Lexicographer  Nicolas  Slonimsky
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


It is appropriate to begin this presentation with details of dates, because my guest became synonymous with diligence and accuracy in such matters.  Nicolas Slonimsky was born on April 27, 1894.  This interview took place on April 12, 1986, so that would make him just a couple weeks shy of his 92nd birthday!  He would live almost another decade, passing away on Christmas of 1995 at the age of 101. 

When I first wrote to him to arrange a time for our interview, I said that I would like to talk with him about his compositions as well as his lexicography.  His reply to me is reproduced below.  A few days later, he regaled me with ideas and stories and details within a linear narrative, and seemed happy to respond to my specific questions.


Everyone who knows of Slonimsky's work will have favorite items, and will declare particular things to be indispensible.  Two tributes written at the time of his death are reproduced at the bottom of this page
one from the New York Times, and the other from the Los Angeles Times.  In my own radio work and in my teaching, I have cited his Lexicon of Music Invective many times, and have directed anyone who asks to read the Preface to the Sixth Edition of Baker's Dictionary.  That in itself is a masterpiece of eloquence, and provides a history of the topic infused with his wit and charm.  Needless to say, his impact only grows with each passing year, and we are all the beneficiaries of his discoveries and inspiration.

Here is that conversation from 1986 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Tell me a bit about the music which you have composed.

Nicolas Slonimsky:    Yes, well, that's easy.  My music is unusual, to put it mildly.  First of all, I compose only in small forms.  In fact, the only piece that I ever wrote of any significance is a series of variations on a Brazilian tune, which I heard during my travels in South America in 1941.  It's a set of variations on a tune that is called "My Toy Balloon" in English, of course the original words are in Portuguese.  It's a Carnival song during which young men and women send up balloons, and if they can catch those balloons when they fall back then he or she would get married during the Carnival that year.  If not, then he or she would have to wait 'til next Carnival.  So I wrote a series of variations for orchestra
youth orchestra usuallyand at the end, of course, I had a lot of balloons.  The balloons were attached to the stands of the musicians, and hatpins were supplied to pop them in the final fortissimo.

BD:    So it's in the score that the balloons are required.

NS:    [With seriousness]  Oh, yes!  And in fact, this is the most exciting moment of the piece.  [Both chuckle]  It was performed first by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, and then you had numerous performances and several recordings.  There is also the piano version which I recorded myself. 

BD:    I understand that you worked a bit with Reinhold Glière.  Did he influence your compositional style?

slonimskyNS:    Yes.  I did have some studies, not at the Conservatory, but private studies in Kiev.  At the St. Petersburg Conservatory I studied with my aunt, the famous piano teacher Vengerova.  Several years later I was a slavish imitator of my ideals, which were Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glière as a continuator of the Russian school.  I wrote songs and piano pieces all in the same style.  Then after my arrival in America I realized that there was a different kind of music, and I began to invent things
not just imitate Stravinsky or anybody; in fact I never imitated Stravinsky even though it was sort of de rigueur.  Everybody imitated Stravinsky.  But everybody was composing dissonances.  Dissonant counterpoint was the thing to do, but I invented something that I must say has a certain element of originality, namely to compose music which is all consonant vertically but set in different mutually exclusive scales.  Constant modulations create an impression of dissonance, and yet not a single dissonance is present in the actual musical texture.  In this style I wrote a set of pieces called Studies in Black and White, because the right hand played only on the white keys and the left hand only on the black keys.  It was published in 1928 in the New Music Quarterly, a magazine which was started by my great friend Henry Cowell in San Francisco.  Amazingly enough it aroused considerable interest among musicians, and I had some good reviews.

BD:    Why does that surprise you, that there would be interest in something that you wrote?

NS:    Because it's unusual.  Nobody wrote in this kind of thing, all vertical consonances.  It was a deliberate restriction of possible combinations, and yet it created a certain originality that is not present in any other work. 

BD:    But you hit upon this as more than just a gimmick?

NS:    No.  I realize that there was something interesting by combining several scales in a way it was polyharmonic and polymelodic, but vertically it was in a consonant harmony.  At first it was a gimmick, I must say, but I had that idea and then I decided to follow it.  This was a deliberate self-imposed restriction.  Nobody forced me to observe those vertical consonances and polyharmonic linear harmony.  I began working on my system of new scales and new harmonies.

BD:    At this point did you feel that you were destined be a composer?

 NS:    I did not, really.  I studied composition at the Conservatory and I always wanted to be a composer, but I composed relatively little, and as I said, only in small forms.  I didn't have the kind of technique that enabled my contemporaries to compose one symphony after another, and overtures and string quartets and so forth.  In a way I was glad that I didn't because so few of my contemporaries succeeded in creating something worthwhile that would remain.

