Stokowski made his first recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1917 though, as Edward Johnson has noted, "between 1917 and 1924, they made an estimated 450 acoustic recordings, but the old method of playing into a large horn gave a very poor representation of orchestral sound, and of all their acoustic discs, only 60 or so were actually issued..."
Indeed, Stokowski's very first acoustic recordings were never released - his first attempts at the two Brahms Hungarian Dances included here were recorded on 22nd October, 1917, together with two works by Tchaikovsky. All four recordings were remade - in the case of the Brahms, just two days later, to become the first released recordings conducted by Stokowski.
It is indeed true, as Edward Johnson states, that in their 'natural' state, acoustic recordings made a pretty poor job of capturing anything much - though HMV's legendary producer Fred Gaisberg always had an affectionate soft spot for the way they captured the human voice. It has become a generalisation to state that the recordings captured little below 200Hz, and perhaps little above 2500Hz, or perhaps 3000Hz at a push.
However, as these recordings demonstrate, this was not necessarily the case - though it often takes the kind of advanced restoration processing that Pristine's XR remastering brings to these recordings to uncover the real range and quality of acoustic recordings. In the case, for example, of the first recording on this collection, there's a full bass going down to (and possibly below) 70Hz - a frequency extension of almost two octaves over the accepted lower limits. Meanwhile, throughout the recording one can clearly hear string harmonics in the 3500-4000Hz range, and where the brass plays at full volume there's genuine audio content up at (and beyond) 5kHz, which is not far off the upper end of electrical recordings.
In order to hear these extremes it has been necessary first to dramatically re-equalise sound that has been highly coloured and harmonically distorted by the horn it was recorded through. This therefore comprises the first stage of the XR process in this context. Secondly we then have to apply highly selective, targeted noise reduction to those frequencies which have received what has often been a quite enormous level boost, rooting out the noise and leaving as much of the actual recorded audio intact.
The results of this are genuinely astonishing - even more so when the records were slowed down to concert pitch (apparently it was common for Victor to deliberately record at below 78rpm so that their records sounded brighter when played back at their stated speed). The majority were out by up to a full semitone (though some were considerably closer to true concert pitch), and the correction of this adds further depth and authenticity to the instrumental sound, as well as giving a much more sensible idea of Stokowski's tempi.
The recordings here, ordered by date of recording, include every piece (or version) that Stokowski only recorded once and in the acoustic era. It was astonishing to learn that his later studio recordings included neither Mozart's 40th Symphony nor Beethoven's Eighth, and that as a result the movements here represent his only studio-recorded comments on these major works. Meanwhile the Dresden version of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture was replaced by the later Paris version in all his subsequent recordings.
Finally, I decided to add one work which Stokowski recorded more than any other conductor - Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, in a rare acoustic recording which was made right at the end of the acoustic era, and was swiftly remade in front of a microphone. Like many of the recordings in this collection, it has never been reissued on vinyl or CD.
These XR-remastered recordings probably serve to knock about ten years off the perceived age of many of these recordings (though they won't of course disguise the substitution of tubas for double basses) - and these remarkable recordings can be enjoyed as if they were recorded in the early days of electrical recordings, rather than the dying days of the acoustic horn - albeit with at times slightly higher surface noise.
Two months later [in June 1912], Stokowski was appointed director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and made his Philadelphia debut on October 11, 1912. This position would bring him some of his greatest accomplishments and recognition. It has been suggested that Stokowski quit at Cincinnati knowing full well that the job in Philadelphia was already his, or as Oscar Levant suggested in his book A Smattering of Ignorance, "he had the contract in his back pocket." Before he took up his Philadelphia appointment, however, Stokowski returned to England to conduct two concerts at the Queen's Hall, London. On May 22, 1912 he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme which he was to repeat in its entirety 60 years later at the age of 90, and on June 14, 1912 he conducted an all-Wagner concert that featured the famous soprano Lillian Nordica.
In 1914, he was elected to honorary membership in Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the American fraternity for men in music.
Stokowski rapidly gained a reputation as a showman. His flair for the theatrical included grand gestures such as throwing the sheet music on the floor to show he did not need to conduct from a score. 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 head and hands. Late in the 1929-30 season, he started conducting without a baton; his free-hand manner of conducting became one of his trademarks.
