Curtis W. Davis collection on Leopold Stokowski

The University of Pennsylvania already houses a wealth of material related to the orchestral conductor Leopold Stokowski. His papers are preserved in Ms. Coll. 381, his musical scores, transcriptions, and arrangements in Ms. Coll. 350 and Ms. Coll. 351, and the research materials of his biographer Oliver Daniel in Ms. Coll. 382. With the Curtis W. Davis collection on Leopold Stokowski, 1936-1992, the library can now boast five collections on this towering musical figure.

Stokowski is a name that will no doubt still be familiar to many. He is remembered by lovers of orchestral music as the man responsible for bringing the Philadelphia Orchestra to fame, and who left behind numerous recordings that continue to attract listeners to this day. Many others may also remember him from their childhood, as the silhouetted figure who shakes Mickey Mouse’s hand in Disney’s Fantasia, for which he conducted the orchestra. Information about him and his life is also not difficult to find. For this reason, I’ll give only the briefest of biographical sketches here (those who are curious for more might take a look at Oliver Daniel’s biography, available in the library at ML422.S76 D3 1982).

Stokowski’s origins may surprise those who have only a casual acquaintance with him–despite what his exotic sounding accent and name might lead you to believe, he was actually British. It is true that his ancestors and his family name, did come from Poland, but Stokowski was the second generation of his family to be born in London. Throughout his life, Stokowski attempted to obscure many of the facts about his own past and family origins. For this reason, there is much misinformation that still circulates about him, as well as much about which we may never know for certain. One thing about which we can be fairly sure is that Stokowski was born in London (and not in Poland, Germany, or any other place as has sometimes been claimed–even by Stokowski himself!) on 18 April 1882 (and not in 1887 or any other year…you get the picture). Copies of many of the relevant genealogical documents from London archives that prove these facts are gathered in the first series of this collection.

Stokowski received formal musical training from the Royal College of Music beginning at age thirteen, and from here on the story becomes more consistent across the different accounts. In his early career he played organ and directed choirs at various churches in London and New York City. His real desire, however, was to direct an orchestra. He made his conducting debut in Paris in 1909–a gig he secured purely by chance (he filled in for another conductor who was ill)–and this helped him secure his first position as music director for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Right from the start, Stokowski made a strong  impression with many of the features for which he was known throughout his life, such as his theatrical stage presence and unapologetic programming of contemporary composers, though he also worked hard to continue to improve his abilities. In 1912, he moved to the Philadelphia Orchestra, where, through a variety of adventurous experiments in playing techniques, seating arrangements, re-orchestration, and acoustics, he perfected what came to be known as the “Philadelphia Sound.”

In the late 1930s, Stokowski stopped conducting the orchestra in live performances and began working in Hollywood, appearing in One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) and Disney’s Fantasia (1940), after which he left the Philadelphia Orchestra officially. From there, Stokowski both formed and worked with a staggering range of groups, the full history of which is beyond the scope of this post. From the All American Youth Orchestra (1940-1941),  NBC Symphony Orchestra (1941-1944), New York City Symphony Orchestra (1944-1945), The Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra (1945-1947), New York Philharmonic (1946-1950), Symphony of the Air (1954-1963), The Houston Symphony Orchestra (1955-1961), and the American Symphony Orchestra (1962-1972), Stokowski kept to a tightly packed performing and recording schedule his entire life.

Less familiar is the man responsible for this collection. Curtis Davis was a television producer best known as the creator of Emmy-award-winning cultural programming for National Educational Television. Born in 1928, Davis studied music at Columbia University, where he took composition seminars with Edgard Varese and Otto Luening, and graduated in 1949 with Special Distinction in Music. After serving in the army, Davis began a career in television, and in 1959, joined National Educational Television, producing programs in arts and music. In 1964, he became the director of cultural programs, and earned three Emmy awards for his programs NET Playhouse (1969), Cinderella (1970) and Leopold Stokowski at 88 (1971). Having gone freelance in 1973, Davis teamed up with violinist Yehudi Menuhin to produce an eight-part documentary series for the Canadian Broadcasting Company titled The Music of Man (1979), which was also made into a book with the same title (available in the library under the call number ML160 .M514). In 1981 he joined the Arts and Entertainment Network, becoming their vice president of programming in 1984. During the late 1970s, Davis began working on a biography of Stokowski, with whom he had produced two concert telecasts in addition to the above mentioned profile. Davis died of cancer in 1986, leaving the book unfinished and unpublished. In 2000, Davis’ wife, Julie, donated the drafts of the biography along with all of the related research materials to The University of Pennsylvania.

