Nicolas Slonimsky
Tribute by Jeffrey Sward
Musicologist Extraordinaire

Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) was an exemplary musicologist. For many years Nicolas was the editor of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. In addition to correcting many errors in previous editions, many new musicians were added and existing articles enlarged. Perhaps the greatest musical biographer of all time, Nicolas became legendary in his ability to find and correct biographical errors. The prefaces of various editions of Baker's include many amusing anecdotes about discovering and correcting these errors.

In addition to editing Baker's, Nicolas wrote several classics of musicology, such as the Lexicon of Musical Invective, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, and Music of the Modern Era. Refer to section below on Perfect Pitch, Nicolas' autobiography.

Nicolas Slonimsky was a champion of modern music. For example, he conducted premier performances of the works of Varese and Ives. Nicolas' conducting career was dramatically truncated after he was fired half way through his appointment as conductor of the 1934 Hollywood Bowl season. Nicolas programmed too much contemporary music, which upset the wealthy patrons expecting anunchallenging Classical and Romantic repertoire.

Failed Wunderkind

A child music prodigy, Nicolas Slonimsky had enormous talent as a pianist. Often playing from memory, Nicolas was able to play perfectly any number of difficult piano compositions his entire life. This author witnessed many such performances in 1977 (see below), when Nicolas was an octogenarian.

Yet Nicolas considered himself a failed wunderkind. The original title of Nicolas' autobiography was indeed Failed Wunderkind, but the publisher persuaded Nicolas to the change the title to Perfect Pitch. Considering that Nicolas had a remarkable career with great successes and notoriety, his career assessment of failure can be puzzling. However, Nicolas' assessment of his career is based upon Nicolas' own measure of success, not the measures of success based upon other people's standards.

This author can relate a similar experience. During a high school reunion, at least a dozen people approached me and stated, "You are so lucky. You could have been anything I wanted." Whereas I could have been anything other people want to be, I am often unable to be what I want to be.

Similarly, Nicolas Slonimsky's judgment of his life as a failure is based upon what Nicolas wanted to be , not what other people want to be. Nicolas' failures are summarized on page 241 of the 2002 edition of Perfect Pitch in the following categories:

(Ambition No. 1) Concert pianist. Abandoned because his small hands meant "octave passages lacked bravura."

(Ambition No. 2) Composer. Nicolas Slonimsky created some remarkable compositions (see below). However, almost all of his works were miniatures, which Nicolas considered a failure

(Ambition No. 3) Conductor. Although extremely gifted in this area, as previously noted, Nicolas' choice of programming was in conflict with the mediocrity of public tastes.

(Ambition No. 4) "To excel in musical lexicography. I almost succeeded." It is puzzling why Nicolas considered this aspect of his career as a failure. Nicolas himself even quotes sources as stating that he is "quite simply the world's foremost musical lexicographer."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is success.


Personal favorites of Nicolas Slonimsky's compositions are Gravestones of Hancock, New Hampshire and especially Five Advertising Songs.  The advertising songs in particular epitomize Nicolas' perceptiveness, creativity, craftsmanship, satire and sense of humor.  Consider the multitudinous traits which coexist in the advertising songs: The text from advertisements is seriously set, yet also ironic and paradoxical.  The highly crafted lieder style is both appropriate and satirical.  The very concept of the advertising text as art song is cognizant of many interrelationships between popular culture and fine art culture.  All of this done in an entertaining fashion. 

This author has possession of two antiques which are often referred to as "Long Playing Phonograph Records."  One is Orion 7145 which contains Gravestones of Hancock, New Hampshire; the other is Orion 72100 which contains Five Advertising Songs.  The latter has developed a warp which only on certain days can my fancy schmancy direct drive turntable track.  It was wonderful to receive a digital rendering of Gravestones of Hancock, New Hampshire via Electra Yourke's new release.  Perhaps some day someone will persuade the owner of the Orion master tapes to permit a digital release of Five Advertising Songs

Also interesting among the compositions of Nicolas Slonimsky is the Yellowstone Park Suite for solo piano. The sixth movement is Roaring Mountain. This movement prominently features the "Grandmother Chord." The grandmother chord was an invention of Nicolas and contains all twelve tones and all eleven intervals. The grandmother chord is spelled: going up: c-b-d flat-b flat-d-a, going down: a flat-e flat-g--e-f sharp-f.