BD:    You've made this major contribution to lexicography.  Do you feel that your studies in composition have helped you to understand the problems of the composer?

NS:    I think so.  I began to study new possibilities in harmony and counterpoint, and so I realized that musical techniques were extremely varied.  The next step, before I got into lexicography, was my book Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.  I compiled it as a sort of a guide to all kinds of possibilities, by dividing the octave into two equal parts or three equal parts or four equal parts and so forth, rather than two unequal parts as it is present in all classical compositions.  This also created a special type of harmony and counterpoint really of some importance.  I published it long ago, in 1947, attempting to introduce something entirely new in the division of categories of scales and melodic patterns.  But then something extraordinary happened, namely musicians
among them Virgil Thomson and otherspicked it up as a system, because in fact I had numerous systems in that book.  [See my Interview with Virgil Thomson.]  There was something like 2,000 combinations and suggestions as to how they can be arranged in various harmonies.


BD:    Does that 2,000 exhaust the possibilities?

NS:    No.  Nothing exhausts the possibilities because there would be billions or trillions!  But it pretty well exhausted all workable possibilities.  In fact, I found that on numerous occasions I anticipated actual compositions, particularly of modern musicians such as Debussy or Ravel.  In one remarkable case, I found that a certain progression that I had already prepared for my book was used by Schoenberg precisely, note for note, with no connection whatsoever.  Schoenberg arrived at it entirely different from me, and then I found that there were similar coincidences with works of other modern composers.  In one particular case, 21 notes in my book coincided with 21 notes in the theme in a choral work by Aaron Copland.  That meant to me that I hit on something that was valuable, that was already present in the mind and in the ideas of other musicians.

BD:    I would think that would be very encouraging to you as a composer!

NS:    Yes!  Yes, it was, as a matter of fact.  I myself composed numerous pieces in this particular style or several other styles.  I also investigated every conceivable musical theory, including, of course, the 12-tone technique, particularly in the so-called "serial" technique where I used all twelve different tones and all eleven different intervals, which is not a very easy thing to do.  Finally I created a chord which I called the "Grandmother Chord," because it contained all intervals.  This is what I called it, somewhat facetiously.  I found that this Grandmother Chord was used as the fundamental theme of an interplanetary opera by the Swedish composer Blomdahl. 

BD:    In his Aniara?

NS:    [Surprised and pleased that BD knew of this work]  Yes!  I discovered that his Aniara was based note-for-note, and it began with my Grandmother Chord in precise notation, not even transposed or anything.  So I wrote to Blomdahl and told him that it was an extraordinary coincidence.  I knew it could not have been a coincidence, particularly since the notation was exactly the same.  It developed that Schoenberg, to whom I sent a copy of my book, gave it to a German musicologist, Stuckenschmidt, who was a friend of Blomdahl!  [Both laugh]  Blomdahl was not completely straight about acknowledging this coincidence.  He said that yes, he knew about my book, but he had no time to study it thoroughly.

chordBD:    He just lifted what he needed!

NS:    Yes.  There's absolutely no question about it, because the comparison, not only of the principle, but of the exact notation and the placement of the chromatics and so forth is right there. 

BD:    Let me ask you about this Grandmother Chord [shown at left].  Is it a mathematical puzzle, or is it musical inspiration?

NS:    Well, it is both.  Obviously you are familiar with musical techniques, so I can tell you what it is.  Technically, it is a mathematical problem because you have to use all twelve different notes and all eleven different intervals.  It's not so easy; if you start by just trial and error, you won't get anywhere because you will either repeat a note or repeat an interval!  But I also found that musically it's very easy.  Jocularly I say that great adventures always have very elementary fundamental principles, and this principle is extremely simple!  Using a convergent system of intervallic progression, the first note of the scale, let's say C, then the last note of the chromatic scale, B.  Then the second note of the chromatic scale, C-sharp and the one before
the penultimateB-flat, then D, A, E-flat, A-flat, E, G, F, F-sharp.  So it's convergent, and when it's expanded [sings, alternating between low and high notes] "da-DAH-dee-DAH-dah-DAH" and developed throughout seven octaves, then I have my Grandmother Chord.

BD:    Is it played as a chord, or is it played spread out?

NS:    It's played either as a chord, or spread out!  In my compositions, I have one short piece which is entirely based on this chord, but I also use harmonies that are entirely consonant.  So there is a curious combination.  The chord is the latest word in dodecaphonic and serial arrangement, and yet I harmonized it so that vertically there are perfect consonances, a holdover from my first experiments.

BD:    It almost sound like a schizophrenic way to write!