This collection, being a research collection, naturally includes a mix of unique and published  items. Feature articles, newspaper clippings, and other easily accessible items relating to Stokowski have been gathered together and grouped by subject. In addition, the collection contains many photocopies of unique items available in other archives–birth and death certificates, correspondence, etc. While many of these items are already available through other means, Davis’ bringing together of these items into a single organized collection will be of value to researchers. Unique materials, however, are always especially exciting, and there are many available here. First and foremost, there are Davis’ drafts for the biography, plus the many interviews he conducted with people who knew and worked with Stokowski, but there are a few other gems as well.

For example, here is one of two scores from the collection that were used and marked by producer Howard H. Scott during recording sessions with Stokowski in 1968. Scott, among many other things, helped in the development of the long-playing vinyl record in the late 1940s, working for Columbia Records. More information about him can be found in this article, which also happens to feature a photograph of  Scott with Stokowski.

The score is for Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony and is signed “Howard Scott, RCA Victor,” with notes about the recording session: “Stokowski/CSO [The Chicago Symphony Orchestra]” on “Feb 20, 21 1968.” Part of what is exciting about this item is the fact that it relates to a released recording that is still easy to find today, so it would be very easy to compare the working score to the final product. (If anyone were so inclined, the library has a copy of this recording, packaged as part of the “RCA Stokowski Stereo Collection”  under the call number Vic. 6625142 CD, Disc 13.) It’s also fascinating to see the production of these recordings through another person’s viewpoint. Many of Stokowski’s own marked scores, as has been mentioned above, survive in Ms. Coll. 350 and are an invaluable resource that reveal much about how Stokowski went about working with the musicians to achieve his desired sound. Here, however, we are able to see the producer’s side of things, though unfortunately we have little information as to what these markings actually mean. Did they indicate Scott’s own thoughts on the music and how he would like it to sound? Were they notes on how to direct the recording engineers rather than the musicians? Or were they simply copies of Stokowski’s own interpretation and alterations of the score?

The other score from these sessions (Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Festival Overture,” Vic. 6625142 CD, Disc 5) does appear to have recording-specific notes (at the top of page 7, we can see “+5 harp balance”) but without more information, we can’t be entirely sure. What we do know, however, is a fair amount about Stokowski’s recording techniques generally, and that Stokowski was deeply involved with the technical side of his recordings. Even if these markings were recording notes rather than performance notes, we can be certain that Stokowski had a hand in making the decisions. This website goes into great detail about Stokowski’s acoustic and early electrical recordings, but Davis’ interviews help supplement with anecdotal evidence. Here is Henry Koster, with whom Stokowski made the feature film One Hundred Men and A Girl in 1937, recalling Stokowski’s working method:

Spoke of recording on tape 8mm, needs no contact with recording needle, so he was way ahead of his time. When we recorded in Philadelphia church, Bernie Brown did it, LS wanted seven microphones. We thought it was insane, at that time we used one. He supervised the hanging of the microphones, special one over the string basses, tympani, harp, two general ones (higher + lower), one over strings. Then he would sit and play with those recordings and mix them. He was fantastic.

Here we can see (and this is nothing new to those who know Stokowski’s work well) how forward-thinking Stokowski was, at least in some regards, which is easy to overlook given the Old World persona that he liked to maintain. It’s true that his readiness to alter the score can appear outdated to a modern sensibility that treats every mark as sacred, but it is important to remember that Stokowski did contribute much to the modern music world, not only by pioneering new recording techniques (as described by Koster), but also by championing living composers. He premiered a number of important works both live and on recording, including a few pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, a composer who is virtually synonymous with “modern music.”

These are just a few of the noteworthy items that this collection makes available. There are roughly 60 interviews like the one from which the above quote has been extracted, a series of Stokowski’s own correspondence (sometimes in original form), 3 albums worth of photographs spanning his entire life, not to mention Davis’ own draft and notes, plus much more. For complete information about the collection and its contents, please see the finding aid.

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