Leopold Stokowski was one of the greatest musical conductors of the twentieth century, he was totally mad, and a fraud, and a superstar. I'm sorry, I've just been listening to him conduct the goddam 1812 Overture and my hair hasn't come down yet. Deep breath.

Stokowski was brilliant. He was a powerhouse, he wielded enormous forces from the podium. He became possibly the most famous conductor in America, and as such featured in the Disney film Fantasia conducting all that music, and interacting with Mickey Mouse. He made arrangements of classic works that showed off his power to the full, and some purists were or are horrified by them, but there's a huge, sweeping power in them. Most famous perhaps is his orchestration of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565.

Between 1912 and 1941 he ruled the Philadelphia Orchestra, and turned this minor provincial orchestra into one of America's best. Their sound was called the Philadelphia Sound: completely unique, instantly recognizable. He used the string section like something out of Star Wars. Oh, he would have loved Star Wars.

So why was he a fraud? Because he was English, Leo Stokes, born in 1882 in London, but once he was a superstar in America he had gone back to his Polish heritage and not only called himself Stokowski but had acquired a strong, fractured Eastern European accent. He also waved over his date of birth and claimed it was 1887.

But he was born on 18 April 1882, and in 1903 became the principal organist of St James's Church, Piccadilly. He acquired a reputation and accepted an offer to move to New York, to St Bartholomew's Church. In 1908 his rendition of the Star Wars Sensurround version of The Stars and Stripes Forever so terrified the poor parishioners that they chucked him out, and he moved on to orchestras. He was completely mad. It's a good thing he liked orchestras, not politics, or we'd have been fighting the Second World War on two fronts, I mean this man was grandiose. He loved to make it BIG and LOUD, I'm sorry, I've stopped being objective again, I'll try to get back to business...

He had been admitted to the Royal College of Music at the age of thirteen (youngest ever), got a Bachelor of Music from Oxford in 1903, and pursued studies across Europe. In 1908 a conductor in Paris fell ill and Stokowski substituted. Between 1909 and 1911 he was conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, a position his wife the pianist Olga Samaroff helped him attain. In 1911 he moved to Philadelphia, and stardom.

Leopold did astonishing visual things. He grouped the players differently, he conducted without a baton, he used lighting effects, and he affected a trademark shock of white hair. There's a Bugs Bunny cartoon that plays on this ("Long-Haired Hare", 1949*), where Bugs walks up the aisle to the podium and everyone is whispering "Leopold!" in shocked awe. And so he got to do all those things he was famous for in Fantasia (1940).

He left the Philadelphia the following year, but continued to pursue an active conducting career. Notoriously long-lived, like many conductors, he signed a contract with Columbia at the age of 94. But the following year, on 13 September 1977, he passed away, still very active. Many people probably thought of him as Polish or American, but now he was back at home in England, in the peaceful Cotswolds village of Nether Wallop.

Now I want to tell you about that 1812 Overture. Over at the British Library one of the exhibits is on the history of sound recording, and they happen to have two samples of him conducting, from 1930 with the Philadelphia and 1969 with the RPO, and my first reaction on hearing what he did with it compared to conductors before and since on different recording media was that he was quite mad. He has no respect for scale, and just throws everything at it, at tremendous volume, intensity, and speed, and he is such a stunningly good conductor that the orchestra he's trained can actually achieve this. I caught fire after the first notes and am still tingling with shock, hours later.

Sources: well, look up the Internet and pick, but I used:
http://www.geocities.com/laosw/Classical_Html/stokowskiBio.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Stokowski-Leopold.htm

* thanks to Jet-Poop for supplying the name

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