NS:    Yes!!  Schizophrenic is the word.  Anyway, I sent the book to Schoenberg, and he wrote me a remarkable letter.  He said, "I have just received your book, and I read it with interest; you must've certainly exhausted all possibilities of melodic combinations.  This is a remarkable feat of mental gymnastics, but I am a composer and must follow my inspiration." 

BD:    This is a question that I ask many composers when I'm interviewing them
how much of music is technique, and how much is inspiration?

NS:    I would compare technique to the knowledge of words for a poet.  The poet doesn't have to be concerned with the meaning of words; he knows what the words mean.  But at the same time, a poet uses alliteration and all kinds of devices that may not be necessary as a means of securing something, or using long words after short words, as in Shakespeare
"multitudinous seas incarnadine."  Very unusual"multitudinous," then "seas," one syllable, and "incarnadine," a word that nobody except Shakespeare ever used.  This, of course, is an illustration; it doesn't mean that I am either Shakespeare or Schoenberg, or ever believed that I was. 

BD:    So what you're saying is that composers will write things that are not necessarily correct if you were to go back and analyze them.

NS:    Yes.  There is no such thing as correct or incorrect compositions, particularly in the 20th century and particularly in the first quarter of the 20th century after Le sacre du printemps of Stravinsky.

BD:    Is that about the time that we lost the public and their great interest in contemporary music?


NS:    Yes.  Contemporary music became a special food for cognoscenti.

BD:    Is that a mistake?

NS:    I wouldn't say that it's a mistake any more than Impressionist painting or Abstract Expressionism is a mistake in any way, or Picasso's paintings of women with three eyes is a mistake.  There is a new development which is called Neo-Romanticism, but nothing is a mistake if you can make it impressive.  I believe that there should be a logic within any kind of composition, and this is the one thing that I try to establish.  I call my book "thesaurus," meaning it is a collection of all possibilities!  What happened to that book is interesting, because rock and roll musicians picked it up, while academics were dubious about it and thought it was just a sort an indulgence in all kinds of possibilities.  It wasn't like Mendelssohn, it wasn't like Debussy, it wasn't like Stravinsky, it wasn't like Schoenberg, it wasn't like anybody!  Therefore it was not justified.  But rock and roll musicians picked it up even without knowing what they were picking up, and being unable to pronounce all those words that I used, like "sesquitone scale" and so forth, because I used all kinds of polysyllables, some of them made up.  But they picked it up because it served their purposes for something called "breaks."  I realized years later that a person like John Coltrane, who was a famous bandleader and saxophone player, had discovered my book and told his musicians to drop everything and study this book!  Frank Zappa called one day and tried to get hold of me; he didn't know I was in Los Angeles.  He said that he used my book with his band and in his own compositions, and he invited me to be a soloist with his band! [Both chuckle]

BD:    Do you feel, then, that you have contributed to the history of rock and roll?

NS:    Yes!  Well, that's what they say, and I know because of the sales of the book.  This was the kind of book that even my publisher didn't expect to sell at all.  It was sort of a prestige book.  Then all of a sudden it began to sell into thousands of copies!  Now there are something like nine printings.

BD:    Are you embarrassed to find yourself in the midst of rock and roll history?

NS:    On the contrary!  Far from being embarrassed, I'm delighted that I'm not exclusively adjusted to the academy.  People who play this music as their profession picked it up.  They can't pronounce my name correctly; they can't say "thesaurus," so they say "thesaurius."  After my lectures, guitar players and bearded individuals come up with their copies and ask me to autograph them.  To me it's the greatest compliment imaginable!

BD:    This brings me to another of my favorite questions.  How do you feel about the division
it's almost like a brick wall that we havebetween serious music and popular music?

slonimskyNS:    I don't believe that this division exists anymore.  Stravinsky tried to break this separation by writing for a jazz band in his Ebony Concerto.  Even before that, Debussy used a cakewalk movement in his Children's Corner, and Ravel used this sort of thing in his Sonata.  In fact he made several trips to Harlem to absorb this music.  Then Gershwin, as one of his biographers said, made "an honest woman out of jazz."  But Gershwin was a great composer under any circumstances.

BD:    Bernstein is the one who's doing it today.

NS:    Bernstein came from really the academic movement, but he also made use of some of my little inventions, particularly in his MASS.  I know that he has the book and he has studied it, so I'm satisfied that advanced musicians who are not prejudiced are using my book, which I regard as my only contribution of any value to musical composition.

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

NS:    Yes, even though I composed I don't know how many songs and piano pieces, and some of them I am not completely rejecting.

BD:    You don't wish to suppress your compositions, do you?

NS:    On my 90th birthday, there was a pianist who sat down at the piano and proceeded to play a complete edition of my compositions which he picked up from the stacks in the UCLA Library!  [Chuckles]  That was a horror because that was a kind of tribute which included songs and little dinky piano pieces which I wrote in the hope of making money!  All of sudden they were there, some from 50 years ago!  They returned to haunt me, and at first I couldn't even recognize any.  I knew every note that he was playing, and I said, "My God!  What kind of junk is that?"  Then I said, "My God, it's my own junk."  [Both laugh]  But even among those compositions, there were some that embodied some of my
I daresayoriginal ideas such as I outlined for you.  Occasionally I still continue to compose.  As a matter of fact, only five years ago I published an album called 51 Minitudes.  Not "miniatures" or "mini-etudes," but "minitudes," like infinitudes.

BD:    Why 51?

NS:    It was the publisher's selection.  I sent something like 75, and he selected 51.  Those pieces are examples of artistic use of my various scales, and sort of a mélange of all kinds of styles that I use.  The album was accepted very well.  Then I composed various things on commission, my latest was Quaquaversal Suite.  "Quaquaversal" is a word I use which means "every which way."  It's a geological term meaning "thrown together," as a tossed salad!  [Both chuckle]  There was a very amusing review in a British magazine entitled "Quaquaversal," in which the critic said that I used the term numerous times in my dictionary, and stated, "I refuse to look it up."  [Both laugh heartily]  Now we come to my supposed final incarnation which is lexicography.  Sixty years ago, I was employed by Serge Koussevitzky as his piano player.  He used to conduct by having a piano player play the score.  That was before the phonograph records were available, so I was his piano pounder.  Then I helped to compile program notes for the Boston Symphony program, particularly about modern music.  I found out, to my amazement, that great composers
particularly Wagner, and even Tchaikovsky and Lisztwere condemned as purveyors of ugly music.  I realized that there was some kind of interesting combination of what I call "non-acceptance of the unfamiliar."  So I compiled a little booklet which is quite a bestseller.

BD:    Oh yes.  I've used it very often when I'm giving a lecture.  I go to it and find a wonderful quote.  It's a marvelous little compendium.

NS:    [Obviously pleased]  Good!  It took me several years of searching through magazines.  I actually read the entire set of Le Ménestrel in French, beginning with 1833, and practically the entire set of The Musical Times of London looking for things like that.

BD:    And every time you'd stumble across one, a little red flag would go up and you'd pull it out.

NS:    Yes.  I would be absolutely elated, particularly with ones such as Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, which was condemned as "noisy music."  That followed my Music Since 1900
of which a supplement has just been published by Scribnerand that inevitably brought me to lexicography!  I realized that there were wrong dates even about such great composers as Mussorgsky.  Grove's Dictionary had Mussorgsky born in 1835, whereas he was born in 1839, and so forth.  [See my Interview with Stanley Sadie, Editor of The New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.]

BD:    It seems that your compulsion for details has kept you in good stead for all of this.

NS:    Yes.  That began with my investigation of the style and progress of music as an art in flux.  Art is not stationary, but progressed.  When I was tasked to supply dates for various sources, particularly the program notes at first, I realized, to my horror, that most musicians
not just women, but men, alsorejuvenated themselves.  They gave wrong dates of birth, so that forced me to collect birth certificates.  I probably collected something like 1,500 birth certificates of various musicians, and they all invariably diminished their ages.  When Stokowski married Gloria Vanderbilt he suddenly became ten years younger.

BD:    Ahhhh, the fountain of youth!

NS:    Unbeknownst to myself and much to my own surprise, I found that I was an authority!  I vehemently denied the attribution of anything like that, but the rest is history.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you've been compiling all of this knowledge and all of these entries, what is the most surprising thing you have come across?

NS:    [Considers this for a moment]  I suppose the story of Mozart's funeral, and his burial in a common grave.

BD:    And the lack of the rainstorm?

slonimsky30NS:    Yes.  I published an article which you'll find in every biography of Mozart, including Amadeus.  Of course Amadeus didn't specify any blizzard, fortunately, but it showed Mozart being thrown into a common grave, which is also wrong.  Mozart did have his own grave, but his widow failed to pay dues!  After eight years, the rule was that all "stiffs" were removed into a common grave.  It was just the failure of Constanze Mozart to pay the dues!  I since found out that it would happen to anyone, not only in Austria, but even in America!

BD:    [Humorously, under his breath]  Note to self
— make sure my own trust is set up...

NS:    [Laughs at this "memo"]  So this was most surprising because it was so easy to find out!  All I had to do was to write to the weather bureau in Vienna and inquire what kind of weather there was on December 7th, 1791!

BD:    But it took someone with your foresight to actually realize you could write to the weather bureau in Vienna, and that they would have the records going back to that date.

NS:    Yes!  I imagined that the record existed, but why nobody for at least 150 years thought of this kind of thing I don't know.  They all relied on the original, mistaken account of the funeral which was published in a Monday paper in Vienna
with a credibility about equal to my favorite American source, the National Enquirer.

BD:    [Wistfully]  I guess it makes the story more romantic, more tragic.

NS:    Yes, but it was extraordinary that no one bothered to question that source!  It was just a common sheet that was of no value whatsoever, but the first Mozart biographer picked it up and quoted it
— just as a person would quote the National Enquirer now.

BD:    Is this the biggest change that you have seen in your years of watching music historians, the quest for accuracy?

NS:    Not only that, but many composers invented their own biographies!  That, of course, makes it difficult.  Stravinsky wrote his own biography, which was mostly an invention!  I point that out in my Preface to the 6th Edition of Baker's.  I've just completed my own autobiography, but I do not invent stories.  I tell it as it is, and in fact try to quote all kinds of damaging reports about myself, explaining my motives in digging up things
which were mostly exhibitionistic attempts to call attention and establish myself as the smartest guy of the lot.

BD:    Is this autobiography about to be published?

NS:    Yes.  The Oxford University Press is going to publish it.  It's called Failed Wunderkind.

BD:    [Laughs]  You're too modest!

NS:    As a matter of fact the publisher at first objected to the title, saying it would undermine the value, but to the contrary!  Everybody says, "Well, if he published all those books, he was not a failed wunderkind!"  But I emphasized the fact that I was a wunderkind, and at that I failed!  [Note: The book was published in 1988 under the title Perfect Pitch.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is music going today?

NS:    Music is going, unfortunately, quaquaversal ways.

BD:    There are too many divergent paths?

lpNS:    This business of neo-Romanticism is something new!  Composers like Penderecki and others who wrote extremely complex music, all of a sudden turn back and embrace tonality.  [See my Interview with Krzysztof Penderecki.]  In fact, Stravinsky did it in a way because he returned to what he called neoclassicism in the 1920s.  So there is an obvious movement away from all those complications, but still there are numerous movements, mainly in electronic music, where anything goes.  In electronic music you don't even have to specify, or try to adjust any kind of scale or anything.  You can divide the octave into 13 intervals.  Krenek is doing some very valuable work in electronic music, because he is a real scholar of music, and so he didn't have to go back to Romanticism or anything, but he used new resources.  [See my Interview with Ernst Krenek.]

BD:    Are there perhaps too many young composers coming along today?

NS:    Too many young composers?  I don't know; too many old composers, perhaps.  I go to those concerts, and there's a "young" composer, so a guy comes out, bald and with a paunch.  [Both chuckle]

BD:    Then are there too many composers writing music?

NS:    I wouldn't say that, because if you go back, you find that, Beethoven was not the top composer in Vienna.  In fact, when Beethoven died, one obituary described him as, "One of those glorious group of composers that included Kirovitz, Karl Krennen, and Spohr."  [Both chuckle]  That was a recommendation for Beethoven.  Now they are recording all those pieces in Europe, and you would be amazed at the number of composers who wrote music almost as good as Mozart and Haydn.  As a matter of fact, publishers hired musicians to write scores and then published those scores under the names of Mozart and Haydn!

BD:    They were close enough that people accepted it as genuine?

NS:    Yes!  Still, when you take the Haydn catalog, you simply don't know what is Haydn and what is not Haydn.  One minor discovery which I believe I made about the Farewell Symphony of Haydn is that it was not written as a farewell symphony because he wanted go on a vacation, but it was a sort of a joke to persuade Esterház to repay the orchestra.  There are numerous cases of this nature, and there are symphonies written by Pleyel, but published under the name of Haydn.

BD:    Something else that you have watched over your lifetime is the explosion of recordings.  Do you feel this is a good thing for the public or for musicians?

NS:    Yes, of course this is a fantastic thing.  In my lifetime, when I was in the Conservatory, in order to hear a Brahms symphony I had to either study the score or actually hear the symphony, because there was no other way!  Now, a good Juilliard School student probably knows more about music history than a specialist 100 years ago because of the availability of recordings and publication of miniature scores.  In my time, I would have to go to the library and get a contemporary edition of whatever score I wanted to consult, and scores were very difficult to obtain.  Now, if you want the Haydn Symphony no. 74, it is produced immediately, as are any others!

BD:    At what point does the mountain of material to learn and absorb become too much?

NS:    I don't believe that it is possible.  It's just like saying too many imitators of Walter Scott is too much.  I know a person who has read the collected works of Anthony Trollope.  He was a contemporary of Dickens, and he wrote something like 140 novels.  It was my ambition to read everything, but that's just personal.  I wanted to read everything in every language.  Fortunately, I did not succeed.  [Both chuckle]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What should the composer expect of the public that comes to hear his or her new music?

NS:    An acceptance; the kind of acceptance that is given to a person who tries to get a job!  You go to a corporate executive and you say that you have certain abilities and certain credentials.  You ask, "Would you take me?"  It is the same with compositions.  Unfortunately, composers now have so many possible entries.  When they write music, that is usually the first and last performance.  Excellent composers just are never performed!

BD:    Why are they not performed?

NS:    This is a mystery.  I can name a few composers of great renown... such as Alfredo Casella.  Certainly you know the name Casella.

BD:    Sure!

NS:    And no performances!  He was a contemporary of Stravinsky, and was a Great composer!  Yet he is completely forgotten!  In American music, it's very interesting.  In the
International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians (1939), the editor, who was Carl Engel, who was also the head in the Music Division at the Library of Congress and the editor of the Musical Quarterly, wrote about Charles Martin Loeffler, "...by many esteemed the foremost 'American composer' of his generation...

BD:    And now he's never played!

NS:    You know the name of Loeffler?

BD:    Oh, yes.  We have played him on occasion on WNIB here in Chicago.

NS:    Good.  Well, I quoted that to an assistant professor at UCLA who specializes in American music.  I quoted it as a joke, and she said, [with puzzlement] "Who?  Charles Martin who?" 

BD:    He is almost like Edward MacDowell, another one that should be known but is never played!

NS:    Yes, but everybody knows the name of MacDowell, even though he may not be played much.  But you can't say that about Loeffler.  Philip Hale, the music editor of the Boston Herald, criticized me for performing works by Ives and Cowell and Ruggles and Varèse at my European concerts.  He wrote in an editorial that I did a disservice to American music, and that I should have conducted something representative of America, such as music by Loeffler, Deems Taylor and Arthur Foote!

Camille ScoreBD:    This is one of the joys of the Baker's
going through and finding a composer whom you know nothing about, reading about that composer and then finding some recordings.

NS:    Yes.  I try to get everybody in, and even so I could not succeed.   There was a composer named Forrest Hamilton who wrote an opera, Camille...

BD:    Oh, Hamilton Forrest, yes!

NS:    Yes!  You know the name?

BD:    I know him because they did Camille here in Chicago with Mary Garden.

NS:    That's right, but that was before you were born!

BD:    I've scrounged in libraries and I've seen the score of the work!  [Page from the score at right.  A detailed account of the gestation and premiere of this work is in "Opera in Chicago, a Social and Cultural History 1850-1965," by Ronald Davis. ]

NS:    [Surprised that Duffie knows so much about him]  It took me I don't know how many years to find out when he died.  He died in 1963!  I don't have his date of death in Baker's Dictionary because there was absolutely no notice about this.  [The date was eventually included in the 8th Edition.]  Finally I found just a single notice in a paper called The Musical Leader.  It was in there, but nowhere else.  This is just an example of how people disappear!  Then there's a composer named Bonner who also composed operas.  He is somewhere in Italy, and I can't find out.  He must be dead, but there's no way of finding out!

BD:    That name I do not know.

NS:    Well, he's not in Baker's.

BD:    How do you make the final decision as to whether someone will be included or excluded from your book?

NS:    I include everybody.  When in doubt, put him in.  But still I cut out a number of people from the 5th edition, mainly organ players and so forth.  Then of course there are new composers [with exasperation] one after another!  This is a desperate job.  I know only too well the sins of commission and omission in my dictionary.  And then, of course, just to find out who is living and who is dead!  I already have 300 obits for the next edition.

BD:    Maybe you should find everyone who has bought a copy and then put out monthly newsletter.

NS:    [Laughs]  No, no; that I hate, because it's hopeless.  To give you a jocular reference to a non-jocular matter, there's a composer named Paolo Martucci who lived in New York until about 1980.  In fact, he answered his telephone in 1979!  He was born in 1883, and he's no longer listed in the New York telephone book; all my attempts to get his death certificate or any kind of reference in New York failed.  All he had to do was to go to New Jersey to disappear from the face of the earth.  [Note: The Social Security Death Index listed a Paolo Martucci who died in New York, New York in 1980, and other websites give the death date of October 18, 1980 for a pianist named Paolo Martucci.]  Needless to say, there was no obituary.  His father [Giuseppe Martucci (1852-1909)] was a well-known musician; Toscanini played his music all the time.  Paolo was known as a teacher and so forth, and he had an apartment in New York.

BD:    It seems like keeping up with all of this is really an impossible task.

NS:    It's New York City!  It isn't some place unknown!  Of course when a person dies in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, I get the dates because I happen to be in contact with a person who is that kind of a fanatic.  I got the dates of death of most of those completely unknown Yugoslav composers!  When you read my listings of birth or death dates, it is not just a notice that I picked up in another dictionary!  It's nothing like that.  I had to find a person who would know.

BD:    That's the basic rule of newspaper business
check your sources!

NS:    Yes, check your sources!  Incidentally, if you are interested in my contact with the [pronounces the word "lower" in a low tone of voice, with mock scorn] lower depths of intellectualism, you can tune in Johnny Carson.  I will be his guest on April 22nd.

BD:    I'll look forward to that!

NS:    I'm not looking forward to it because I told them that I simply don't belong there.  But somebody told them that I was a funny guy, which I am; I do not deny it.  So I will do my tricks.  [On the Tonight Show, Slonimsky played the piano using an orange.  Carson seemed genuinely amazed and amused that Slonimsky was older than George Burns.]


[See my Interview with John Cage.]

BD:    As far as I'm concerned you're a national treasure.

NS:    [Chuckles]  That's funny, but this is what Frank Zappa said.  He introduced me and said, "Now Nicolas Slonimsky is a national treasure"  I nearly threw up!

BD:    Frank Zappa is one of the few of the pop music world who tries and succeeds to understand serious music.

NS:    Oh yes!  As a matter of fact, he is an admirer of Varèse, and he writes scores in Varèse's style!  That's why he was interested in me.  I am also grateful to his daughter, whose name is Moon Unit.  I named my cat Grody to the Max, which is the jargon of the Valley Girls.  "Grody" meaning "gross"; to the max meaning "to the maximum."  It is grody to the max!  I have two ways.  I relate to the Valley Girls on the one hand, and I also write all those supposedly learned treatises and invent all kinds of new things, including words!  I actually invented a word which is in all the dictionaries, "pandiatonicism."  It's in all the dictionaries.  I found it even in a Norwegian dictionary.

BD:    When you're writing the biographies and you make a value judgment as to the music they have written, is this always based on your hearing the music?

NS:    Practically always; either hearing some of the music or examining the scores.  I used to write liner notes, so I can't say that I am familiar with every score that I mention in that dictionary; that would have been really something.  But I usually have some idea of what I'm writing about, although I can't pretend that every article is based on profound study.  Of course there are certain composers whose works I know very well because I conducted them, or they were friends.

BD:    But at least there's some knowledge.

NS:    It has to be some, but if I were to write a longer article I would have expanded it.  Russian composers are fairly well represented and modern composers are fairly well represented.  But I cannot say that offhand I could describe, say, a totally unknown Hungarian composer.  I always tune in on the radio early in the morning, and sometimes I just cannot figure it out.  All I can say is that the work was written about, say, 1880, under the influences of so and so, and then all of a sudden a strange name comes up... like Šulek.  [Stjepan Šulek (1914-1986), a Croatian composer and conductor.]  He's in my dictionary and everything, and it sounds like diluted Dvořák.  But I cannot place them exactly.  I can usually place them within a certain time period.  I know some people
some record collectors, not professional musicianswho have collected a fantastic number of unknown composers.  I know of one in Dallas and one in Indianapolis, and neither is a professional musician.  My helper in Indianapolis can't read music, but what he knows about music, and his capacity of hearing all those works...  Then I know a guy here who can read music but is not a professional musician, who managed to get recordings and tapes of all 27 symphonies by Myaskovsky.  He got the tapes from Russia and from Poland and various sources.  I was in correspondence with Miaskovsky and I know his scores, but I can't define and determine every symphony of hiseven though I myself found something that he didn't know about performances of his 13th Symphony, which was first performed not in Russia but in Switzerland.  So I wrote to Switzerland and established this.  One of his pupils told me that in his class, whenever somebody would ask him about one of his works, he would say, [half chuckling] "I don't know; write to Slonimsky in the United States and he will know."   I really made a point to collect all this information, just like collectors of objets d’art, although objets d'art have some value, while my dates don't have any kind of value.

BD:    [Reassuringly]  Oh, I think it has great value!

NS:    Well, I established myself as a sort of a freak that wants to get it all.  Though some people believe it, I'm busy denying my omniscience, but the more I deny my knowledge, the more they suspect that I really know a lot.  Anyway, it's fun...

BD:    Let me just thank you for a lifetime of music and research.  I appreciate your spending the time with me this evening.  You've been most gracious.

