Leopold Stokowski and Vaughan Williams - by Edward Johnson
Leopold Stokowski visits Vaughan Williams in 1957
Leopold Stokowski and Vaughan Williams
An Appreciation by Edward Johnson
"When I was a student at the Royal College of Music in London, Vaughan Williams was teaching, so I knew him as a teacher. But later I learned to know him more intimately and found him to be a remarkable man - very profound, very warm".
These were Leopold Stokowski's words on hearing of Vaughan Williams's death in 1958. As it happened, Stokowski's memory was playing him slightly false; he and VW had indeed been at the RCM during the Spring Term of 1896 - they were both studying the organ under Sir Walter Parratt - but they were simply fellow students. Stokowski, however was thirteen years old and the youngest pupil at that time to have entered the College, so he must have been recalling a helpful older student.
After several years as a church choirmaster, notably at St. James's Piccadilly, Stokowski went to America and soon commenced what was to become an illustrious conducting career, first with the Cincinnati Orchestra (1909-1912) and then - for the next quarter-of-a-century - with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was this orchestra which gave the North American première of A Sea Symphony when it accompanied the Mendelssohn Choir on a visit to Toronto in 1921. Although Stokowski was listed as the conductor, the press reviews reveal that he presided only over the purely orchestral numbers - Wagner's Parsifal Prelude and Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela - handing the baton to the Choir's own director, Mr. Herbert A. Fricker for the Vaughan Williams choral work. Happily, Mr. Fricker scored a striking success:
"The wealth of melody and the fertility in variation and contrast which mark the score from first to last are amazing." wrote the Toronto Daily Star, "unquestionably A Sea Symphony is a work of genius."
Incidentally, Fricker had prepared the chorus for the very first performance in Leeds under RVW's own direction. He later look over the Mendelssohn Choir, and with them and the New York Philharmonic he gave the US première of A Sea Symphony on 5 April 1922.
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1920
Stokowski was an inveterate giver of "first performances" in America (they number in their many hundreds) but he missed out on A London Symphony. This had its première under Albert Coates's baton on 20 December 1920 with the New York Symphony Orchestra. The first American performance of A Pastoral Symphony was given by Vaughan Williams himself with what appears to have been amateur forces at a Festival of the Litchfield County Choral Union in Norfolk, Connecticut on 7 June 1922.
Eighteen months later, Stokowski introduced VW3 to his Philadelphia audiences in December 1924. In those days his programmes were often curiously upside down, with a symphony in the first half, followed after the interval by a concerto and an overture or other short piece to finish. So A Pastoral Symphony was heard first in the concert and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin wrote:
"One fairly glimpses 'Old England' with its folk tunes in verdant country lanes, and throughout there is evidence of imagination and inspiration, even if there is some tonal wandering and vagueness at times. It is withal a skilfully written and melodiously beautiful work and was superbly played, the interpretation under Mr. Stokowski's very sympathetic reading well meriting the ovation of applause."
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1925
Two years later, in October 1926, Vaughan Williams's celebrated masterpiece, the Tallis Fantasia, made its Philadelphia debut. Stokowski's programme began with one of his Bach arrangements and this was followed by Brahms's 1st Symphony. After the interval came the Tallis Fantasia and the concert ended with the première of Ernest Pingoud's symphonic poem The Prophet. The critic of Musical America found RVW's music to be:
"rather grave, sombre, and melancholic. The work, despite its form, was suggestive chiefly of a single mood - that of gravity and calm. Sincerity of workmanship, both in original material and adaptation, is a marked merit of the score, which builds up to a solemn and impressive climax."
Vaughan Williams's 4th received its US première on 19 December 1935 in a Cleveland Orchestra concert conducted by Artur Rodzinski. Two years later, Rodzinski was engaged by the National Broadcasting Company to enlarge their existing "house orchestra" to full symphonic strength so as to lure Toscanini out of his recently-announced retirement. The great Italian maestro was immediately sold on the idea and duly conducted his first NBC concert on Christmas Day, 1937. But Toscanini was not the only one to conduct the new orchestra, and many guests were invited onto the rostrum, including Sir Adrian Boult, who featured the Vaughan Williams 4th in an all-British NBC concert on 21 May 1938.
