They are almost the same age, they have lived to a very old age, they are both conductors. But Leopold Stokowski, born in 1882, and Paul Paray, born in 1886, have nothing else in common.
Stokowski, half Polish half Irish and of English extraction, left at the age of twenty to conquer the New World. In his career as a spectacular orchestra conductor, he crosses paths with two Hollywood characters, first Mickey Mouse whose hand he shakes in Walt Disney's Fantasia, then Greta Garbo who responds to him with a different line. A charismatic and temperamental conductor who for a quarter of a century directed the Philadelphia Orchestra which he turned into one of the best orchestras in the world, fashioning with his bare hands a spectacular sound. Without any doubts or compunction, he transcribes liberally, respecting the text of the scores when it suits him while offering the American continent some two thousand premières. An adventurer who at ninety-five signs a contract to celebrate the gala evening for his own centenary. But in 1977, death catches up with the magician from Philadelphia.
In the autumn of his life, Stokowski comes back to his native England. Thus in 1969, at the age of eighty-seven, he directs the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a rendition of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that is almost classical as well as intense and thundering. It truly is "fate knocking at the door," as Beethoven wanted it when he imagined the four famous notes that open the masterpiece.
Paul Paray, is a typical Frenchman born in Tréport and who died in Monte Carlo. Although part of his career as a conductor was in the United States, he never wanted to settle there: his inner geography was confined to France and the music he defended was French. Firstly his own, because Paul Paray, who studied Gregorian music and polyphony at the Maîtrise Saint Evode at Rouen Cathedral, composed his first Magnificat at the age of fourteen. Awarded the Rome Prize in 1911, he resided at the Villa Medicis.
Honest and scrupulous, he refused to conduct in Paris during the Second World War and above all, he refused to disclose the names of Jewish musicians. He prefered to leave the capital for Monaco where he tried to help musicians experiencing problems. Monaco, the place where he died at the age of ninety-three.
At the age of eighty-five, in 1971, Paul Paray conducts Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande at the salle Pleyel, with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the ORTF. The Faurean rustling seems to have been written for the French conductor, who sketches the variegations suffusing them with a mysterious poetry. This is high art.