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What a Difference a Century Makes: 100 Years Out, The Philadelphia Orchestra Reprises a Historic Turning Point

February 19, 2016

On a freezing weekend 100 years ago this March, The Philadelphia Orchestra presented a set of concerts that, in a single stroke, established it as an ensemble of international importance.

When Leopold Stokowski led the Orchestra in the wildly ambitious United States premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, in performances in Philadelphia and New York, it not only silenced the national critics who had called the young orchestra “provincial” just a decade earlier, it also brought thousands of ordinary Philadelphians streaming into the Academy of Music, many of whom had never before given classical music a thought. It moreover galvanized the local funding community to rally behind a civic institution that could finally put Philadelphia on America’s musical map. And the New York performance, on April 9 at the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway, served as a sort of sock in the jaw to a city now forced to reconsider its view of Philadelphia as a musical backwater.

Leopold Stokowski, The Philadelphia Orchestra, eight vocal soloists, and a chorus of 950 gave the U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in March 1916.

This March 10-13 The Philadelphia Orchestra reprises this crystalline moment 100 years ago with four performances of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” as Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra are joined by eight all-star vocal soloists and the combined forces of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and the American Boychoir.

“It still is an event when an orchestra performs this,” Yannick says of the Eighth, adding that the centennial performances “will be a chance for us to reflect on what’s happened in those hundred years, and get back to the era around the beginning of the 20th century when this Orchestra rose to the top … by championing these iconic pieces.” More than a century after its inception the Eighth’s massive textures are still ideally suited to The Philadelphia Orchestra’s unique sound, Yannick says, “but it’s important to have the right partners, vocally speaking, to match our fine Orchestra.”

The story of Mahler’s Eighth in America begins with Stokowski, the London-born conductor who in 1912 was seeking an “out” from his contentious post at the Cincinnati Symphony, an older, more hidebound orchestra he had led since 1909. Immediately after joining the Philadelphians he began to make contemporary music a hallmark of the Orchestra’s repertoire. In the years leading up to World War I, Stokowski divided his time between the United States and Europe, and with his knack for musical discovery he managed to be present when Mahler himself conducted the 1910 world premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Munich—an experience that excited the conductor enormously. Soon after clinching the Philadelphia post, Stokowski began lobbying for the work’s U.S. premiere, obtaining the rights just in time to flee Europe and war. He escaped Munich in 1914 with little but the clothes on his back and the score of the Eighth Symphony under his arm.


Leopold Stokowski in 1912, the year he came to Philadelphia

Stokowski’s vision, charisma, and electrifying podium skills were novelties in early-20th-century orchestral life. “It was as though we had been given some magic potion,” said Oscar Schwar, Philadelphia Orchestra principal timpani from 1903 to 1925. “In a way we had, for none of us had ever experienced such authority and vitality before. … This man went straight to the heart of the music.”

Preparing Philadelphia’s musical forces for a work of such unprecedented size was a herculean task. Mahler had not necessarily intended for the work to require 1,000 musicians: The Symphony’s nickname was added by a Munich impresario for the sake of publicity. Yet Mahler had nevertheless used 1,041 for his premiere, and Stokowski was determined to outdo that.

Rehearsals began in October 1915, with Stokowski training one group of 400 singers (the newly-named Philadelphia Orchestra Chorus) and Henry Gordon Thunder working with another 400 (the Philadelphia Choral Society, the Mendelssohn Club, and the Fortnightly Club). A group of 150 boys and girls made up the children’s choir. “Singers who were inattentive or who skipped rehearsals were not retained,” writes Frances A. Wister, the author of the first history of the Orchestra. “And toward the end everybody was over-worked and wrought up to a pitch of excitement.”

In January 1916 workmen began constructing platforms to extend the stage upward to accommodate 24 rows of choristers; aprons for the expanded orchestra were not installed until the final days, so as to be a surprise to Academy of Music audiences. Stokowski and the Orchestra encouraged local newspapers to prepare the public with extensive articles about Mahler and his Eighth Symphony.

The Orchestra Board was nervous. The cost of the Mahler Eighth was estimated at $14,000 for the Philadelphia performances and an additional $12,000 for the New York concert—altogether about $600,000 in today’s funds. “However,” Wister writes, “the desire to have the name of the Orchestra connected with productions of an unusual nature, and to keep ahead of the times musically, won the day.” The performances sold out as quickly as if they were a World Series.

On the day of the premiere patrons lined up at 5 AM for remaining seats: By mid-morning, 35-cent tickets were being scalped for $100. Five extra performances were added, and at the final concert some 1,500 people were turned away. The premiere dominated the front pages of nearly every Philadelphia newspaper, taking precedence, in one paper, over the Battle of Verdun.

“The curtain rose and the audience gasped,” wrote Samuel Lacier in the Philadelphia Public Ledger. “The 958 singers filled the great stage from footlights to roof. … The first twelve rows of singers were women, dressed in white. Above them were twelve rows of men, with a gardenia-like spot of girls, members of the children’s chorus, pinned, it seemed in their midst.”

The program page from the U.S. premiere performance

Afterward, pandemonium. “Every one of the thousands in the great building was standing, whistling, cheering and applauding when Leopold Stokowski, his collar wilted, his right arm weary, but smiling his boyish smile, finally turned to the audience in the Academy of Music last night.” The ovation could be heard in the lobby of the Walton Hotel across Broad Street. Board President Alexander Van Rensselaer, presenting Stokowski with a “victor’s crown” afterward, stated that the performance “marks an epoch in the musical history of Philadelphia to which no other event is comparable.”

Leopold Stokowski and Orchestra Board President Alexander Van Rensselaer with soloists from the Mahler Eighth: (l to r) Margaret Keyes, Susanna Dercum, Inez Barbour, Clarence Whitehill, Stokowski, Van Rensselaer, Florence Hinkle, Reginald Werrenrath, Adelaide Fischer, and Lambert Murphy

At the New York performance, Broadway was jammed with taxis. Scalpers were out en force. The audience was overrun with musical celebrities: Pablo Casals, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Alma Gluck, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Percy Grainger. Critics reacted with predictable envy, some suggesting that Stokowski was too good for Philadelphia. “If Philadelphia believes that Mr. Stokowski is essential to her musical development, let her decline to permit him to conduct great concerts in New York,” wrote W.J. Henderson in the New York Sun. “The Sun’s musical chronicler would be delighted to see Mr. Stokowski a New York conductor. He has personality, force, authority, temperament, scholarship and imagination. He would be a valuable factor in the musical life of New York.”

In Philadelphia, the impact was immediate. That year a group of donors established what came to be called the Seven-Year Endowment Fund, whose goal was to raise $100,000 a year. “The Orchestra is a civic asset,” read a letter distributed to the Board. “If it is to fulfill its destiny and place Philadelphia in the front rank among musical cities of the world, it must be endowed. … We ask that the enclosed blank be signed and returned to us at your earliest opportunity.” By 1923 the Board and its vigorous Women’s Committees had brought the endowment to $788,000 ($18 million today). Such largesse could not have happened without Leopold Stokowski, his marvelous musicians, a visionary Board, the proud citizens of Philadelphia—and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. 

Paul Horsley is performing arts editor at the Independent in Kansas City. He was The Philadelphia Orchestra’s program annotator and musicologist (1992-2000) and classical music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star (2000-08). He holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University and teaches at Park University in Kansas City.