B1636. NICOLAS SLONIMSKY. Lexicon Of Musical Invective - Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time. New York, Norton, 2000 [Reprint of the 1953 Edition, w.Foreword by Peter Schickele]. 325pp. Index. (Pictorial thick paper covers) 0-393-32009-X 978039332009
“A snakeful of critical venom aimed at the composers and the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. Who wrote advanced cat music? What commonplace theme is very much like? Which composer is a scoundrel and a giftless bastard? What opera would His Satanic Majesty turn out? Whose name suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka? And finally, what third movement begins with a dog howling at midnight, then imitates the regurgitations of the less-refined or lower-middle-class type of water-closet cistern, and ends with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow? For the answers to these and other questions, readers need only consult the INVECTICON at the back of this inspired book and then turn to the full passage, in all its vituperation. Among the eminent reviewers are George Bernard Shaw, Virgil Thomson, Hans von Bülow, Friedrich Nietzsche, Eduard Hanslick, Olin Downes, Deems Taylor, Paul Rosenfeld, and Oscar Wilde. Itself a classic, this collection of nasty barbs about composers and their works, culled mostly from contemporaneous newspapers and magazines, makes for hilarious reading and belongs on the shelf of everyone who loves—or hates —classical music. With a new foreword by Peter Schickele.”
“Nicolas Slonimsky was no mere purveyor of facts. He challenged accepted lore and debunked myths that had found their way into biographies and reference works. Rather than repeat the Romantic depiction of a blizzard at Mozart's funeral, he consulted Austrian weather bureaus and discovered that the story was untrue. He was also fascinated by unusual details. Readers in search of basic information might in the process learn, for example, that Stravinsky had a toothache the day he completed "Le Sacre du Printemps," or that Schönberg and Rossini had triskaidekaphobia, an irrational fear of the number 13.
He enlivened his dictionary entries with astute, witty and sometimes waspish observations, and in the later editions of Baker, he introduced some musicians with lavish evaluations. Where The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians soberly describes Mozart, for example, as "one of the composers who brought the Viennese Classical style to its height," Mr. Slonimsky's identifying sentence reads: "Supreme Austrian genius of music whose works in every genre are unsurpassed in lyric beauty, rhythmic variety and effortless melodic invention."
Mr. Slonimsky's entertaining style was reflected in his other activities. A favorite party trick - one he performed at an Alice Tully Hall tribute to him in 1987 and also on the "Tonight Show" - was to play the melody line of the Chopin "Black Key" Etude by rolling an orange across the keys. Seemingly open to musical experiences of all kinds, he performed some of his own music at a Frank Zappa concert in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1981 and maintained a friendship with the iconoclastic rock composer. He named his cat Grody-to-the-Max, after learning the expression from Zappa's daughter, Moon Unit.
But he had a thoroughly serious side as well. He was a vigorous champion of new music all his life. In the 1920's he founded the Chamber Orchestra of Boston, and he gave premieres of Ives' "Three Places in New England" in 1931 and Varese's "Ionisation" in 1933. (Varese dedicated the work to him.) He also championed Henry Cowell and Carlos Chavez, and conducted Bartók's First Piano Concerto with the composer as soloist. He later said his conducting career had foundered because of his insistence on programming new music.
In his autobiographical entry in Baker, he wrote: "Possessed by inordinate ambition, aggravated by the endemic intellectuality of his family of both maternal and paternal branches (novelists, revolutionary poets, literary critics, mathematicians, inventors of useless artificial languages, Hebrew scholars, speculative philosophers), he became determined to excel beyond common decency in all these doctrines." He excelled in several of them, but music - though absent from the list of family achievements - was his primary interest from the age of 6, when he began studying piano with Isabelle Vengerova, his aunt (and later a teacher of Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein). He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 1914. He was drafted into the Russian Army just before the revolution.
In 1918 he began touring as a vocal accompanist, then worked his way through Turkey and Bulgaria as a pianist in theaters and silent movie houses, arriving in Paris in 1921. There he became a rehearsal pianist for the conductor Serge Koussevitzky.
He came to the United States in 1923 to work as an accompanist in the newly created opera department at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he continued his composition and conducting studies. After two years there, he moved to Boston to resume his position as Koussevitzky's assistant. He also taught music theory at the Boston Conservatory and the Malkin Conservatory, and he began to contribute articles on music to The Boston Evening Transcript, The Christian Science Monitor and Etude magazine. In 1927, he started his Chamber Orchestra of Boston and began to solicit music from composers he admired.
Ives, thrilled with Mr. Slonimsky's performance of "Three Places," sponsored a European tour that allowed Mr. Slonimsky to present recent American works. In Paris, during that 1931 tour, he married Dorothy Adlow, an art critic for The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Slonimsky became an American citizen the same year.
His conducting career flourished briefly, but by the mid-1940's he had returned to academia. He headed the Slavonic languages and literature department at Harvard from 1945 to 1947, and toured Europe and the Middle East as a lecturer for the State Department. After his wife died in 1964, he moved to Los Angeles and taught for three years at the University of California.
His first book, "Music Since 1900," appeared in 1937. A day-by-day chronology of important as well as amusing but trivial events in 20th-century music, the work has been revised several times, most recently in 1987. In his Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947), he ingeniously catalogued combinations of notes that could be used as musical themes. Jazz musicians found the book particularly useful; John Coltrane reportedly required his band members to play through it.
Mr. Slonimsky edited the Thompson's International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians from 1946 to 1958 and in 1958 became editor of the Baker, beginning with the fifth edition. He completely revamped the book for the sixth edition, published in 1978, and oversaw two more editions as well as abridged versions. Taking a break from biography, he turned his attention to musical terms in his Lectionary of Music (1989).
His books also include the "Lexicon of Musical Invective" (1953), a collection of scathing reviews of musical masterpieces; "Music of Latin America" (1945), "The Road to Music" (1947) and "A Thing or Two About Music" (1948). His autobiography (which he wanted to call "Failed Wunderkind") was published as "Perfect Pitch" in 1988.”
- Allan Kozinn, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27 Dec., 1995