Show #84: Nicolas Slonimsky, Amazing Musical Iconoclast (1894–1995)

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Nicolai Leonidovich Slonimsky: “A legendary Russian-American musicologist of manifold endeavors…a self-described ‘failed wunderkind.'”

This week, Rhythm Planet reprises the 100th birthday tribute I did back in 1994 for one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met: Nicolas Slonimsky, the Russian composer, conductor, musicologist, and lexicographer. Born in 1894 in czarist St. Petersburg to a family of intellectuals, he was singled out as a boy “genius,” who would, indeed, be destined for greatness.

Slonimsky learned music theory, composition, and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky had once studied. But in 1917, disenchanted with the growing unrest of the Russian Revolution, Slonimsky fled for Kiev and Yalta, working as a rehearsal pianist until he escaped the Bolsheviks altogether as a stowaway aboard a steamer headed for Istanbul, eventually making his way to Paris in 1921. There, he befriended conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who later invited Slonimsky to join him in Boston as his accompanist and arranger. A mathematical genius, Slonimsky rescored Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with its complex rhythmic changes, which both Koussevitzky and even Leonard Bernstein (who later succeeded Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra), referred to throughout their conducting careers.

Slonimsky Conducts in Paris
Paris, 1932.

An ardent champion of 20th century new music, Slonimsky made a name for himself as a conductor in 1932 when he brought fully modernist programs to Paris, consisting of Edgar VarèseCharles IvesHenry CowellCarl Ruggles, and Carlos Chávez. The following year, he was hailed for his premiere of Varèse’s Ionisation with the Berliner Philharmoniker. With this newfound fame, Slonimsky was invited to bring these same programs to the Hollywood Bowl in 1933, but this time to his detriment, the orchestra mutinied, and patrons and critics charged him with being “a dangerous revolutionary who inflicted noise on the concert-goers expecting to hear beautiful music.” Rumors spread and Slonimsky’s conducting career unraveled.

But there were a select few in the audience of those disastrous Bowl concerts for whom Slonimsky had a seminal influence. Other visionary musicians like John Cage, John Coltrane, and Frank Zappa took great inspiration from the reference books he authored like his Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947), which many musicians and educators like Steve Lacy have cited as a treasure trove of ideas.

Slonimsky & John Cage inside Möbius Strip Tease.
Slonimsky & John Cage inside Möbius Strip Tease.

In the aftermath of his conducting career, Slonimsky turned his attention to musicology and lexicography. A prolific writer of mischievous wit, he authored such books as Music Since 1900 (1937); the hilarious Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (1953); his Lectionary of Music (1989); and his own autobiography, Perfect Pitch (1988), which he had originally wanted to title as “Failed Wunderkind.” Among his many other writings, Slonimsky was also editor for Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of  Musicians (1958–87).

What follows is a program that Ariana Morgenstern and I worked on in 1994 to celebrate Slonimsky’s 100th birthday April 27, 1994, twenty years ago already. I interviewed him many times in his modest West Los Angeles home. We hear from writer Laurence Weschler, Moon Unit Zappa, conductor Zubin Mehta, and John Cage. Together, they paint a portrait of a most remarkable man that we must never forget.

51 Minitudes.

Slonimsky on his friend, Frank Zappa.

A Touch of Genius, a PBS documentary on the life of Nicolas Slonimsky.

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