Biography of famous orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Leopold Stokowski (April 18, 1882 – September 13, 1977) (born Antoni Stanisław Bolesławowicz) was the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the NBC Symphony Orchestra and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He was the founder of the New York City Symphony Orchestra. He arranged the music for and appeared in Disney’s Fantasia.
The son of Polish cabinetmaker Kopernik Józef Bolesław Stokowski and his Irish wife Annie Marion Moore, Stokowski was born in London, England, in 1882. There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding his early life. For example, no one could ever determine where his slightly Eastern European, foreign-sounding accent came from as he was a born and raised in London (it is surmised that this was a affectation on his part to add mystery and interest) and he also, on occasion, quoted his birth year as 1887 instead of 1882.
Stokowski trained at the Royal College of Music (which he entered in 1896 at the age of thirteen, one of the college’s youngest students ever). He sang in the choir of St. Marylebone Church and later became Assistant Organist to Sir Henry Walford Davies at The Temple Church. At the young age of 16 he was elected to membership in the Royal College of Organists. In 1900 he formed the choir of St. Mary’s Church, Charing Cross Road. There he trained the choirboys and played the organ and in 1902 was appointed organist and choir director of St. James Church, Piccadilly. He also attended Queen’s College, Oxford where he earned a Bachelors of Music degree in 1903.
In 1905 Stokowski began work in New York City as the organist and choir director of St. Bartholomew’s Church. He was became very popular amongst the parishoners (who included JP Morgan and members of the Vanderbilt family) but eventually quit the position to pursue a post as an orchestra conductor. He moved to Paris for additional study before hearing that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra would be needing a new conductor when it returned from a hiatus. So, in 1908, he began his campaign to obtain the position, writing multiple letters to the orchestra’s president, Mrs. C. R. Holmes, and traveling to Cincinnati for a personal interview. Eventually he was granted the post and officially took up his duties in the fall of 1909.
Stokowski was a great success in Cincinnati, introducing the idea of “pop concerts” and conducting the United States premieres of new works by composers such as Edward Elgar. However, in early 1912 he became sufficiently frustrated with the power politics of the orchestra’s board that he tendered his resignation. There was a disupte over the resignation, but on April 12 it was finally accepted.
Two months later Stokowski was appointed director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski made his Philadelphia debut on October 11, 1912. This position would bring him some of his greatest accomplishments and recognition.
Stokowski rapidly garnered a reputation as a showman. His flair for the theaterical included grand gestures such as throwing the sheet music on the floor to show he did not need to conduct from a score (his predecessor had also conducted without a score, but had not felt the need to display this fact so dramatically). He also experimented with lighting techniques in the concert hall, at one point conducting in a dark hall with only his head and hands lighted, at other times arranging the lights so they would cast theatrical shadows of his hand and hands. Late in the 1929-30 season he stopped using a baton to conduct and his free-hand manner of conducting became one of his trademarks.
On the musical side, Stokowski nutured the orchestra and shaped the “Stokowski” sound. He encouraged “free bowing” from the string section, “free breathing” from the brass section, and continually played with the seating arrangements of the sections and the acoustics of the various halls where he conducted in order to create the perfect sound.
Stokowski also ensured that the repretoire was broadened and updated. In 1916 he conducted the United State premiere of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. He added works by Rachmaninoff, Sibelius and Igor Stravinsky. In 1933 he started “Youth Concerts” for younger audiences which are still a Philadelphia tradition and fostered youth music programs.
After disputes with the board, Stokowski began to withdraw from involvement in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1935 onwards, allowing then co-conductor Eugene Ormandy to gradually take over.
In 1940 Stokowski formed the All-American Youth Orchestra which took multiple tours overseas and was met with rave reviews. During this time he also become co-conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra with Arturo Toscanini.
Also in 1940 Stokowski collaborated with Walt Disney to create the movie for which he is best known – Fantasia. He conducted the segments for the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” and even got to talk to Mickey Mouse while onscreen.
In 1944, on the recommendation of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Stokowski helped for the New York City Symphony Orchestra, aimed at middle-class workers. The ticket prices were set low and the times of concerts made it convenient to attend after work. Many early concerts were standing room only; however, a year later in 1945, Stokowski was at odds with the board (who wanted to trim expenses even further) and he resigned.
In 1945 Stokowski founded the Hollywood Bowl Symphony. The orchestra lasted for two years before it was disbanded. It was later reformed in 1991.
In the late 1940s Stokowski became chief Guest Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. From 1955 to 1961 Stokowski was the Music Director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1962 at the age of 80, Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra. He served as music director for the orchestra, which continues to play, until May 1972 when, at the age of 90, he returned to England.
In 1976 he signed a recording contract that would have kept him active until he was 100 years old. However, he died of a heart attack the following year at the age of 95.
Stokowski married three times. His first wife was Lucie Hickenlooper (a.k.a. Olga Samaroff, former wife of Boris Loutzky), a Texas-born concert pianist and musicologist, to whom he was married from 1911 until 1923 (one daughter: Sonia Stokowski, an actress). His second wife was Johnson & Johnson heiress Evangeline Love Brewster Johnson, an artist and aviator, to whom he was married from 1926 until 1937 (two children: Gloria Luba Stokowski and Andrea Sadja Stokowski). His third wife, from 1945 until 1955, was railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt (born 1925), an artist and fashion designer (two sons, Leopold Stanislaus Stokowski b. 1950 and Christopher Stokowski b. 1955). He also had a much-publicized affair with Greta Garbo in 1937-8.
Leopold Stokowski returned to England in 1972 and died there in 1977 in Nether Wallop, Hampshire at the age of 95.