Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1894, Nicolas Slonimsky was a writer, lexicographer, pianist, composer, conductor, and champion of contemporary music. In 1918, he fled Russia, eventually arriving in Paris where he became active in that city’s music scene. Slonimsky emigrated to the U.S. in 1923 to take a position as opera coach at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. After moving to Boston in 1925 to work as an assistant to conductor Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he formed the Boston Chamber Orchestra. Within a very few years, Slonimsky was making a name for himself—not always a favorable one—as a conductor and proponent of modern music. He championed then-revolutionary composers such as Edgar Varése, Charles Ives, and Henry Cowell, conducting their works in Boston, New York, Paris, Berlin, San Francisco, Havana, and Hollywood in the early 1930s. Some of those concerts created an uproar, to his apparent delight. Although his conducting career declined following those early sensations, his bravery was not forgotten by the composers whose works he promoted against all odds.
Fortunately, Slonimsky had another talent: writing. He wrote and edited a number of influential volumes, and in 1958 took over the editorship of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Maintaining that role until 1992, he transformed it into the gold standard of musical lexicography.
Slonimsky is remembered not only as a musicologist and scholar but also as a personality of contrarian inclination who approached conventional material in unconventional ways. All his writings, music and text, academic and creative, were approached in an innovative manner. He could have written a sober history of the acceptance or nonacceptance of “new” music over the centuries. Instead, he went to the sources, contemporary journals, to see whether the greats were also attacked in their day. They were. Brahms: “A noisy, reverberating void.” Debussy: “Hideously ugly.” Berlioz: “Rubbish and rot.” His Lexicon of Musical Invective was first published in 1953, and is still in print—a schadenfraude handbook.
Music Since 1900, first published in 1937 and continuously updated, provides an invaluable day-by-day, year-by-year chronology of important musical events, many of them virtually invisible at the time and only recognized retrospectively. Its particular urgency and strength may come from the fact that every entry is rendered as a single sentence.
Slonimsky presented his compendium of musical patterns in a volume forbiddingly titled Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, publishing it with little hope of success. That was more than 60 years ago, and now it is still avidly used by composers, arrangers, and performers. He drew together his life experiences in an autobiography, Perfect Pitch, published in 1988 and praised as the “rewarding,” “brilliant,” “irresistible” work of “the greatest musical chronicler of our time.”
Known for his sharp wit and sly sense of humor, Slonimsky appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was a contestant on the game show The Big Surprise in 1956. He also composed many small pieces, usually in specific styles or illustrating unorthodox musical ideas. They include Studies in Black and White (1928), in which the left hand plays only on the black keys and the right only on the white keys—with nary a dissonance. Minitudes (1971–77) offers tiny versions of well known and best-loved musical selections folded and cracked in interesting ways. His advertising songs, written to the texts of print ads of the 20s and 30s, are always a hit on concert programs (see the media page).
Slonimsky and his wife, the art critic Dorothy Adlow, received visits from luminaries over the years; these visitors’ greetings and tributes in the guestbook are little works of art on their own. The book was closed upon her death in 1964, when Slonimsky left Boston and moved to Los Angeles.
Slonimsky was a person of deep education and musical talent who embraced artistic innovation and put his career on the line to present and promote it. This was not an act of self-sacrifice; he was intellectually stimulated by their creations, enjoyed the attention, and even the attendant notoriety that came with such associations. His books, his music, his very personality spring from the mind of a scholar and the soul of an entertainer.
Links of interest
Interview with Nicolas Slonimsky by Bruce Duffie (April 12, 1986)
Nicolas Slonimsky in Memoriam (from Other Minds)