'Lexicon of Musical Invective' Author Leaves Bright Legacy
Nicolas Slonimsky was an Old World savant with New World pizazz. He knew everything about music, and he often seemed about to explode with intellectual energy, outrage, or delight.
This newspaper was a beneficiary of Slonimsky's prodigious musical scholarship and irrepressible sense of fun that have received widespread tributes since the centenarian's death last month. His Monitor articles during the 1950s and '60s brought readers into the rarefied realms so familiar to him ... a cozy afternoon in his native Russia at the home of composer Aram Khachaturian (who defines a concerto as "music played with the chandeliers ablaze") ... a visit with a seminar student who turns out to be the mayor of Louisville and also a modern-music buff who helps get the sirens needed for a Louisville Orchestra performance of Edgard Varese's "Ionization."
Varese was one of many contemporary composers whose works were analyzed, fostered, and often performed by Slonimsky. He conducted the Paris premiere of Bartok's First Piano Concerto with the composer at the keyboard. He played his own music on electric piano in a concert with avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa, who - like jazzman John Coltrane - was drawn to Slonimsky's theory of scales.
Why doesn't everybody welcome new music? It's the "Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar" in every age, said Slonimsky. To demonstrate this, he gleefully put together an anthology of critical assaults under the title "Lexicon of Musical Invective." On Beethoven's Fifth when it was new: "odious meowing." Brahms's First: "No birds are in this forest save birds that do not sing." Liszt's Piano Concerto in E-flat: "a graphic instrumentation of a fortissimo sneeze." Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mzensk" "... little better than a glorification of the sort of stuff that filthy pencils write on lavatory walls." Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps": "should be called 'Massacre du Printemps.' "
The history of the latter is cited by Slonimsky to demonstrate his timetable for public and critical assimilation of unfamiliar music: "It takes approximately 20 years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another 20 to elevate it to a masterpiece. Not every musical monstrosity is a potential musical masterpiece, but its chances of becoming one are measurably better than those of a respectable composition of mediocre quality."
Excerpts from the "Lexicon" and other Slonimsky works are gathered in "Nicolas Slonimsky: The First Hundred Years" (Schirmer Books, 1994). His massive researches included perennially updating "Music Since 1900" and "Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians."
As Monitor staff members could attest, Nicolas liked nothing better than exposing encrusted mistakes and telling how he did it and who helped him. No less meticulous was his wife, Dorothy Adlow. She was the Monitor's longest-serving art critic, honored by her peers and by the artists she analyzed with erudition, candor, and respect.
To go to a gathering at the Slonimskys' was to be immersed in art, music, and topics of the day. With brio to waste, Nicolas would play and sing his settings of texts from New Hampshire gravestones or, long before jinglemania, from advertisements ("No more shiny nose!"). I seem to recall he also played the piano backward (facing away from it) and used an orange on the keys to play Chopin, as he would do decades later to entertain TV audiences or jump-start students' attention.
Only Nicolas would have obtained a musical gem by the controversial Anton von Webern for the Monitor's Children's Page.
"I am deeply touched that my music appears on the Children's Page," Webern wrote to him. "If only grown-ups ... were like children, free from prejudice against everything new!"
Nicolas Slonimsky was like such children - but with a universe of learning as his playground.