How conductors sounded (8): Stokowski talks about drinking with Rachmaninov and Sibelius

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  • Extremely interesting remarks, though, yes, Leopold Stokowski of Marlyebone, really knew that “orchestra” is not pronounced “orCESTra.”

  • I’m still mystified by that accent–he was born, raised, and educated in London, and his mother was Irish? Even with a Polish father, and had they spoken Polish at home, presumably he would have perfected an English accent. And yet the accent seems largely consistent (other than the odd disparity between orCHEStra, yet orchesTRAtion). Could anyone maintain a phony accent all the time, e.g., even when barking out angry orders?

    • Stoki developed his accent sometime in the period 1909-1918. Blanche Yurka (“the Bohemian Girl”) was a choirgirl at St Bartholomew’s in NYC where Stoki was organist and choirmaster in 1905-08. She reported that he had a perfect English accent, referring to the poorer singers as “duffers.” By the time she met him again in Philadelphia he had developed his new accent and she asked him “where did you get that accent?” He just said shhhhh “our secret.” Olga Samaroff (nee Lucie Hickenlooper), Stoki’s first wife was instrumental in helping him get his career going, and at that time, having a Euro background was de rigeur for a musical career in the USA. I have been told that when conducting English orchestras Stoki would occasionally slip into his native accent, especially when animated about something. Generally though he maintained this affectation his whole life under all circumstances apparently (Gloria Vanderbilt states in her autobiography that he maintained the accent at all times).

      • There is this story that Stokowski, at a party, got animated about the subject under discussion and involuntary sank into perfect English. To the company, who fell into a stunned silence, he then apologized – in his quasi-Mid-European speech – with: ‘I’m sorry, I forgot my accent.’

    • Incidentally, Stokowski’s grandfather was born in Poland, his Dad, Kopernik was born in London and so was first generation English. Stoki’s brother maintained that there was no Polish spoken at home and that Leo played the tuba not the violin as he himself often asserted. Generally speaking, Stokowski made stuff up about his birth and upbringing (see William Ander Smith’s book “The Mystery of Leopold Stokowski” for a very thorough discussion of this.

  • Concerning Stokowski’s accent, if you are brought up in an entirely “ethnic” community, not associating with anybody outside of this community, you will speak with their accent. That said, an exotic, foreign, middle-European accent was an asset in the world of Classical music in the United States of the fifities. I Remember a musician telling me about our conductor that the only thing he had going for him was his Hungarian accent.

    • But he wasn’t brought up in an “entirely ‘ethnic’ community,” and he associated with plenty of English people, presumably among them his English-born father and Irish mother. And he entered the Royal College of Music–hardly the bastion of exotic foreign accents–at 13. Yes, being of foreign extraction was then an asset in the Classical world, but it’s still surprising that if his accent was an artificial one, that he maintained it so well.

      • Stokowski CREATED the conductor he was and became it in the course of time, including the accent. Artists often create their personas because they better express what they are than the random elements of their circumstances of birth. It says something about the relationship between nature and culture.

        • In his autobiography, animator Shamus Culhane talks about Stokowski’s work at the Disney studio and regarded him as an absurd “poseur”.

          During a break, when Disney asked Stokowski if he would like “a Coke,” Stokowski feigned ignorance of the most advertised product in the world.

          “A ‘Coke’? What is that?” he said.

          • Another story recounts Stoki being driven back to the Savoy Hotel from the Festival Hall (over Westminster Bridge) past the Houses of Parliament. Stoki asks “what is that clock?”

            He did this stuff every now and then apparently. I suspect he found it humorous.

          • I listened to an interview from the 1960s where he told an English interviewer that he was born near the Abbey Road studios in London. He said he attended both the Royal College of Music and Oxford University. He had a degree in music from Oxford and used to visit his old college. Unfortunately the interviewer was in awe of the great man, and did not ask where the accent came from. He must have had a posh English accent at some point. His father was born in England and had a Scottish mother. Did anyone try and speak Polish to Stokowski? He died in England at his house in Hampshire.

  • The Finnish public broadcaster has on its archive website a radio interview with Sibelius (he was a conductor, right?), recorded in 1948 at Sibelius’s home, Ainola (now a museum). See

    http://yle.fi/elavaarkisto/artikkelit/jean_sibeliuksen_haastattelu_1948_9929.html#media=9939

    It’s all in Finnish. Sibelius starts to answer questions two minutes into the recording. Sibelius is a 83-year-old national institution at this point. Many of questions are very benign trivia ones.

  • I was a close friend of Stokowski’s (yes, he had a close friend) as well as his orchestra librarian and am still amazed that the discussion of his accent lives on. His personality was unique — strong and complex — and the method of speech that he created reflected who he authentically was. We cannot expect someone who has the ability to affect others as he did on the podium to be average in other ways. I am writing a memoir in which I tell about his teasing me about my Philadelphia accent, and my reciprocity about his mysterious one. A friend of mine just commented on the success of Stokowski’s children’s concerts, contemporary music programming, etc., saying that classical music professionals today could learn from him. But it was Stokowski’s personality that “sold” these musical experiences, and his accent was an integral part of that persona.

  • Not only is his accent weird; he also makes grammatical mistakes and mistakes in word choice. Immediately after that, he will come out with something that only a native speaker could possibly get right. I smell a fish!

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