Coloring Outside the Lines

Leopold Stokowski spent a decade immersed in Bach’s music as a church organist, but he gave it up for the irresistible temptations of the symphonic world. On WCRB's CD of the Week, dive into the vast experience of his recording legacy.

Leopold Stokowski brought color to every facet of his life. Beyond conducting, he was a matinee idol, a champion of contemporary music, a controversial arranger, and, at the beginning, an organist.

After holding church posts in London, he spent three years as director of music at New York’s St. Bartholomew’s Church at Madison Avenue and 44th Street. There he performed his own transcriptions of orchestral works from across the centuries, from Palestrina to Tchaikovsky to Wagner operas.

But in 1908, Stokowski’s yearning to direct an orchestra compelled him to leave New York and to sail with his wife for Europe, in search of a new career. It took only one year, with two highly fortunate European orchestral debuts, to land his first conducting job with the Cincinnati Symphony. 

It’s easy to understand Stokowski’s love for Bach, given those ten early years as a church organist. Ultimately, he made some 37 orchestrations of Bach’s music, but it’s the one he did of the Toccata and Fugue in D-minor that truly became his signature piece. Conductor José Serebrier, who served as Stokowski’s assistant conductor for five years, thought of it as such an intensely personal Stokowski statement that he put off making his own recording of it for years. Audiences around the world came to know and love it through Disney’s Fantasia:

Stokowski's score for Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-minor
Credit Otto E Albrecht Music Library at University of Pennsylvania

For comparison’s sake, here’s the original, played as written, on the organ:

Decca’s new set of the complete Stokowski recordings, done with their groundbreaking multi-channel recording technique called “Phase 4 Stereo,” includes the Toccata and Fugue from a 1972 performance in Prague. The near-hallucinatory experience of turning up your volume and letting the sound wash over you is just what Stokowski was after – and why he loved Disney’s experiment on film. Layer after layer of color streams in from every direction. It’s visceral Bach, with not a touch of remorse for stretching the very shape of its blueprints into something incalculably huge.

Disc 20 features other Bach transcriptions recorded in 1972, too, and the entire box is a tour through Stokowski’s adventures in sound. 

For more about Decca’s new collection, read our other posts below.

Watch a trailer for the collection:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.