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The Philadelphia Orchestra’s rich history with Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) has been well-documented. The Orchestra gave the American premiere of the concert version of the groundbreaking piece in 1922 and of the full staged ballet version in 1930, both under its legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski and the Orchestra also made one of the earliest recordings of the piece, in 1929.
There is another, less well-known but equally important aspect to this celebrated history: The Rite of Spring was one of the pieces Stokowski and the Orchestra performed in a landmark series of national radio broadcasts in the fall of 1929. Sponsored by the Philco radio company, these were the first commercially-sponsored radio broadcasts of a symphony orchestra in U.S. history. As the music world awaited the broadcasts with great anticipation, there was a frank discussion between Stokowski and Orchestra Manager Arthur Judson on the issue of broadcasting The Rite of Spring. Internal correspondence, preserved in the Orchestra Archives, shows Judson expressing grave misgivings about including such a challenging work in a national broadcast. Stokowski, while acknowledging the potential negative audience response to the piece, refuses to compromise his artistic principles.
September 21, 1929, memo from Arthur Judson to Leopold Stokowski
By fall 1929 it had been over 16 years since The Rite of Spring’s infamous 1913 world premiere in Paris, a performance that resulted in a near riot in the audience in reaction to the piece. The reaction was not so severe when Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the U.S. premiere of the concert version of The Rite of Spring in 1922, yet the work was still controversial and provoked strong feelings in many listeners. Convinced of its importance, Stokowski proposed including The Rite of Spring in the November 3, 1929, radio broadcast, the second of the three planned broadcasts in the inaugural series. Arthur Judson was very concerned. In a September 21, 1929, memo to Stokowski, he wrote:
I have looked over with interest your Radio programs. … I am frankly afraid of the Stravinsky number on the second program. Millions of people who have never heard an orchestra are going to “listen in.” They are going to be greatly pleased with the first number [Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances], but after about five minutes of the Stravinsky they are going to say “Oh, hell!” and turn off the radio. For this reason you will probably lose about ninety per cent of your second audience, and will also find that a certain portion will not tune in for the third program.
September 23, 1929, memo from Leopold Stokowski to Arthur Judson
In his September 23 reply, Stokowski agreed with Judson about the potential audience reaction, but insisted on including The Rite of Spring anyway, telling Judson in no uncertain terms that he will not lower his artistic standards:
Thank you for your frank criticisms of the radio programs. … I am sure what you say about the Sacre of Stravinsky is … true, but I feel it is the greatest work of our time, and for that reason should be played. Expressed in broad lines, my feeling about radio is that 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.
Arthur Judson was at this time one of the most powerful men in American music. Among various other musical ventures, he was manager (simultaneously) of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, founder and part owner of CBS radio, and owner of an artist management firm that represented many of the premier concert artists of the time. He and Stokowski would sometimes clash, but their correspondence in this period reveals a cordial, if somewhat formal, relationship. Things would deteriorate five years later, however, when Judson would resign from The Philadelphia Orchestra in a well-publicized rift with Stokowski.
October 6, 1929, ad for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s radio broadcast
History has certainly proven Stokowski right in trying to cultivate an audience for what is now considered one of the most important compositions of the 20th century. But Judson was also correct in predicting that its broadcast would alienate many listeners. One such listener expressed his disdain in a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, published on November 5, 1929:
The broadcast of the Philadelphia Orchestra Sunday afternoon was an infliction the people of this country should not have been called upon to suffer. The music may only be compared to the ear-splitting noises at Broad and Chestnut streets on New Year’s Eve. Those who shut off their radios in disgust, as many did early during the recital, without hope of feeling the emotions which the first concert gave them, had more sense than the man who “tried to find a black cat in a dark room which was not there.”
Review of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s radio broadcast in the Musical Leader, November 14, 1929
A particularly interesting review of the broadcast came from a New York writer for the Musical Leader, who wrote to Stokowski beforehand advising against broadcasting The Rite of Spring, but was won over by the performance and Stokowski’s explanatory remarks during the broadcast:
Despite the many important recitals this week in Gotham, probably little was more amazing than the Sunday broadcasts! At three o’clock Arturo Toscanini gave a most perfect performance over the air and then Leopold Stokowski at 5:30 came on with the Philadelphia Orchestra! The amazing thing was the clear transmission of the “Sacre du Printemps.” We wrote Mr. Stokowski inveighing against his giving this number! But now we can see why Mr. Stokowski is leader of the Philadelphia Orchestra and we are not! From every point of view this was actually the best bit of broadcasting we have ever heard. Mr. Stokowski asked the listeners to “make an effort” to understand and enjoy the Stravinsky composition. It could not have been difficult! His verbal notes are amazingly clear and concise. … The program … WAS delectable. After the Philco broadcasts are ended we hope that someone else will continue sponsoring concerts by this orchestra over the air.