an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Stokowski and Ormandy — What Happened in Philadelphia?


As I write in Understanding Toscanini (1987):

“In 1932, in a minor cause celebre, Wilhelm Furtwangler was discovered likening American orchestras to ‘pet dogs’ (Luxushunden) in a speech honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic. To Furtwangler, whose rapport with the New York Philharmonic’s ‘dog owners’ had not been smooth, the absence of government subsidies in the United States implied that orchestras were deemed less essential there than in Europe. When the ‘pet dogs’ analogy stirred American resentment, he took pains to explain to the New York Times that he ‘intended to convey the idea that orchestras had grown to be more of a necessity to German communities than elsewhere on account of the greater age of German musical culture and national tradition.’”

This explanation was necessarily disingenuous. Furtwangler was not the sort of man to trade anecdotes at Manhattan dinner parties. His lapdog analogy plainly questioned the influence of affluent non-musicians in musical affairs.

In a recent blog I called the Philadelphia Orchestra’s decision to replace Leopold Stokowski with Eugene Ormandy “one of the most parochial blunders in the institutional history of classical music in America.” Was the Philadelphia Orchestra a Luxushund?

The incongruous 44-year phenomenon (1936 to 1980) of a middling conductor taking over from a galvanic genius remains mysterious. Certainly (as I earlier speculated) the music businessmen  Charles O’Connell and Arthur Judson had input into Philadelphia’s decision to hire Ormandy over such readily available refugee candidates as Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer – not to mention Fritz Reiner, who next door at the Curtis Institute coveted the Philadelphia podium.  O’Connell superintended the classical music division of RCA Records. Judson was for decades the presiding powerbroker – the Robert Moses – of classical music in the US. He ran the New York Philharmonic and (for a time) the Philadelphia Orchestra. He created Columbia Artists — the most powerful booking agency for conductors and instrumentalists.

For readers unfamiliar with Judson, here are a couple of Mahler vignettes:

In 1935 Klemperer, as a New York Philharmonic guest conductor (and a clear candidate to become a regular presence), insisted on conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony. His three performances impacted overwhelmingly; Olin Downes, in the Times, called them “historic.” Judson’s response was to apprise Klemperer that his Mahler concerts had run a substantial deficit. As reported by Klemperer’s biographer Peter Heyworth, this “Pyrrhic victory” sealed Klemperer’s fate in New York. When he discovered he would not be invited back, Klemperer wrote to let Judson know he was “very much offended”—an “outburst of rage and resentment,” according to Heyworth, “unique in his career.”

One of the Philharmonic’s most important American premieres was of Mahler’s Sixth, under Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1947. But the Philharmonic balked at scheduling the work on the Sunday afternoon broadcast concert — Judson maintained that Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F would be more suitable national radio fare and would also sell more tickets at home. In response, Mitropoulos wrote Judson (October 14, 1947) “to beg you, almost on my knees” to change his mind. “It would be a crime not to give this New World [broadcast] premiere of this great and exciting symphony . . . It would be a great event from which we have nothing to fear and from which to expect no less than the highest gratitude of all the musical artistic world in the United States.” He added that he awaited Judson’s response “with anxiety.” Judson said no.

Eugene Ormandy enjoyed a close, even filial relationship with Arthur Judson. Judson played a crucial role installing Ormandy in his first major position, in Minneapolis. He doubtless advocated for Ormandy in Philadelphia. In later life Ormandy said of Judson, “I owe everything to him.”

Thanks to an email from Gregor Benko, I now have at hand a long letter from Olga Samaroff which sheds further light on Ormandy’s Philadelphia  appointment. Marked “PERSONAL,” it’s dated December 8, 1934 (in which year Stokowski had temporarily “resigned”) and is addressed “Dear Curtis” – its recipient being Philadelphia Orchestra Association President Curtis Bok. “If I were President of the Philadelphia Orchestra there is just one man I would consider for the whole job, — that man is Eugene Ormandy,” Samaroff writes. “I feel very convinced that somewhere he will prove to be one of the greatest conductors of his generation.”

Samaroff (born Lucy Hickenlooper) was a prominent American pianist and pedagogue. She was also Leopold Stokowski’s first wife, and backstage played a decisive role both molding his exotic public persona and promoting his glamorous musical career. Her letter to Bok self-evidently conceals a back story – a web of negotiation impossible to extrapolate. But its surface content is wholly engrossing.