On the musical side, Stokowski nurtured the orchestra and shaped the "Stokowski" sound, or what became known as the "Philadelphia Sound". He encouraged "free bowing" from the string section, "free breathing" from the brass section, and continually altered the seating arrangements of the sections as well as the acoustics of the hall in order to create better sound. Stokowski is credited as being the first conductor to adopt the seating plan used by most orchestras today, with first and second violins together on the left, violas and cellos on the right. But he was also known for tinkering with the orchestration of famous works by such composers as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, J. S. Bach and Brahms. In one instance, he even revised the ending of a work, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, by Tchaikovsky, so that it would end quietly, taking his notion from Modest Tchaikovsky's Life and Letters of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (translated by Rosa Newmarch: 1906) that the composer had provided a quiet ending of his own at Balakirev's suggestion. He made major revisions to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, making significant alterations to Rimsky-Korsakov's adaptation of the work, and making it sound, in some places, similar to the original. In the film Fantasia, however, Stokowski did not end the work with a big climax, but allowed the last measures of it to segue right into the beginning of Schubert's Ave Maria.
Many serious music critics have been horrified at the liberties Stokowski took—liberties which were common in the nineteenth century, but had since mostly died out, as faithful adherence to the composer's score became more common. However, Stokowski often left scores completely unretouched, particularly those many hundreds of new works which he was conducting for the first time. On the other hand, he was by no means alone in his alterations to more familiar scores. Arturo Toscanini, for example, who had a reputation for "doing as written", was equally adept at making similar changes to composers' scores, as in Tchaikovsky's Manfred symphony, where he added tam-tam crashes to the end of the first movement, rewrote the wind, brass and string parts here and there, and cut 100 bars out of the finale. Toscanini's alterations, however, nearly always tended to be much more subtle, and much less frequent than Stokowski's.
Stokowski's repertoire was broad and included many contemporary works. He was the only conductor to perform all of Arnold Schoenberg's orchestral works during the composer's own lifetime, several of which were world premieres. He gave the first American performance of Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder in 1932. It was recorded "live" on 78 rpm records and remained the only recording of the work in the catalog until the advent of the LP. Stokowski also gave the US premieres of four of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies, Nos. 1, 3, 6 and 11. In 1916, he conducted the United States premiere of Mahler's 8th Symphony, Symphony of a Thousand. He added works by Rachmaninoff, giving the world premieres of his Fourth Piano Concerto, the Three Russian Songs, the Third Symphony, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Sibelius, whose last three symphonies were given their U.S. premieres in Philadelphia in the 1920s; and Igor Stravinsky, many of whose works were also given their first American performances by Stokowski. In 1922, he introduced The Rite of Spring to the USA, gave its first staged performance there in 1930 with Martha Graham dancing the part of The Chosen One, and at the same time made the first U.S. recording of the work.
Seldom an opera conductor, Stokowski did give the U.S. premieres in Philadelphia of the original version of Mussorgky's Boris Godunov (1929) and Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1931). Many works by such composers as Arthur Bliss, Max Bruch, Ferruccio Busoni, César Chávez, Aaron Copland, George Enescu, Manuel de Falla, Paul Hindemith, Gustav Holst, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Walter Piston, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Ottorino Respighi, Albert Roussel, Alexander Scriabin, Elie Siegmeister, Karol Szymanowski, Edgard Varèse, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Anton Webern, and Kurt Weill, amongst countless other lesser names, received their U.S. premieres under Stokowski's direction in Philadelphia.
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 1936 onwards, allowing co-conductor Eugene Ormandy to gradually take over. He shared principal conducting duties with Ormandy from 1936-1940 and did not return until 1960.
Stokowski appeared as himself in the motion picture The Big Broadcast of 1937, conducting two of his Bach transcriptions. That same year he also conducted and acted in One Hundred Men and a Girl, with Deanna Durbin and Adolphe Menjou. In 1939, Stokowski collaborated with Walt Disney to create the motion picture for which he is best known: Fantasia. He conducted all the music (with the exception of a "jam session" in the middle of the film) and included his own orchestrations for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segments. Stokowski even got to talk to (and shake hands with) Mickey Mouse on screen, although he would later say with a smile that Mickey Mouse got to shake hands with him. Most of the music was recorded in the Academy of Music, using multi-track stereophonic sound. Stokowski also appeared in the 1947 film Carnegie Hall along with Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Ezio Pinza and other great classical musicians of the day.
On his return in 1960, Stokowski appeared with Philadelphia Orchestra as a guest conductor. He also made two LP recordings with them for Columbia Records, one including a performance of Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo, which he had introduced to America in 1922 and had previously recorded for RCA Victor with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra in 1946, and a Bach album which featured the 5th Brandenburg Concerto and three of his own Bach transcriptions. He continued to appear as a guest conductor on several more occasions, his final Philadelphia Orchestra concert taking place in 1969.
In honor of Stokowski's vast influence on music and the Philadelphia performing arts community, on February 24, 1969 he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Beginning in 1964, this award "established to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression."