Slonimsky, Nicolas (Nikolai Leonidovich)

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Slonimsky, Nicolas (Nikolai Leonidovich)

(b. 27 April 1894 in St. Petersburg, Russia; d. 25 December 1995 in Los Angeles, California), witty and erudite musical lexicographer, and sometime composer and conductor of avant-garde works, best remembered for writing four editions of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1958–1992). He is also celebrated for having championed the early works of Charles Ives and other American composers.

Slonimsky was the son of Leonid Slonimsky, an economist and writer, and Faina Vengerova. He began studying piano at the age of six, under the tutelage of his aunt, Isabelle Vengerova, who went on to be one of the great piano teachers of the twentieth century. He enrolled at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and studied harmony and orchestration there from 1910 to 1914, when he was drafted into the Russian army at the beginning of World War I. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Slonimsky began working as a rehearsal pianist, first in Kiev (in 1919) and then in Yalta (in 1920), where he also taught at the conservatory. In 1921 he fled Russia and went to Turkey as a stowaway on a steamer; he remained there for a time, performing as a silent film and café pianist, and then worked his way through Bulgaria bound for France. By late 1921 he had arrived in Paris, where he became secretary and rehearsal pianist to the famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky.

In 1923 Slonimsky was offered a position at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He served as an opera coach there for two years, and then rejoined Koussevitzky, now working in Boston, assisting the conductor through 1927. Settling in Boston, Slonimsky began a freelance career as a newspaper critic, beginning with the Boston ton Evening Transcript, and as a conductor. In 1927 he formed the Chamber Orchestra of Boston specifically to perform modern works; the group premiered compositions by Edgar Varese, Henry Cowell, and Charles Ives, among others. Ives, pleased by Slonimsky’s premiere performance of his Three Places in New England at New York City’s Town Hall on 10 January 1931, sponsored a European tour by the conductor later that year. In 1931 Slonimsky also became a U.S. citizen and, on 30 July, wed Dorothy Adlow, then the art critic for the Christian Science Monitor. The couple had one child. Slonimsky continued to conduct concerts of modern music on his return to the United States, including the world premiere of Varèse’s Ionisation (6 March 1933). The work was dedicated to Slonimsky by the composer; it was also recorded by Columbia Records under Slonimsky’s direction. This recording was said to be used by U.S. scientists at Los Alamos as background music while they were working on the atomic bomb. It was also used by the dance choreographer Hanya Holm for her dance Trend (1937).

In 1933 Slonimsky was hired by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to conduct a series of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. However, he failed to take into account the conservative tastes of the audience that was then the backbone of support for the orchestra. After conducting a single program of new music, the reaction was so strongly negative that Slonimsky was let go. Disillusioned, he abandoned his career as a conductor to focus on writing about music.

In 1937 Slonimsky produced the first installment of what would prove to be one of the most important chronicles of twentieth-century music, titled Music Since 1900. He went on to oversee the work through five editions (1937–1994) that carried it to 1992. More than a chronology, the volume is packed with the witty observations and critical acumen that characterized all of Slonimsky’s writing. In 1946 he took over the editorship of the International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, overseeing the fourth through eighth editions of that work (1946–1958). He is best known, however, for his longtime editorship of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, which he compiled and wrote for in its fifth through eighth editions (1958–1992). Slonimsky’s work for the dictionary led to comparisons between him and Samuel Johnson, the witty eighteenth-century English writer and critic; indeed, Slonimsky’s entries are full of sharp writing that would have made Johnson proud. Slonimsky was a bloodhound for musical facts; priding himself on his research; he went so far as to write the Vienna weather bureau to establish—once and for all—whether it snowed the day Mozart was buried. (It was, in fact, a sunny day.)

An early champion of Latin American composers, Slonimsky traveled to South America in 1941 to obtain information about contemporary music there; that trip formed the basis for his 1945 book, Music of Latin America. A series of articles for the Christian Science Monitor introducing music for children became the basis for The Road to Music (1947). That same year his monumental work, The Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, “an inventory of all conceivable and inconceivable tonal combinations,” was published; it later found favor among jazz musicians (most notably John Coltrane), who used it to inspire their improvisations. Beginning in the mid-1940s, Slonimsky wrote a regular column of musical anecdotes for Etude magazine; some of the columns were collected in A Thing Or Two About Music (1948). A few years later, he compiled bad reviews of musical classics, The Lexicon of Musical Invective (1952), which revealed the scorn, abuse, and disdain suffered by Brahms, Liszt, Berlioz, Beethoven, and other greats at the hands of their contemporary critics.

In 1962 and 1963, Slonimsky traveled through Eastern Europe on a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. After his wife’s death in 1964, Slonimsky relocated to Los Angeles, where he joined the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). However, three years later he was forced to retire at age seventy. He remained in Los Angeles, occasionally lecturing on music but focusing his efforts on updating and rewriting Baker’s. In the early 1980s, he was befriended by the rock musician Frank Zappa, who presented Slonimsky as the opening act for a Zappa concert at the Santa Monica Coliseum in 1981.

Although never a serious composer, Slonimsky wrote and published numerous works for piano, voice, and chamber groups. Usually, his music was playful or clever, but his stylistic range was broad, including sentimental ballads written in the 1920s; a tricky series for solo piano titled Studies in Black and White (1928), in which the left hand plays on the black keys and the right hand on the white; and musical settings for poetry and epitaphs (such as Gravestones in Hancock, New Hampshire, 1945). In 1925 he composed a series of humorous settings of newspaper ads of the period, including “Make This a Day of Pepsodent,” “No More Shiny Nose,” and “Children Cry for Castoria”; in later life, he would take credit for composing the first singing commercials, although these songs were never used commercially. He wrote an orchestral piece for children, My Toy Balloon (1942), based on a Brazilian children’s song and still in the pop orchestral repertory, and Yellowstone Park Suite (1951). In 1965 Slonimsky composed a short choral work, playfully called the Möbius Strip-Tease, a “perpetual vocal canon notated on a Möbius band to be revolved around the singer’s head,” which was premiered at UCLA. Among his later works are the Minitudes (1971–1977), fifty short piano pieces illustrating different, often humorous, takes on classical themes and forms.

In 1992 Slonimsky returned to Russia to celebrate his ninety-eighth birthday in his native Saint Petersburg, a visit captured in a television documentary of his life. His music was played at a music festival, and he gave seminars to admiring students eager to learn of modern Western music from an insider.

Slonimsky was a lively, gregarious original, with a prodigious memory, addicted to arcana, an enthusiastic performer, and a media favorite from the time he won $30,000 on a television quiz show in 1956. Radio stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco regularly invited him for sessions of anecdote and opinion, which he expressed in vivid, slightly accented English. As he aged, Slonimsky became increasingly rotund; his angular countenance eventually rounded out into a pleasant face with twinkling eyes conveying a mischievous character.

Slonimsky remained active, working until his 100th year; he died quietly on Christmas Day, having reached the venerable age of 101. His remains were cremated.

Slonimsky’s papers are deposited at the Music Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Many letters from prominent composers to Slonimsky are included in the appendix to his Music Since 1900 (5th ed. 1994), including correspondence with Charles Ives. Slonimsky wrote an autobiography, Perfect Pitch (1988), which includes many charming stories about his life and his interaction with composers and performers. He also wrote a quirky autobiography of himself for Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. (1992). Lawrence Wechsler wrote a two-part profile of Slonimsky that appeared in the New Yorker (Nov. 1986). Obituaries appear in the New York Times (27 Dec. 1995), the New Yorker (15 Jan. 1996), and Opera News (13 Apr. 1996).

Richard Carlin

Electra Yourke