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When Stokowski defied his manager to play the Rite of Spring

The Philadelphia Orchestra website has published a fascinating exchange between its conductor, Leopold Stokowski, and its manager, Arthur Judson, over the 1929 first US broadcast of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Stoki was a popular performer, prone to get his own way. Judson, in addition to managing orchestras, was also – conflictually – co-founder of Columbia Artists Management Inc. and of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).

Judson tells Stoki:stoki

I have looked over with interest your Radio programs. … I am frankly afraid of the Stravinsky number on the second program. Millions of people who have never heard an orchestra are going to “listen in.” They are going to be greatly pleased with the first number [Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances], but after about five minutes of the Stravinsky they are going to say “Oh, hell!” and turn off the radio.

Stoki, bless him, replies:

Thank you for your frank criticisms of the radio programs. … I am sure what you say about the Sacre of Stravinsky is … true, but I feel it is the greatest work of our time, and for that reason should be played. Expressed in broad lines, my feeling about radio is that if I cannot [program for] radio the best music at present I will wait until I can, because I am not willing to lower my flag.

The result:


Full story here.

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  1. paul myers says:

    I produced a couple of records with Stokowski when he was 94. In fact I signed him to a 6-year contract, instead of the usual 3- or 5-year, to guarantee a 100th birthday record if it should arise. He was quite extraordinary – a very old man when he entered the hall (and the orchestra stood without being asked) and 40 years disappeared as he stood on the podium. CBS sent a TV team for some of the sessions, and sent over the film. We hired a small preview studio in Soho Square, and I sat with him. The programme contained an interview with Henry Pleasance, an American journalist in London. When they interviewed him, he said: “Of course, that crazy accent of his was self-created. He made it up as he went along!” Next to me, the maestro was making peculiar groaning noises, and I though: “Oh Lord, he’s having a heart attack!” Nothing of the sort, Stokey was laughing!

    • Mark Barrett says:

      What a splendid memory, Paul – I remember you at Decca of course and, more recently, have caught up with you at various events! Those sessions (I have the recordings) must have been very special. Your remark about how he seemed to shed the years reminds me of his last ever (large scale) public concert at the Royal Albert Hall when he was I think 91 and I was still a student. A friend and I bought tickets and made the pilgrimage down from Liverpool in his tiny Renault to hear him conduct Klemperer’s “Merry Waltz” (a wonderdul and unexpected tribute), V W’s Tallis Fantasia and a wonderful Brahms 4th Symphony. I well recall his painstaking progress on to the podium then, without more than a second or two delay, came the graceful sweep of his hand (no baton of course) and off he went, sheeding the decades. Back in the green, there he was, frail, almost like brittle china – almost in his own world after the marvellous Brahms – I think I said, in my youthful fashion, something like, “Thank you, Maestro, the Brahms was electrifying” and he suddenly sat up and said, with a twinkle in his eye, in that inimitable accent “What? Did you say you were electrocuted?” Not long after, I had the privilege of working at Decca and, having already swapped some great Stoky stories with Tim McDonald about the Czech sessions – and the journey there when he broke his arm, I think! – I helped to put the packaging together for the 2LP tribute album that, thanks to swift work by the excellent John Parry, I think we got out andinto the shops within 5 days. As a postscript, years later, I found the the BBC Radio 3 tapes of that last concert and put them on to a CD, albeit on the existing Radio Classics configuration when I feel I should have waited to have it out as a BBC Legend!

  2. Not sure if this will work but I’m trying to post a link to Stokowski rehearsing the All American Youth Orchestra in 1940 in New Jersey. My father, Martin Zwick, was the E-flat clarinetist in the Youth Orchestra.

  3. Branimir Pofuk says:

    Slipped Disc in full glory with memories like this one being shared.
    Mr. Myers, thank you very much!

  4. harold braun says:

    A true giant.Brillant,glamorous and brave.He was also one of the few conductors who invited Afro-American artists to perform in times of racial segregation,often threatening to back out of engagements if this wish would not granted.

    • Indeed, Stokowski’s advocacy for contemporary music, and the wilder shores of the repertoire is an exemplary example to all conductors. Unusually,this curiosity went undimmed, into his later years.
      Both Klemperer, and even Karajan featured a fair amount of new music in their programming, but less so in the later stages of their careers.
      Here’s Karajan conducting Penerecki. The Berlin Phil string section rarely sounded like this while he was at the helm:

  5. Stokowski described to me in detail how he and Stravinsky sat side-by-side, the score Le Sacre over both their laps, as Stravinsky beat out the tempos from beginning to end in preparation for the work’s U.S. premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski later explained about the origin of the work and showed me the score he used, to illustrate its history. He and Stravinsky later had a falling out because of the cuts Stokowski made in Fantasia. Stokowski was absolutely fearless (and willful!) where his art was concerned (he also took a stand about using racially-mixed choruses in Houston). He remains a highly misunderstood artist concerning his motivations and methods. I was Stokowski’s personal orchestra librarian and a close friend for many years, and hope to reveal more about him as a musician in a memoir I am now writing. I would like to hear from anyone with insights and reminiscences, via my website.

  6. Things did not work out so well in France. The Rite of Spring was performed there in 1909, with choreography by Nijinsky. The riots were so bad that the ballet was cancelled after 8 performances. Nijinsky’s choreography was buried on a shelf. It was only reconstructed in 1996 by Millicent Hodson, almost a century later.

    • Performing Artist52 says:

      Roy, the year was 1913 as many orchestras and ballet companies across the nation have performed The Rite of Spring to honr the 100th annivarsery of the event in Paris.

  7. I saw Stokowski conduct twice late in his life (both times rehearsals. My indelible memory was how frailty and age seemed to be in his overcoat and scarf. With every step toward the podium, he got younger. It was almost physical. I was transfixed. Mahler 2 (Auferstehn) “”You must be singing before you make any sound. It must come out of the silence.” He raised his hands and as he gently, slowly lowered them, the Westminster Choir did just what e asked. It was a fierce, beautiful and defining moment for me.
    I am so glad, he got his way as much as he did and that I was able to see him in action with my own eyes.

  8. I think you will find it was Firebird in 1909. The Rite of Spring was 1911. The choreographer at the Ballet Ruse was Diaghalev. Stravinsky and Diaghalev are both still interred in Cemetery in Venice.

    Stoki did much to rehabilitate the work, and good for him. When any of those three magnificent ballet scores are played to children with open minds they are amazed. Do remember, if they have been raised on Tom and Jerry, they will have been listening to serialism masquerading as film music.


    • Performing Artist52 says:

      Joanna, Diaghalev was not a choreographer. He was a producer. Nijinsly was the choreographer for The Rite of Apring.

  9. DrewLewis says:

    Sad to read so many factual errors here! Le Sacre du printemps had its première on 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. L’oiseau de feu was first performed on 25 June 1910 and Petrushka on 13 June 1911. The choreographer of Le Sacre was Vaslav Nijinsky, not Diaghilev! Diaghilev was the proprietor of the Ballets Russes.

  10. Drew, it occurred to me, that I had the years wrong after I had posted. You are correct 1911, Firebird 1913 Rite of Spring.

    I believe we were both correct about Diaghalev. NB my spelling is bad, and it is a transliteration from the Russian. I was correct about the order.

    I do remember reading that 2013 is the centenary of the first performance, so am happy to stand corrected.

  11. Richard Barker says:

    The Théàtre des Champs Elysées was BUILT in 1913, there’s no question of anything having been premiered there before that date. In fact if i remember correctly, the theatre was opened in the spring of 1913 and the Rite of Spring premiered in the autumn of the same year.

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