokowski on the
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

[RealPlayer required]

A good conductor must devote and concentrate all his life to conducting and to music. It must mean everything to him. He must have musical intuition -- he must know instinctively the inner invisible powers of music -- through imagination he must be able to reveal remote, yet intensely stimulating and inspiring, possibilities and moods in music.
--Leopold Stokowski
Music for All of Us
From the time he was a youngster, when at age 12 he substituted for the conductor of a chorus and small orchestra for which he served as piano accompanist, Stokowski had envisioned a career as a conductor. During his tenure at St. James he conducted various small orchestra concerts in London, and during a 1906 summer hiatus from his duties in New York he apparently attended master classes offered by Arthur Nikisch in Leipzig. Upon resigning from St. Bartholomew's, Stokowski concentrated wholeheartedly on obtaining an orchestral post. He moved to Paris for further study, but learned soon thereafter that the Cincinnati Symphony would be revived for the 1909-10 season after a two-season hiatus and was in the market for a conductor. In his determination to secure the post, Stokowski submitted a letter of application to the President of the Orchestra, Mrs. C. R. Holmes, dated 8 July 1908, following it with five additional letters over the ensuing nine months. He traveled to Cincinnati for a personal interview, and one month later, on 12 May 1909, the Orchestra sent a representative to Paris to witness what would be Stokowski's conducting debut, a concert with the Colonne Orchestra. Favorable reviews, coupled with Stokowski's charm and persistence, outweighed the board's concerns over his inexperience, and he took up his baton in Cincinnati the following fall.

Stokowski was greeted enthusiastically by Orchestra members and was an enourmous success with audiences as well as the press. Concert attendance increased, the season expanded to include "pop concerts," and several United States premieres were performed, among them works by Edward Elgar and Reinhold Glière. During Stokowski's third season in Cincinnati, however, he became frustrated by power struggles among board members. This was the principal reason he offered for his resignation from the Orchestra in the spring of 1912, but it is interesting to note that at this same time Philadelphia was undergoing a search for a new conductor. Stokowski's request to be released from his Cincinnati contract fueled a bitter dispute that was eventually aired in the press, but his resignation was finally accepted on 12 April, two months before the announcement of his Philadelphia appointment.

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