St. Petersburg, Russia, April 27, 1894 - Los Angeles, California, Dec. 12, 1995
Nicolas Slonimsky: The First Hundred Years
It was a major loss to the music world when Slonimsky died in 1995; I was online, designing pages, when he died (as I was when Menuhin and Stern died, as well), and waves of sadness shuddered through all the musical listservs, as the news was announced. His
Lexicon of Musical Invective is probably one of the funniest books on music ever written. No musician should miss reading it.
My first induction into Slonimsky was in the reading room at UC Irvine, where I found passages so funny it was hard to sit still and be quiet. Everyone knows that Slonimsky edited Baker's Biographic Dictionary [See: 9th ed. (2007) Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians - Slonimsky undertook the fifth through eighth editions], but there are other books, which I will quote, as a short quote is usually permissible if the link goes back to Amazon, as these do.
From Perfect Pitch:
(p. 6): Was I ever a wunderkind? My mother assured me that I was, and she did her best to protect my delicate fingers from the roughness and toughness of the outside world. When she took me to kindergarten, she made a speech to the boys in the class (schools in Russia were not co-educational): "My son is a pianist," she warned the class, "and you must be careful not to hurt his hands. You must not play tough games with him." The consequence of such admonitions was predictable. The very next day I was beaten up.
(p. 33): Julia told me once, with total conviction, that it would be better to have syphilis than to remain a virgin. She knew whereof she spoke. She was married to a Russian actor, one Peter Sazonov, a son of deaf-mute parents. Whether this parentage had anything to do with his particular deficiency is not clear, but he was completely impotent; the best he could do was to bestow on my sister an occasional kiss, whereupon all power went out of him. Incredibly, Julia seemed to be unaware of the mechanism of human reproduction, and after twelve years of marriage she decided to consult a gynecologist to find out why she could not have a child. The doctor examined her and exclaimed in astonishment: "You are a goddam virgin!" He promptly proposed personally to put an end to this state of affairs and she fled in horror.
(p. 104): My English was still imperfect though fluent. At one of my talks, I referred to Pablo Casals as "The distinguished Spaniel." Paul Horgan, who attended that particular talk, had no end of fun over my solecism, and made a pastel drawing of a dog playing the cello. I still have it in my collection.
(p. 119): I told Ives about my chamber orchestra and asked if he could give me one of his works. He suggested Three Places in New England. As I looked over the score, I experienced a strange, but unmistakable, feeling that I was looking at a work of genius. I cannot tell precisely why this music produced such an impression on me. The score possessed elements that seemed to be mutually incompatible and even incongruous: a freely flowing melody derived from American folk-songs, set in harmonies that were dense and highly dissonant, but soon resolving into clearances of serene, cerulean beauty in triadic formations that created a spiritual catharsis. In contrast, there were rhythmic patterns of extreme complexity, some asymmetries in the score evoked in my mind a strange association of ideas the elegant and yet irrational equations connecting the base of natural logarithms and the ratio of the circumferences of a circle to its diameter with the so-called imaginary number, a square root of a negative quantity. The polytonalities and polyrhythms in the Ives score seemed incoherent when examined vertically, but simple and logical when viewed horizontally.
(p. 133): Stories about inept conductors are legion. One conductor lost his place while leading an overture. "Where are we? Where are we?" he whispered frantically to the leader. "Carnegie Hall, New York," the other replied.
(p. 135-6): A disloyal member of the Philadelphia Orchestra collected a priceless anthology of Ormandian sayings:
"It is not together, but the ensemble is perfect"
"Suddenly I was in the right tempo, but it wasn't"
"This is one bar you should take home."
"There is a number missing. I can see it."
"Please follow me because I have to follow him and he isn't here."
"I need one more bass less."
"I don't want to confuse you more than absolutely necessary."
"We can't hear to balance it yet because the soloist is still on the aeroplane."
"Something went wrong. It was correct when I studied it."
"Who is sitting in that empty chair?"
"He is a wonderful man, and so is his wife."
"I told him he would have a heart attack a year ago but unfortunately he lived a year longer."
"It's difficult to remember if the notes are right, but if I listened they would be wrong."
"The moment you slow down you are behind."
"The tempo remains pianissimo."
"The soloist was so sick he almost died for three days."
"I don't mean to make you nervous but unfortunately I have to."
"Even when you are not playing you are holding me back."
"If you don't have it in your part leave it out because there is enough missing already."
"Thank you for the cooperation, and vice versa."
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