Recollections of a Seminar with Nicolas Slonimsky

This author was fortunate enough to be a student in the graduate seminar "Techniques of Music Biography" taught by Nicolas during his one semester as guest professor at California State University Fullerton around 1977.  In addition to unparalleled scholarship and musicianship, the personality was highly enjoyable.  This seminar included many memorable experiences, such as: innumerable piano performances from memory of his own compositions and those of others; the Chopin prelude performed while holding an orange; writing records offices for birth certificates; weather report at Mozart's funeral; Koussevitzky's inability to conduct 5/4; being fired from conducting a Hollywood Bowl season because of too much Varese and Ives. Still young in 1977, Nicolas had more energy than most college students. 

During the seminar, the cognoscenti would be wise to carry a 3x5 card which contained the answers to peculiarly recurring probably rhetorical questions, such as: Russian Five are Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin.  Les Six are Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre.  Interestingly, Nicolas' point for repeatedly asking these questions was to point out that nobody actually cares who the Russian Five or Le Six are.

However, even more valuable information was gleaned about life in general.  The principle "anything can be proved in music theory as long as the examples a selected carefully enough" can certainly be applied elsewhere. 

With a performance career not available, Nicolas was constantly amazed at which tasks people would pay him money.  Certainly the Baker's gig was mutually beneficial to all parties.  Many of these employment anecdotes began with "I received a post card from xxx."  This was probably one component of my enduring popular culture interest in post cards. 

A Career of Correcting Errors while Simultaneously Creating More Errors

Nicolas Slonimsky made a notable career, in part, correcting the egregious errors of others; however, frequently and inexplicably, Nicolas also made his own blatant errors. Some examples follow.

During the seminar mentioned above, Nicolas would periodically ask the class, "What is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony scored for?" Students would inevitably answer "pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, tympani and strings." Whereby Nicolas would reply "Trumpets you say? No. Horns you say? No. Only clarinets and strings." As anyone with a score can verify, whereas the famous first four measures of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are scored for clarinets and strings, the entire symphony is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, tympani and strings.  It is still not known whether Nicolas believed the entire symphony was scored for only clarinets and strings or whether he kept forgetting that he was only talking about the first four measures.

On page 122 of the 2002 edition of Perfect Pitch, Nicolas relates the Otto Klemperer Bruno Labate anecdote (which also appears on Inexplicably, Nicolas thought Bruno Labate was a clarinetist, when in fact, Bruno Labate was a renowned oboist.

On page 93 of the 2002 edition of Perfect Pitch, the following passage occurs, referring the Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade:

The second clarinet sounded too weak in holding the bass note in the chord of E minor in the introduction, I said, whereas the bassoon on G sounded too strong. The result was that the harmony registered to the ear the first inversion of the E minor triad instead of its fundamental position.

Consulting the score of Scheherazade, first movement, measure 10, we do indeed find that the bassoon has a concert G, and the second A-clarinet has a written E-flat, which sounds a concert C, sounding below the bassoon note. The first clarinet also has a concert C sounding above the bassoon note, and the flutes have concert E and concert G. So, therefore, if the second clarinet played too softly the harmony registered would be the C major triad in the second inversion instead of its fundamental position, rather than the E minor triad in first inversion as noted by Nicolas above. Peculiar that Nicolas neglected to verify his memory with the actual score. This is the only measure in the introduction which has anything close to this voicing.

Perfect Pitch, an autobiography by Nicolas Slonimsky, new edition edited by Electra Yourke (2002)

A new edition of Perfect Pitch, with expanded material, has been published by Electra Yourke. Electra is Nicolas' daughter. Nicolas always spoke fondly of his daughter during the above mentioned seminar. Per seminar related anecdotes, Nicolas and his wife Dorothy Adlow, spoke only Latin in the home until Electra entered kindergarten as an experiment. Dorothy Adlow for forty-one years the art critic for the Christian Science Monitor.

The new edition of Perfect Pitch is an enjoyable read. The additional material provided by Electra is a welcome addition. Visit Electra Yourke's Nicolas Slonimsky Site.


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