Here is a paragraph comparing Ormandy to other Philadelphia possibilities:

“I think the best thing that could happen in Philadelphia would be to have someone do what Leopold did in the beginning – be the regular conductor and conduct throughout the season [contradicting Judson’s unfortunate practice in New York of preferring guests to a permanent music director with teeth]. . . If Reiner were as good a symphony conductor as he is an operatic conductor, it seems to me he would be a logical choice but frankly and confidentially, I do not feel he is a big symphony conductor. Furtwangler has left Berlin [he had resigned in a dispute with the Nazis, but would be reinstated] might like to come to America but he is already too much the pampered ‘prima donna’ to do the kind of work somebody will have to do. He is also hard to get on with personally. Kleiber is not big enough. Klemperer is uneven. He does some things very well and other things not nearly so well. [Jose] Iturbi made a great success in Philadelphia in a concert primarily devoted to Spanish music . . . If he has the same limitations as a conductor however that he has as a pianist, I fear Philadelphia would miss the great experiences they have had in Bach, Brahms, Wagner and Beethoven. . . . “

Well, Samaroff was wrong about Reiner. Certainly Furtwangler and Klemperer were harder “to get on with personally” than Ormandy would be. Was Kleiber “not big enough.”? He today looms a lot bigger than Ormandy. What is more: In Berlin, it was he who led the world premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925, a brave and triumphant undertaking. As a guest with the New York Philharmonic in 1930 and 1931, Kleiber programed Mahler, Hindemith, Berg (excerpts from Wozzeck and Lulu both), Krenek, Toch, and Malipiero. Klemperer’s New York Philharmonic programs included Berg, Bruckner, Hindemith, Janacek, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich.  Even Furtwangler, whose repertoire predilections were conservative, in 1925 led the Philharmonic in its first performances of The Rite of Spring.

Samaroff’s letter continues:

“Although Ormandy has become one of my personal friends I had formed my musical opinion of him when I did not know him from Adam. I went to a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra when I knew nothing of him musically or personally. I was overwhelmed by the display of qualities that were so like the young Leopold that it was uncanny. I am not speaking of externals of conducting that might be imitative of Stokowski’s methods. I am speaking of purely musical and temperamental qualities, of phrasing, feeling and orchestral balance . . . As a man I do not yet know him very well but I have already had occasion to discover one priceless quality – loyalty. . . .

“Someone recently said to me that he was an opportunist. . . I know orchestra men resent his rise from the ranks [Ormandy began as a violinist]. They always do. The orchestra players’ jealousy of the conductor is as inevitable as any other form of class feeling. They all think they could be conductors if they had the chance. In Ormandy’s case it is enhanced by the spectacular rapidity with which he emerged . . . But if given life and death power – that is the power to dismiss men – I do not think he would have any difficulty in establishing control. After all, that is the one sure thing in determining the attitude of orchestra players towards their conductor. They do their best for the man who has the power to fire them.”

The letter is signed: “Affectionately yours, Olga.”

I realize there are readers who will agree with Olga here – when Norman Lebrecht reproduced my previous Ormandy/O’Connell blog on slippedisc, the respondents included Ormandy enthusiasts. Without getting into a shouting match, I will add that I heard Ormandy in live performance at the Academy of Music a few times in the late 1960s. I will agree that his live performances surpass his studio recordings. (I also found the sound upstairs quite decent, however notoriously dry the downstairs acoustic of the Academy may be.) I liked best a reading of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. The smooth skin of the Ormandy sound cushioned the bite of Mussorgsky’s characterizations and (in the case of the feuding Jews Goldenberg and Schmuyle) caricatures. But the sonic refulgence of the “Great Gate at Kiev” was undeniable.

Travel north to Boston, however, and listen to Serge Koussevitzky conduct the same music (I here refer to his broadcast of October 9, 1943). First of all, Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony is on fire; Ormandy was never this incendiary. Secondly, the spiritual elevation of the “Great Gate” occupies a realm of expression Ormandy was never known to inhabit. If you don’t believe me, just have a listen: go to 52:00 of the “PostClassical” Broadcast “Are Orchestras Really ‘Better than Ever?’

I pick this particular piece to make a point because it so happens that Koussevitzky commissioned and premiered Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition – no small achievement — in Paris in 1922. That’s a fundamental difference between Ormandy and such intrepid culture-bearers as Stokowski and Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky’s proudest achievement was Tanglewood – he created it as a laboratory for American music and American composers.  The list of important Koussevitzky commissions and premieres is long. As for Stokowski, the composers he historically championed ranged from Schoenberg to Rachmaninoff to Varese (think about that). He led his own Youth Concerts and his own Young People’s Concerts (including one in which he produced a live baby elephant for Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals).

There is a smoking gun in the annals of Arthur Judson. As I write in Classical Music in America: “In 1931, responding to complaints about Toscanini’s limited [New York Philharmonic] repertoire, Judson issued this remarkable edict: ‘There are certain composers like Bruckner and Mahler who have not yet been accepted heartily by the American public. Certain of their works are played from time to time and it may be that they will gradually attain their permanent place in the repertoire . . .We can only go as far as the public will go with us.’ . . . This market mentality was previously anathema to classical music. . . . It would never have occurred to . . .  Koussevitzky or Stokowski to treat audience taste as a given; as artists, their mission was to chart virgin terrain. In fact, Judson’s attitude . . . demeaned and redefined the performer’s role in the larger scheme of things musical. For the most part, music new or unfamiliar was considered not good for business.”

Arthur Judson notwithstanding, Koussevitzky and Stokowski shaped taste. Wilhelm Furtwangler notwithstanding, their American orchestras were not lapdogs.

P.S.: Curtis Bok resigned as President of the Philadelphia Orchestra board on Dec. 11, 1934 – three days after Samaroff’s letter — in protest against the board’s ouster of Stokowski. His mother, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, did the same. Though Stokowski came back, and the Boks did not, Samaroff’s counsel presumably remained pertinent when in 1941 Stokowski left Philadelphia for good and Ormandy became sole music director. However one reckons the magnanimity of the Boks and other Philadelphia philanthropists, and their influence on the affairs of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Curtis Institute (the Mary Louise Curtis Bok Foundation invaluably supports Curtis to this day), the most colossal of all American musical philanthropists was Henry Higginson. He invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony. He also built Boston’s Symphony Hall. It greatly mattered that Higginson (while a banker) was a Vienna-trained musician. He had taste, he had ears, he had exceptional scouts abroad. Personal amenability was self-evidently not a high criterion for prospective Boston Symphony conductors. Nor was Higginson impressed by great reputations. He was after talent. He hired Artur Nikisch before Nikisch became Germany’s pre-eminent symphonic conductor. He settled on Karl Muck, a powerful leader who in wartime betrayed him and broke his heart. I would additionally call Higginson a great man; he fits no categories for cultural benefaction. For the singular story of Higginson and the BSO, see my Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (2005). For a full Higginson portrait, see my Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle (2012).



  1. Thanks for this. Very well done.

  2. http://Don%20Drewecki says

    When I started hearing Ormandy and the Philadelphians at Saratoga in 1966 I could not believe the ravishing sound of the Orchestra — just as I couldn’t believe the sound of the Orchestra at the Academy of Music under Sawallisch in April 1984, in my first trip to Philly. Ormandy made some excellent recordings, and he thoroughly deserved the tribute he got at Carnegie Hall in November 1965 when he gave his still-unequalled performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony in the superior first version by Deryck Cooke. He also made a superb recording in 1947 of Debussy’s Damoiselle Elue with Bidu Sayao and Rosalind Nadell that is still unmatched except by Toscanini’s 1940 broadcast with the NBC Symphony.

    Was he Stokowski? Of course not. But he did make his mark.

    • http://Dr.%20Joseph%20A.%20DiLuzio says

      Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio writes:

      This pseudo-highminded nonsense by J. Horowitz contains only one relevant fact:

      he heard Eugene Ormandy live only “a few times.”

      Having read Mr. Horowitz’s dissertation-like book deconstructing Toscanini (Understanding Toscanini),

      I realize this Ormandy piece emerges as further corroboration of the thesis of the former to wit:

      Toscanini and Ormandy were “felicitous” by products of advertising, the American “inferiority complex,”

      and ultimately powerful media brokers like David Sarnoff and Arthur Judson.

      It says NOTHING however substantively about the INTRINSIC MERITS and SUPERLATIVE MUSICIANSHIP

      of Eugene Ormandy. I, unlike this opportunistic journalist (you sir are far more that than Ormandy),

      had heard Ormandy many, many times in the Academy of Music and am quite expert as to his discography.