Vaughan Williams in the 1930s
After only a few seasons, Toscanini began to feel disenchanted with NBC and decided on a temporary leave-of-absence. So, commencing with the 1941-42 season, Stokowski was engaged in his place on a three-year contract. His NBC concerts were as enterprising as ever, and it's possible that he had heard the Boult broadcast of VW4 since he re-programmed the work himself on 13 March 1943. The following day, the New York Times wrote:
"Fine dynamics, splendid tone, intensely built-up climaxes, with particularly fine use of the brasses, produced a most satisfactory reading of this great symphony."
Fortunately, NBC recorded all their broadcasts on lacquer discs and Stokowski's 1943 rendering (the only occasion he ever conducted the work) survived in acceptable enough sound for it to be released on Cala Records (CACD 0528). It was warmly welcomed by David Betts in the RVW Society Journal of June 2001 as "a terrific performance". In addition, Lewis Foreman, the British music expert, reviewed the Cala release for MusicWeb-International and wrote:
"This is a Fourth to put beside Stokowski's historic world premiere commercial recording of Vaughan Williams's Sixth ... it is particularly valuable that these radio acetates of a live broadcast sound so good. Stokowski plays to the gallery, very much emphasising this symphony, in 1943, as music of the times. It is dramatic and exciting ... The period feel of the NBC Symphony's strings with their portamento, adds an historic frisson to a gripping live experience that bears comparison with Mitropoulos's strong and fiery reading. A glorious survival."
More Vaughan Williams appeared in the Stokowski/NBC broadcast of 19 December 1943 when the Fantasia on Christmas Carols, in a purely orchestral version, rubbed shoulders with Roy Harris's Folk Rhythms of Today. (Both works have appeared on Guild's "Stokowski NBC Pops" release: GHCD 2361 - guildmusic.com).
Artur Rodzinski again gave a new VW symphony its American première when he presented the 5th with the New York Philharmonic on 30 November 1944. A few years later, the 6th Symphony was snapped up by Serge Koussevitzky, who gave America its first hearing with the Boston Symphony on 7 August 1948. New York heard it for the first time early the following year, when Stokowski programmed it with the NYPO in three concerts on 27, 28 and 30 January 1949.
Stokowski contributed his own notes to the programme book, and wrote:
"The more I study Vaughan Williams's Symphony in E minor, the more I have the impression that this is music that will take its place with the greatest creations of the masters. I feel that in this Symphony the world of music has a tonal picture of today, expressing the turmoil, the dark despair, the aspiration of an ideal future. Every listener will find his own meaning in the unique finale of this Symphony - one of the most profound expressions in all music."
A recording of the broadcast on 30 January still survives in the New York Philharmonic's own archives so one lives in hope of a CD release. Olin Downes of the New York Times praised the music but not Stokowski's reading:
"Speaking of this symphony as such, and not of its performance, it may be designated as one of the most personal and profoundly felt orchestral scores that has appeared in decades."
However, Stokowski's timing of the work came to about 25 minutes, and Downes duly noted that
"the unpredictable Mr Stokowski ran through this score with the orchestra hitting hard a few of the high spots but missing most of the architectural and emotional significance of the music. His tempi were hurried. He bicycled through it."
Perhaps Stokowski took note of these criticisms, because when he made the work's first recording on 21 February 1949 - beating Sir Adrian Boult to that honour by 48 hours, and also making the only non-British "first recording" of any of VW's symphonies - he moderated his tempos noticeably. Of the original 78rpm set (Columbia M.838), which had the Greensleeves Fantasia as the last side filler, the American Record Guide wrote:
"Stokowski's performance of this music is thoughtful and penetrating. His performance in the concert hall was somewhat faster than in his recorded version. I find the present reading more searching and expressive."
The Gramophone Shop Record Supplement reviewed the recording's subsequent release on LP (ML 4214) more enthusiastically:
"It is not too much to say that this is Vaughan Williams's most significant composition, as well as one of the truly great works of the century, and that this is one of Stokowski's most vital performances. From the tremendous opening movement to the bleak, lonely finale, Stokowski's conception of this work was one of strength and control."
When reissued on CD some years ago (Cala CACD 0537), the total timing of Stokowski's recording clocked in at just under half an hour - still somewhat faster than the fastest of Boult's three recordings, all of which, however, vary in their total timings by several minutes each!
