90th anniversary interviews - Leopold Stokowski

Gramophone Sun 2nd November 2014

Continuing our series of classic interviews - Leopold Stokowski talks to Alan Blyth (February 1970)

Stokowski may be a little slower, stiffer in movement than of old. His mind, at 88, seems as fresh and inquiring as ever. He still prefers to look to the future than discuss the past, to think about the next record rather than talk about the last. One field in which he is always seeking for perfection is acoustics. Having just completed a concert at the Albert Hall he had some useful comments to make on the sound there now that the improvements have been more-or-less completed. 'The echo – which is different from the reverberation period – is much less intense than it used to be, and the reverberation period is definitely shorter but I think there is more that could be done. Audiences should be banished from behind the orchestra so that a large baffle of living wood – not ply – could be put behind the stage to cut off those empty spaces'. 

He likes the Festival Hall – unlike many conductors – because he believes that the imaginatively designed boxes break up and reflect the sound. His own arrangement of the orchestra there, as I have experienced, is highly successful from the point of view of good sound. He places the basses at the back, the cellos in front of them, the rest of the strings on the left and the wind on the right. 'I always like to have the wind on my right. The reason for that is so much music is antiphonal between the strings and the wind, and that effect is lost if the winds are placed behind the strings. Besides the winds are delicate instruments, there are fewer of them, and they're apt to get submerged if they sit behind'. 

He is delighted with Decca's four-channel recording and with their excellent engineers. He has of course, always taken a close interest in electronics and the engineering side of the industry generally, and has strong ideas about how records should be made – it is said he has on occasion been known to take matters into his own hands – but in London, on this visit he seemed satisfied with every aspect of the sessions. He is also conversant with electronics as an art form. 'I think it's too early to say just how succeful it will be in the long run. There are expenments in every age; some last, some are soon forgotten. Time shows everything. The same is true of pop music today. Some of it is fascinating from the standpoint of improvisation and, in a sense, this is a return to the music-making of Bach's time. As it did then, improvisation makes music very vital. I have been listening to some of your English groups and I've heard many new techniques. Their rhythm is often very original; sometimes it is just old ideas dressed up in a new way, some are merely mechanical. One must be discriminating'. 

Stokowski is not only interested in listening to the music of the young today, he is also keen to teach them. With his own American Symphony of New York, he gives series of concerts for teenagers and children as well as for adults. For very small children he has an ambitious plan that he was most eager to describe to me. This will be an illustration of Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals using real animals. 'I have a very tame white Lama who sits down in four stages. So I would ask the children to beat out four and they would see the animal sit down to that rhythm. Then he would stand up as they beat out that time again – all to their amusement. I would like to use donkeys, kangaroos, and birds and get them to illustrate the music. But, though America is supposed to be so wealthy there never seems to be any money if you want to try something imaginative like that'. 

He is still very willing to do battle on behalf of his much-abused Bach arrangements but he first told me how it came about that he decided to try this out. 'When I was a child, the first instruments I learned were the violin and piano; after these came the organ. On all these I used to love playing Bach. When I became a conductor, I still wanted to play Bach so I thought: why not orchestrate some of the organ and other keyboard music. At first, we played it – I and the Philadelphia – for our own enjoyment. Then the musicians asked me whether we couldn't try these arrangements in public. I agreed. First we did the Toccata and Fugue D minor, then the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. The public seemed to like them very much so we went on. We thought they were very beautiful, and I still do. We all live in free countries and if you don't like what you hear, you don't have to listen but why deprive others of their apparent pleasure? 

'Who did the most re-orchestrating? Why, Bach himself. And I'm sure he wouldn't mind me orchestrating his keyboard pieces – he might not like the way I did it but he wouldn't mind the principle'. 

He is just as forthright in his defence of his re-orchestration of more recent composers' works. 'There's much that's simply unreasonable in some pieces, where I think I can make the player's job easier. In Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, for instance, there are just too many brass instruments, so I take away a few to let the other solos come through – a delicate oboe or clarinet solo, maybe. Another problem is the primitive type of instruments of Beethoven's time which prevented a flute phrase, in the Ninth Symphony, from ending on a high B flat because the instrument did not then go above A. Beethoven wrote the note down an octave but I'm certain he would have wanted it at the top, if it had been possible, so that's how I do it. Of course, in the case of masters of orchestration such as Berlioz or Shostakovich I don't alter a note. Nor do I find much wrong with Schumann's much-criticised powers of orchestration. He simply had his own ideas of how he wanted the orchestra to sound'. 

He has no particular favourites among his new or old records, but he does now consider it to be amazing how many good discs were made in the days of 78s when there were so many difficulties to overcome and equipment was comparatively primitive. As far as today's methods are concerned he is very anxious to dispel the idea that it is practicable to try and simulate concert-hall conditions. 'There you have an enclosed, largish space and reflecting walls and from the softest to the loudest the ear can take you have a range of 120 decibels; in the home the range is perhaps 35db. At 45 you'd hurt the ears, at 55 probably break eardrums. 

'Records are a very important part of my life. In a concert hall you reach at the most 5000; in the home, if you're lucky, 50,000. I receive letters of thanks from many, many countries and it's a great privilege to make music for so many'.

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017