      If Mr. Horowitz would care to engage in a true Socratic dialogue on this score, I’d be delighted to oblige him.

      As both musician and conductor, Maestro Ormandy (to paraphrase many critics of Fanfare and ARG)

      is almost insuperable in much of the repertoire of the late 19th and 20th Centuries.

      Once again, HAVING HEARD HIM LIVE, I emphasize LIVE, he was equally idiomatic in Brahms

      and even Beethoven. Pity that preconceived theses get in the way of a true musical communion.

      Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Professor of French and Italian

    • http://Dr.%20Joseph%20A.%20DiLuzio says

      This pseudo-highminded nonsense of Mr. Horowitz contains only one pertinent fact:

      he heard Eugene Ormandy live only “a few times.”

      Having read the author’s “Understanding Toscanini,” I take this piece to be a continuation,

      disseration-like, of his thesis concerning the fortunate beneficiaries (Toscanini and Ormandy) of American

      advertising, our “inferiority-complex,”

      and ultimately powerful media brokers like David Sarnoff and Arthur Judson.

      It says NOTHING however substantively about the INTRINSIC MERITS and SUPERLATIVE MUSICIANSHIP

      of Eugene Ormandy. I, unlike this opportunistic journalist (you sir are far more that than Ormandy!),

      had heard Ormandy many, many times in the Academy of Music and am quite expert as to his discography.

      If Mr. Horowitz would care to engage in a true Socratic dialogue on this score, I’d be delighted to oblige him.

      As both musician and conductor, Maestro Ormandy (to paraphrase many critics of Fanfare and ARG)

      is almost insuperable in much of the repertoire of the late 19th and 20th Centuries.

      Once again, HAVING HEARD HIM LIVE, I emphasize LIVE, he was equally idiomatic in Brahms

      and even Beethoven. Pity that preconceived theses get in the way of a true musical communion.

      Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Professor of French and Italian

  3. http://Janis says

    Ormandy wasn’t my fave, but he could do what he did VERY well. He was in a lot of ways the perfect 20th century orchestra conductor — they sounded great doing anything beyond about Mozart or middle Beethoven, with lots of really high-quality schmaltz that suited Romantic and early 20th century stuff perfectly. Now, the orchestra sounded like it was underwater when it did Baroque, and as a Baroque fan, I have to admit that displeases me, but … I don’t know. Ormandy was fine for the times he was in, and the orchestra continued to expand its cultural reach during his tenure. He had several decades to send the orchestra sputtering into a ditch and could well have done so if he’d been quite as bad as you’re making him out to be. If he put you to sleep conducting Haendel like a wind-up clock, well … lots of orchestras murdered Haendel in those days, and it took a while for HIPP to really take root in the rear echelons. (It’s worth noting that Stokie and Toscanini couldn’t do Baroque any more justice, either.)

    So he’s not my fave, but he was good for his times and did a nice job keeping the orchestra in the classical spotlight. Post-HIPP, now that bands are expected to play Baroque music with the appropriate dash and still retain the ability to schmaltz the hell out of Barber and Korngold, maybe he’d not be well-suited. Still, I’m rather fond of him although I do prefer the current baton-wielder at the helm, along with the occasional drive-by from Vladimir Jurowsky to spice things up a bit.

    • http://Joseph%20A.%20DiLuzio says

      I thank you for the snarky ad hominem riposte which conspicuously

      avoids replying to the substance of my comments on Eugene Ormandy.

      One doesn’t preclude the other, Mr. Cooke: expertise in one’s field vs. an avocation.

      And I’d put it to you, the talent it requires to master two foreign languages — a question of EAR —

      is related to one’s ability to understand serious music. If my degree and occupation is overemphasized,

      I apologize. However, with all the talking heads infecting the various media of today (whose qualifications

      for expertise I rarely can discern), I felt it was necessary to invoke my background.

      Lest as a Roman once told me: “mica sta a venne’ i fiori (“he’s not there to sell ice-cream )!”

  4. http://Antony%20Cooke says

    The professor, Dr. (as he seems to emphasize) Joseph A. DiLuzio, certainly has very his own high-minded opinions (in his view, incontrovertible positions) about music. It’s much akin to a music “professor” having similar opinions about English and Italian.

an ArtsJournal blog