Hidden from small

Broadcasting With Color

June 05, 2012

A sketch of Leopold Stokowski from the early 1930s.

On January 27, 1933, Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra teamed up with Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey to experiment with new technology that allowed for a broadcast of a concert from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The Orchestra performed live in the Academy of Music while an audience in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., listened to the Orchestra remotely, the audio-only broadcast accompanied by a colored light show. But where was Stokowski?

There are a couple of fascinating things about this experimental broadcast. Stokowski was actually in Washington “manipulating” the sound while the Orchestra performed in Philadelphia (Alexander Smallens conducted the Orchestra in the Academy). And even more curious are the descriptions of the colored lights coordinated to accompany to the audio-only broadcast in Washington. This is a further example of how Stokowski experimented with creating unique concert experiences—sometimes with mixed results, as you can see from the excerpts of critical reviews below.

 

Washington Herald, April 28, 1933

“While the music was being played soft lights were thrown onto a gauze curtain which hung in front of the stage. Delicate blues merged into reds and greens to suggest the mood of the music and a lantern behind the curtain projected pictures which seemed like illusions that accompanied the music.”

Evening Star, April 28, 1933 (Washington, D.C.)

“The colorful impressionistic picturization which filled the screen on the stage as a visual accompaniment of the music interpreted by its changing lights the mood of the composition. The rose window of Bach was superseded by a dimly towering mountain effect at sunset for Beethoven, vague pastel shadings for Debussy and for Wagner, grandiose flaming light surrounding a faintly visible recumbrent figure of Brunhilde which changed through the clouds of color to the clearly defined outlines of Valhalla.”

Washington Daily Times, April 28, 1933

“The most unimpressive and seemingly unimportant feature of the demonstration was the visual touch—the groping use of color on the screen evidently to intensify the mood of the music but actually ineffectual. The finale of Beethoven’s 5th was never a pale mauve nor is the whole 2nd movement a thin water green. More tangible effects were attempted with the dramatic Gotterdammerung music, but they added nothing.”

Musical America, May 10, 1933

“Auditorily, it was an excellent demonstration; visually, it was not so much of an achievement. The colors on the screen, the dull lighting, and the vague pictures added nothing to the music.”

Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1, 1933

“No special significance was apparently intended for the changing color and light effects in most of the numbers, with what looked like a liner bearing down upon a wigwam, giving way to mountain peaks, and shifting clouds in the symphony, and with no change to mark the sharp musical transition of the scherzo into the jubilant finale. But in the Gotterdammerung excerpt, a ghostly and gigantic Wotan seemed to gaze sadly down only to be swept away in flames that in turn disclosed Valhalla with more flames at the end.”