In 1950, RVW gave a broadcast talk on the BBC entitled "Bach, the Great Bourgeois" in which he quoted the Royal College of Music's motto 'The Letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life,' and added that "if we adhere meticulously and mechanically to the letter of Bach we shall inevitably kill the spirit." The talk was reprinted in The Listener of 3 August 1950 and Stokowski - famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for his many Bach orchestrations - wrote to RVW on 8 September:
"May I offer you my thanks for your most illuminating article on Bach. So often his music is performed in a dry, academic manner so that great numbers of music lovers still do not realize his greatness of heart, as well as mind and creative power. Coming from you, I hope that he will be performed according to the free principles you have so eloquently stated. All of us who love the music of Bach feel that we owe you a debt of gratitude for your plain-spoken and eloquent article."
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1950
The Tallis Fantasia had remained in Stokowski's repertoire over the years and with the advent of the long playing record, he decided to commit it to disc. A specially selected band of top New York string players, including violist William Lincer and cellist Leonard Rose, was duly assembled on 3 September 1952. Stokowski himself contributed the notes to the RCA Victor LP (LM 1739):
"Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis spans the 16th and 20th centuries ... those who love beauty, deep emotion, and the unseen mystery of life, will find intense joy in listening to it."
The coupling was Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and the intense passion of that work - which Stokowski aligned with "the romantic beauty of a moonlight night, the ecstasy of love" - spilled over into his reading of VW's score with a throbbing, vibrato-laden playing style. The New Records critic was not alone in noting that
"Stokowski infuses an almost erotic atmosphere which one is sure neither Tallis nor Vaughan Williams intended; but the effect, for one listener is little short of superb."
Stokowski wrote to the composer to tell him of the new recording and on 24 September 1952, VW wrote back to say
"I feel much honoured that you have recorded my Fantasia," providing the maestro with a history of the tune as well as a musical sketch of Tallis's original setting.
Stokowski's Tallis score with Vaughan Williams' letter of 24 September 1952 pasted on the final page. 1
On a Canadian visit in 1954, Stokowski guest-conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a programme which had Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony in the first half and RVW's English Folk Songs Suite to conclude the second. In May of that year he came to London for three BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts. He particularly wanted to include some British music in his programmes, so VW's Dives and Lazarus took its place alongside Malcolm Arnold's Beckus the Dandipratt, Alan Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies, and Arnold Bax's Tintagel.
Another guest spot, this time with the Cleveland Orchestra on 9 and 11 December 1954, found Stokowski championing Vaughan Williams's newest symphony, the Sinfonia Antartica.
This had been given its US première by Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on 2 April 1953. The critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that Stokowski
"dispensed that special kind of tonal magic that only this great conductor knows how to evoke. He gave us our first hearing of the latest symphony of the dean of English composers, who recently visited this country. This Sinfonia Antartica is tonal painting on a grand scale, suggesting with telling effect the eerie desolation of frozen wastelands, massive glaciers and chilling blizzards. In addition to its usual colour devices, it must be said that the music speaks eloquently of nobility of spirit, tenderness, and heroism."
In September 1955, Stokowski conducted four concerts in Santa Barbara with the Pacific Coast Festival Orchestra, and concluded his final programme - which featured Milhaud's Percussion Concerto, Ives's The Unanswered Question, Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and Stravinsky's Mass - with Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music. The following year on 5 October 1956, America heard RVW's 8th Symphony for the first time when the Philadelphia Orchestra performed it under Eugene Ormandy's direction.
On another trip to England in 1957, Stokowski visited Vaughan Williams in his London home, an event happily captured by several celebrated photos.
Left: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leopold Stokowski in 1957
Right: Stokowski's 1954 New York radio broadcast of Dives and Lazarus can be heard on You Tube
The composer was in the Royal Box at the Festival Hall for Stokowski's LSO concert of 30 June 1957 and was completely bowled over by the maestro's performance of his 8th Symphony. The Times wrote:
"Vaughan Williams's most recent symphony was presumably new to Mr. Stokowski, but as it is in some sense an epitome of what has gone before in the composer's oeuvre it sounded as though the conductor had always known it: it flowed under his hand and gave the curious but delightful impression that its music was afloat, even in the uproarious finale."
The following year, the Contemporary Music Society was planning a symphonic concert at Carnegie Hall to mark Stokowski's 50th year as a conductor. The main work was originally scheduled to be Shostakovich's 11th Symphony, but on hearing of Vaughan Williams's death on 26 August, Stokowski immediately decided to commemorate the composer by giving the US première of VW's last symphony. The programme was duly changed and on 25 September 1958 Stokowski's celebratory concert featured VW9 as the final offering. The critics were somewhat divided over the new symphony:
"It will not, I think, be classed among Vaughan Williams's greatest achievements," wrote Musical America. "Less acidulous harmonically than a good deal of his previous work, it contains many graceful and even beautiful passages, and it provides some unusual, though not startling, tonal effects. The themes are short and mainly diatonic, but at first hearing they seemed to want stature and profundity, and one sensed the deep involvement of the composer in his ideas only intermittently."
In the audience was Percy Grainger who immediately wrote to the composer's widow:
"My wife and I went to hear your husband's 9th Symphony in New York last night, conducted by Stokowski. The performance seemed a perfect one in every way, and the exquisite beauty and cosmic quality of this immortal work struck me as being ideally realised. The sound of the unaccompanied melody on the flugel horn was lovely indeed, and the parts allotted to this instrument and to the saxophones showed what these beautiful instruments can contribute to music of the deepest soulfulness."
When a tape of the broadcast was issued in 2004 by Cala Records (CACD 0539), RVW's biographer Michael Kennedy wrote:
"What emerges is a noble interpretation of a work now acknowledged as a crowning masterpiece. The opening of the first movement has never sounded so monumental, and Stokowski finds throughout the work a ferocity that is often underplayed. Each of the four movements is accorded some special insight and the playing is magnificent."
Stokowski performed the work again in Houston on 10 and 11 November 1958, and here the critic of the Houston Chronicle was more enthusiastic than the New York critic at the première:
"This new 9th Symphony was the evening's thriller. In a sense it is a skyscraper among symphonies; a creation of mass and majesty. There are moments of shrieking anguish in its first movements and, later, measures throbbing with beauty. Stokowski and the Houston Orchestra gave it a brilliant send off, finding every spark of colour in this vast and striking score."
Now a regular visitor to London during his last years, Stokowski programmed the Tallis Fantasia in an all-British concert with the LSO on 17 July 1963 in aid of the Royal College of Music's Building Fund. It also featured Addison's Carte Blanche Ballet Suite and Holst's The Planets, but the lack of an overture, concerto or symphony proved fatal at the box office, and a sensational Stokowski concert was played to an almost deserted Royal Albert Hall.
The following week, Stokowski became the first great international conductor to appear at The Proms - this time the Albert Hall was sold out - and for his return visit the following year, William Glock, the BBC's Music Controller, requested a repeat performance of VW's 8th Symphony.
"I always like to conduct the music of Vaughan Williams, for whom as a composer and man I have the greatest admiration,"
responded Stokowski, and on 15 September 1964 he duly brought the house down with, in the words of the Daily Express critic Noel Goodwin, "a programme that gave ample scope for his delight in blending lush orchestral colours." (BBC Radio Classics 15656 91312).
with his cat Foxy
Stokowski had founded the American Symphony Orchestra in New York in 1962 and remained its Music Director for ten years. On 19 October 1970 he commenced a concert of choral music by Bach, Gabrieli and Paufnik with Vaughan William's stirring setting of The Old 100th. He became a nonagenarian in 1972 and two years later decided to give up public concerts and concentrate on making records in the time remaining to him. His last concert in the UK took place on 14 May 1974 with the New Philharmonia: the first half sandwiched the Tallis Fantasia between Otto Klemperer's Merry Waltz and Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole, and a blazing Brahms 4th Symphony rounded off a truly historic event. (BBC Radio Classics BBCRD 9107).
Stokowski returned to the Tallis Fantasia in August 1975 when he recorded it again, this time with the strings of the Royal Philharmonic for the new 'Desmar' label.
"I have never heard finer string playing than this," wrote Geoffrey Crankshaw of the LP release in Records and Recording, "with the terraced perspectives of Vaughan Williams's masterpiece conveyed with something near perfection."
Reissued on CD (EMI Classics 7243 5 6670 2 2 and Newton Classics 8802025) it was the maestro's very last performance of any of RVW's music. Crankshaw added that
"Stokowski shows us that this is one of the greatest pieces for strings ever written, calling for virtuosity as well as imaginative integrity."
It was also a glowing memorial tribute to a master conductor who, although often controversial, nevertheless remained one of the most exciting occupants of the 20th century's concert hall podiums.
Stokowski Conducts Vaughan Williams Symphonies
with the Philadelphia Orchestra
19-20 December 1924 (Academy of Music)
Vaughan Williams A Pastoral Symphony
Lalo Cello Concerto (Michel_Penha, cello)
Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre
with the NBC Symphony Orchestra
14 March 1943 (Studio 8H, New York)
Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony
Gould New China March, Red Cavalry March
Debussy Prélude ?l'après-midi d'un faune
with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
27-28 January 1949 (Carnegie Hall)
Moeran In the Mountain Country (US première)
Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony
Gershwin Piano Concerto (Byron Janis, piano)
Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody
with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
30 January 1949 (Carnegie Hall)
Moeran In the Mountain Country
Muradeli Georgian Dance
Scott From the Sacred Harp
Bloch Schelemo (Leonard Rose, cello)
Debussy no 1 - Nuages, no 2 - Fêtes (Three Nocturnes)
Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony
with the National Symphony Orchestra
28 February 1951 (Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C. )
Purcell-Stokowski Suite from "The Fairy-Queen" and "Dido and Aeneas"
Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony
Falla El amor brujo
Debussy-Stokowski Préludes I, no 10 - "La cathédrale engloutie"
Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet
with the Cleveland Orchestra
9-11 December 1954 (Severance Hall)
Purcell-Stokowski Suite from "The Fairy-Queen" and "Dido and Aeneas"
Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica
Debussy Three Nocturnes
Wagner Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
with the London Symphony Orchestra
30 June 1957 (Royal Festival Hall)
Schubert Rosamunde Overture
Vaughan Williams Eighth Symphony (in the presence of the composer)
Schumann Second Symphony
with the Houston Symphony Orchestra
11-12 November 1957 (Houston Music Hall)
Orff Nänie und Dithyrambe
Vaughan Williams Eighth Symphony
Krenek Cello Concerto no 1 (commissioned and played by Margaret Aue, cello)
Panufnik Sinfonia Elegiaca
with the Symphony Orchestra of the Contemporary Music Society:
"Leopold Stokowski Fiftieth Anniversary Concert"
25 September 1958 (Carnegie Hall)
Orrego-Salas Obertura Festiva (US première)
Hovhaness Mysterious Mountain (commissioned by Stokowski for his Houston debut)
Riegger New Dance
Vaughan Williams Ninth Symphony (US première)
with the Houston Symphony Orchestra
10-11 November 1958 (Houston Music Hall)
Vaughan Williams Ninth Symphony
Tchaikovsky Hamlet: Overture, Entr'act, Funeral Music
Strauss Death and Transfiguration
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
15 September 1964 (Royal Albert Hall "Prom" Concert)
Vaughan Williams Eighth Symphony
Falla El amor brujo (with Gloria Lane, mezzo-soprano)
Sibelius Second Symphony
Edward Johnson is a widely recognized musical scholar and expert on Leopold Stokowski. Benefitting from his extensive musical archives and those of his friends and fellow scholars, Edward Johnson has been instrumental in creating the superb series of Stokowski restorations on the Cala CD label.
The Cala Records Stokowski recordings referred to above are available both as downloads and via mail order from their website: calarecords.com
Edward Johnson has also worked closely with Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical to restore a number of excellent and rare Stokowski recordings, from the acoustic to the stereophonic eras: http://www.pristineclassical.com
as well as with Guild Historical, who have also released several historic Stokowski recordings: guildmusic.com
On Pristine PASC133 (left) Stokowski conducts Vaughan Williams's Greensleeves and Walton's Spitfire Prelude and Fugue.
Guild GHCD 2392 (right) includes short pieces by Purcell and Handel.
1 photographs of Stokowski's score taken by Larry Huffman, courtesy of the Libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In the case of any corrections or other information concerning this page or this www.stokowki.org site, please e-mail me (Larry Huffman) at e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Full Navigation Menu of www.stokowski.org site (click any button below):
Rosters of Musicians of some Great Orchestras:
Leopold Stokowski - Philadelphia Orchestra Acoustic Recordings 1917-1924:
Leopold Stokowski - Philadelphia Orchestra Electrical Recordings 1925-1940:
Leopold Stokowski Recording Discographies and Listing of Concerts:
Other Information about Leopold Stokowski:
Leopold Stokowski and Development of Recording: