Leopold Lawrence Stern was born in Brighton in 1862. His father was a German violinist and conductor of the Brighton Symphony Society, and his mother an English pianist. He initially studied chemistry at the South Kensington School of Chemistry, while studying the cello privately with Hugo Daubert. He worked in a business in Thornliebank near Glasgow from 1880 to 1883, but abandoned chemistry and entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied cello under Alessandro Pezze and then Carlo Alfredo Piatti. He later had lessons in Leipzig from Julius Klengel and Karl Davydov.
He appeared with Adelina Patti (in her 1888 tour), Émile Sauret and Ignaz Paderewski, and in Paris played with Jules Massenet, Benjamin Godard and Francis Thomé. He was a favourite of Queen Victoria and often played at Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle and Osborne House.
In 1895 he visited Prague, where his playing became well known to Antonín Dvořák. Although Dvořák’s recently completed Cello Concerto in B minor was dedicated to Hanuš Wihan and Dvořák wanted nobody but Wihan to play it in public for the first time, it was Leo Stern who was given the honour (there are conflicting versions of how this came about). The premiere occurred on 19 March 1896 at the Queen’s Hall, London, under the composer’s baton. Stern played the concerto in Prague (three weeks later, again conducted by Dvořák,) at the Leipzig Gewandhaus (he was the first Englishman ever invited to play there) and with the Berlin Philharmonic. He was later summoned to play for Kaiser Wilhelm II at Potsdam. In 1897-98 he toured the United States (where he played with Theodore Thomas‘s orchestra in Chicago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Society) and Canada. He played the New York premiere of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto on 5 March 1897.
Leo Stern died in London on 10 September 1904, aged 42.
Stern used three cellos in his career:
- a cello by Johannes Florenus Guidantus
- the General Kyd Stradivarius, described as “the largest cello in existence”, which was presented to him by a group of admirers headed by Lord Amherst of Hackney
- the “Baudiot” Stradivarius (later owned by Gregor Piatigorsky).
There is now a Leo Stern Award, the Royal College of Music‘s senior cello award.