Albert Barnes and Leopold Stokowski: Titans of Philadelphia Arts and Culture
Albert Barnes and Leopold Stokowski had a complex relationship, characterized at times by warmth and mutual respect, and at other times by disagreement and contentiousness. The businessman-turned-art collector and educator and the longtime Philadelphia Orchestra music director were titans of arts and culture in early-20th-century Philadelphia, forward-thinking visionaries who molded their respective institutions into world-renowned organizations.
Albert C. Barnes in Gallery 19 holding Angelo Pinto’s Icarus, c. 1945. Angelo Pinto. Photography Collection. Barnes Foundation Archives.
Their correspondence, dating from 1916 to 1933, shows them generally expressing admiration for each other’s work, but also having serious disagreements. Barnes, notoriously uncompromising in his beliefs and often harsh in his criticism of those with whom he disagreed, was frequently critical of Stokowski, recognizing the latter’s talent but often questioning his motives and artistic sincerity. Barnes eventually came to regard Stokowski with outright scorn, calling him a “circus barker” in a 1933 letter to the Orchestra’s Board of Directors. Stokowski, for his part, was always diplomatic in his letters to Barnes.
Leopold Stokowski, Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives
Stokowski arrived in Philadelphia in 1912 and began transforming The Philadelphia Orchestra at about the same time Barnes was beginning to build his extraordinary art collection. Barnes had made a fortune in business and was turning his attention to the arts and their potential for human development. They were kindred spirits in their belief in the power of the arts and their role in society. Barnes would invite Stokowski to view his paintings and to attend small musicales that he would host at his home. Music was very important to Barnes and he frequently engaged top-tier musicians to perform for intimate gatherings, sometimes consisting of only three or four guests. Stokowski was an occasional attendee at these private recitals, while Barnes was a regular patron, as well as financial supporter, of the Orchestra.
Albert C. Barnes letter to Leopold Stokowski, March 7, 1917, inviting Stokowski and his wife to a private concert at Barnes’s home. Presidents’ Files, Albert C. Barnes Correspondence. Barnes Foundation Archives, Philadelphia, PA. Reprinted with permission.
While the two men agreed that the arts should be accessible to all, they were often fundamentally at odds as to how that should be accomplished. In two lengthy, sharply worded letters to Stokowski in October 1920, Barnes railed against the Philadelphia art establishment he had come to despise, excoriated Stokowski for suggesting a public program that would make use of Barnes’s collection, and criticized Stokowski’s choice of repertoire and soloists for Orchestra concerts. Among his criticisms: “When I think of your [Stokowski’s] almost unique genius and great opportunities, I blush for your hackneyed programs; for the … commercially-pushed soloists, some of them mere dressed-up dolls and imitation artists; for your failure … to give adequate new work of real merit; for the surfeit of theatrical clap-trap like Rachmaninoff’s Bells [the Symphony The Bells] or Mahler’s spectacular banalities.”
Oddly, Barnes closed the second letter with an update on his collection and an open invitation for Stokowski to view it: “Our paths may never meet again so I’ll conclude with the statement that if you or any of your friends genuinely interested in my pictures ever want to see them, you are welcome. The collection took a big jump this summer when I bought … thirteen fine Cézannes.” Stokowski’s brief reply was a model of diplomacy, as well as an expression of his eagerness to continue to see the collection:
"From the many things you say in your two letters it is clear that your fundamental ideas of art are so different from mine that a discussion would lead to no worthwhile result either for you or for me, and as we are both busy men I imagine we can both give our time and thoughts to better purpose.
"I am sincerely glad you were generous enough to say that you will permit me again to see your collection at some time. One cannot look at a great picture without receiving enduring impressions … and frankly it would be a loss to me if I were unable to see again the wonderful collection you have."
The tone of his previous letters notwithstanding, Barnes continued to write to Stokowski, often offering advice. On November 26, 1921, after reading what he considered a closed-minded critic’s review of new music Stokowski and the Orchestra had performed, Barnes took the liberty of drafting a speech for Stokowski to give in response. “I’m very sure if you say something like this from the stage tonight, you’ll do a big thing for the younger artists and incidentally for your own career in Philadelphia,” he wrote. In February 1923, Barnes wrote to Stokowski that he had recently received word from Paris about French composer Darius Milhaud’s new composition, The Creation of the World. “I know most of that young group of artists in Paris,” Barnes wrote, “and I believe I could get the score if you wish to give parts of it by your Orchestra.” Stokowski apparently did not take Barnes up on either offer; there is no record that he made the speech and he never performed the piece with the Philadelphians. (You can have the opportunity Barnes never did, to hear The Creation of the World performed by the Philadelphians, during the Barnes/Stokowski Festival, October 19-21.)
As Barnes began to develop his philosophy of art education and to offer classes, he enlisted Stokowski to give presentations to his students. And when Barnes asked him to be one of the featured speakers at the formal dedication ceremony of the Barnes Foundation on March 19, 1925, Stokowski’s brief reply summarized his feelings: “I will do it because I believe in your idea.” The event program lists Stokowski as speaking “On Behalf of the Artists of America.” Barnes had Stokowski’s speech transcribed and later asked if he could publish it in the Foundation newsletter. Stokowski declined, stating that “what I said that day was what I wanted to say to the people who were present—it is not what I wanted to say to the public at large. I haven’t anything to say whatever to the public at large except through my music.”
The connection between art and music was vitally important to both men. Barnes’s papers include numerous notes on the relationships between various composers and artists as well as specific pieces and paintings. In particular, there are copious notes on the connections between Henri Matisse and Igor Stravinsky. Barnes was a major champion of the former, Stokowski of the latter. Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the American premieres of several major Stravinsky works, most notably the groundbreaking The Rite of Spring, for which they gave the US premiere of the concert version in 1922 and the full-staged version in 1930. (The Orchestra performs the work October 19-21.)
Albert C. Barnes’s carbon copy notes with annotations by Violette de Mazia of “Matisse—Stravinsky,” c. 1931-32, for their book The Art of Henri Matisse. The Art of Henri Matisse Manuscript Collection. Barnes Foundation Archives. Reprinted with permission.
Had he been aware of it, Barnes probably would have been especially proud of Stokowski’s position on including The Rite of Spring in a series of Philadelphia Orchestra radio broadcasts in the fall of 1929. In planning the series, the first commercially sponsored radio broadcasts of a symphony orchestra in US history, Stokowski and Orchestra manager Arthur Judson had a frank discussion on the advisability of including The Rite of Spring. Judson thought the piece was too challenging and would alienate listeners. Stokowski insisted, however, writing to Judson: “I feel it is the greatest work of our time, and for that reason should be played. … If I cannot [program for] radio the best music at present I will wait until I can, because I am not willing to lower my flag.” Although Barnes often accused Stokowski of selling out, this was exactly the sort of unwavering commitment to artistic integrity that Barnes so fervently espoused.
Throughout the ebbs and flows of their relationship, Stokowski continued to request to see Barnes’s collection and Barnes occasionally prevailed on Stokowski for Orchestra tickets. On December 16, 1930, he wrote to Stokowski: “Matisse arrived here yesterday to make studies for the paintings with which he is to cover the large upper part of the wall in our gallery. … He is fond of music and said he would like to hear your performance Friday afternoon. Can you arrange to provide him with a seat in a location not too near the stage?”
Barnes was enamored of the Russian-born composer Nicholas Nabokov, whom he appointed director of musical education at the Barnes Foundation. On August 12, 1933, Barnes wrote to Stokowski: “Two weeks ago [Nabokov] played for me a new work, an oratorio. ... [It] is very dramatic, strong, and personal. … I told Nabokov that I would offer it to you first and he was tickled to death. If it doesn’t make a big hit with the public, I will eat every chair in the Academy of Music.” In December 1933, apparently after Barnes had asked Stokowski to consider performing a Nabokov symphony, Stokowski wrote: “I am doing my utmost to find a place for Nabokov’s Symphony on our programs but … I am not finding it easy. … We played the symphony in rehearsal recently so that I have a definite idea of it. I think it is good music and has interest but in my opinion it is not in the same class as Cezanne, Renoir, van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso, and I feel I ought to say this to you quite frankly.” Stokowski never performed any Nabokov works with The Philadelphia Orchestra, although his successor Eugene Ormandy did several times.
Leopold Stokowski letter to Albert C. Barnes, December 23, 1933, concerning Nicholas Nabokov symphony. Presidents’ Files, Albert C. Barnes Correspondence. Barnes Foundation Archives, Philadelphia, PA. Reprinted with permission.
The December 1933 letters are the last between Stokowski and Barnes. A year later, when Stokowski was threatening to resign from the Orchestra in a very public dispute with its Board of Directors, Barnes wrote a particularly scathing letter to the Board. He repeated many of the criticisms he had expressed to Stokowski directly in 1920, but went much further, calling Stokowski “the cleverest publicity man and circus barker of our times,” and stating that “Making a monkey of serious things is Stokowski’s forte: for many years he has done it to the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart by subjecting what the composer wrote to a series of gallery-appealing gestures that have nothing to do with music and much to do with circus acting.” Referring to Stokowski’s quote in the newspapers that the current situation with the Orchestra Board was giving him a pain in his heart, Barnes wrote: “What he says … gives him a ‘pain in the heart’ gives more normal people a pain in a part of the body a little further down.”
This is the final missive from Barnes about Stokowski, the last documented evidence of their fascinating, tangled relationship. In fairness to Stokowski, Barnes had similarly volatile relationships with many others, subjecting even longtime colleagues to the kind of vitriol expressed in his letters to Stokowski. On the other hand, there were many in the music world who shared Barnes’s view of Stokowski as a superficial showman who often sacrificed musical purity for dramatic effect. And while Barnes could be difficult, he was very generous in his financial support of artists and musicians, almost always providing such support anonymously. Depending on one’s viewpoint, there is merit in both men’s positions. What cannot be denied is the lasting impact these two titans had on Philadelphia art and culture.
Learn more about The Philadelphia Orchestra's Barnes/Stokowski Festival here.
The Barnes/Stokowski Festival is generously sponsored through a gift from Mari and Peter Shaw.
Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian who serves as consulting archivist to The Philadelphia Orchestra. This article is based on the correspondence between Leopold Stokowski and Albert Barnes in the Barnes Foundation Archives. Very little of Leopold Stokowski’s early-20th-century personal correspondence has survived; Barnes’s copies of their correspondence is all that is available. The correspondence between Stokowski and Arthur Judson is from the Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives.