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Orchestrator and Conductor Leopold Stokowski

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The following is a guest post by Archives Processing Technician Dr. Rachel McNellis.

Seated Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski.
Unidentified photographer. Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski, 1940. Box 55, folder 9, Oliver Daniel Papers, Music Division.

In 1937, Walt Disney approached internationally acclaimed conductor Leopold Stokowski about directing the music for the short animated film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It featured Mickey Mouse and was intended to boost the animated character’s renown. The project then expanded into the feature-length Fantasia, which consists of seven parts, each set to a well-known work of classical music.

The Leopold Stokowski Materials, a small collection housed in the Music Division, contains two scores marked “Walt Disney Studio: Music Dept.” that were created for the film: Stokowski’s transcription for Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain, served as the soundtrack for the final part of Fantasia, while Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was not used in the final production. True to Disney’s original intent, Stokowski also appeared on stage to shake Mickey Mouse’s hand during the film as a sign of his enthusiasm.

Manuscript score for aria.
Overture No. 3 in D major. Aria, undated. By Johann Sebastian Bach; transcribed for strings by Leopold Stokowski. Box 1, folder 2, Leopold Stokowski Materials, Music Division.

Stokowski’s orchestration of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565), which is not included in the Stokowski Materials, also served as the soundtrack for the first segment of Fantasia. This score dates from the late 1920s and is one of at least thirty-seven arrangements Stokowski created for Bach’s compositions between 1912 and 1940. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Stokowski had directed the music at several churches in London and New York City between 1900 and 1908. It is likely that his experience as a church organist—a role that Bach also held throughout his life—influenced Stokowski’s affinity for the great German master. Furthermore, Stokowski, Bach, and the Philadelphia Orchestra also appeared in the film The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), in which Stokowski conducted the orchestra in his transcription of Bach’s Fugue in G minor (BWV 542). The Stokowski Materials include four of his other Bach transcriptions.

While an avid orchestrator, Stokowski achieved his greatest and most enduring fame as a conductor. After four years with the Cincinnati Orchestra, he was appointed director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912, which he brought to prominence as a top performing ensemble in the United States during the following decades. Under his direction, the orchestra premiered numerous works including Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and gave the American premieres of many other masterpieces such as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In 1917, he directed the Philadelphia Orchestra in some of the first recordings for full symphony orchestra and, in 1925, in the first electrical recordings ever made. The Stokowski Materials contain his correspondence with Reinhold Glière, Gian Carlo Menotti, Carl Orff, and Jean Sibelius, which document his professional connections with others whose music he premiered and recorded during his tenure with the orchestra.

Manuscript score.
Night on the Bare Mountain; witches sabbath, circa 1940. By Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky; transcribed by Leopold Stokowski. ML30.6a.M9 N9 (Case)

As a conductor, Stokowski advocated for racial integration in music composition and performance. He conducted the world premiere of William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, which was one of the first works by an African American composer premiered by a major American symphony orchestra. Stokowski recorded a revised version of the work in 1963, but the symphony is rarely heard in concert today. In 1936–1937, he also conducted the world premiere of William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor and several performances of Still’s Afro-American Symphony, for which the Library owns the original holograph score from 1930. Stokowski’s greatest statement in favor of racial equality occurred in 1961, however, when he cut ties with the Houston Symphony after its administration refused to allow black and white singers to perform together on stage in a performance of Arnold Schoenbergs Gurrelieder.

Stokowski’s contract with the Philadelphia Orchestra ended in 1941, although he conducted over 50 concerts with the orchestra between 1960 and 1969. During the following decades, he worked with numerous other symphonies across the United States and in Europe, including the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. On July 22, 1972, he conducted the Rouen Chamber Orchestra in his final public concert, which featured his Bach transcriptions. Stokowski continued to be a driving force in the record industry throughout his career as well, and had contracts with Columbia, Decca/London, Pye, Victor, and RCA records. He entered a six-year contract with Columbia in 1976, but died the following year on September 13, 1977.

In his many concerts and recordings, Stokowski championed the works of important contemporary composers such as Samuel Barber, Carlos Chávez, Charles Ives, Maurice Ravel, Elie Siegmeister, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The Leopold Stokowski Materials also contains one of Schoenberg’s self-portrait paintings, Vision, which he painted in 1910 and gave to Stokowski in September 1949 with a signed dedication. Although the items in the collection are few in number, each one is a valuable document of the composer’s influence within the world of classical music as well as the film and recording industries. The finding aid for the Leopold Stokowski Materials is available online for further exploration.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly identified composer William Levi Dawson as William Levi Johnson.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for posting about this wonderful assortment of materials. I recently viewed Fantasia again after many years and was amused to find that Disney and Stravinsky had the volcanos erupt in sync with the accents in The Rite of Spring portion. I gather there is no correspondence or other material in this collection on their collaboration on Fantasia? I did see somewhere recently a photo of Stravinsky and Disney pouring over a Fantasia storyboard.

  2. It was William Levi DAWSON not Johnson

    • Thank you, Lawrence! The post has been corrected.

  3. It was William Levi DAWSON not Johnson

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