NS:    I'm glad that I could oblige you.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Conductor and Lexicographer, Dies : Music: Russian-born scholar's knowledge and body of work were legendary. He was 101.
December 27, 1995, Los Angeles Times

Nicolas Slonimsky, the Russian-born composer and conductor who became one of the world's foremost musical lexicographers, died Monday at UCLA Medical Center. He was 101.

Though not well-known outside the music world, the eccentric Slonimsky was a legend within it, renowned not only for his encyclopedic knowledge and prodigious body of work but also for his antic humor.

Pierre Boulez was among his friends. [See my Interviews with Pierre Boulez. BD]. So was the late Frank Zappa. In fact, after Zappa sought him out in the early 1980s, Slonimsky performed one of his own compositions at a Zappa concert and enlisted the progressive rocker's daughter, Moon Zappa, to teach him Valley-speak. The musicologist and scholar later told reporters in his Russian-tinged accent that he had named one of his beloved cats Grody To The Max in her honor.

Born in czarist St. Petersburg on April 27, 1894, Slonimsky came from a family of intellectuals.

In the autobiography--which he had planned to title "Failed Wunderkind: A Rueful Autopsy" but was eventually released at his publisher's insistence as "Perfect Pitch"--he reported that his mother told him at age 6 that he was a genius.

"This revelation came as no surprise to me," Slonimsky wrote.

Possessed of perfect pitch, Slonimsky was first taught piano by his maternal aunt, but by age 10, he had begun to improvise. After graduating from St. Petersburg High School in 1912, he studied at the University of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where he learned music theory and composition from the same teachers who had mentored Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

By the 1920s, he was a touring concert pianist--a job that eventually landed him a post in the United States, where he was summoned in 1923 to coach opera at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Able to speak only four words of English--"yes," "thank you," and "please"--he gradually taught himself the language by studying the librettos of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and the ads in the Saturday Evening Post.

Two years later, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra heard Slonimsky at Rochester and invited him to move to Boston as his secretary and companion. There, he published two collections of songs, conducted the Harvard University orchestra and organized the Chamber Orchestra of Boston. In 1928, he composed the song, "My Little Pool," which has only 12 bars and calls for only black keys in the left hand and white keys in the right. It was during this period that he also met and married the former Dorothy Adlow, an art critic and lecturer.

By the 1930s, he was an ardent champion of 20th-century music, conducting, for example, the piano concerto of Bela Bartók with the composer as soloist and the Berlin Philharmonic in programs of modern American music.

But his penchant for presenting new music doomed his conducting career. In 1933, after conducting the L.A. Philharmonic to considerable acclaim, he was engaged to conduct the philharmonic's summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. Insisting on the importance of exposing contemporary audiences to contemporary music, he tried to force-feed modern music to the staid Los Angeles audience with disastrous results. The orchestra mutinied, the trustees intervened and, as Slonimsky later put it, he was "given the bum's rush out of Hollywood." His conducting career suddenly began to break up.

But Slonimsky, by now a parent, embarked on a second career, turning from the music itself to scholarly research and documentation. His "Music Since 1900," comprising a chronology of almost 2,000 musical events and biographies, was published in 1937, and characterized as a landmark of American musical scholarship.

Subsequent books also were destined to become standards--"Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns," for instance, is still widely used by composers and jazz musicians. He also wrote the "Lexicon of Musical Invective," an extensive and amusing anthology of scathing music critiques, and "Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians."

Despite his bad experience at the Hollywood Bowl, Slonimsky eventually moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, after his wife's death. Here, he taught musical subjects at UCLA.

He is survived by his daughter, Electra Yourke of New York, and two grandchildren.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Author of Widely Used Reference Works on Music, Dies at 101
By ALLAN KOZINN, New York Times
Published: December 27, 1995

Nicolas Slonimsky, a formidably gifted musicologist and lexicographer who also made his mark as a conductor, pianist and composer, died on Monday at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 101.

Mr. Slonimsky's many reference works, among them "Music Since 1900," "A Lexicon of Musical Invective" and the last several editions of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, are considered indispensable by musicians, critics and music lovers. A compendium drawn from his writings, "Nicolas Slonimsky: The First Hundred Years," edited by Richard Kostelanetz, was published last year.

Mr. Slonimsky was no mere purveyor of facts. He challenged accepted lore and debunked myths that had found their way into biographies and reference works. Rather than repeat the Romantic depiction of a blizzard at Mozart's funeral, he consulted Austrian weather bureaus and discovered that the story was untrue. He was also fascinated by unusual details. Readers in search of basic information might in the process learn, for example, that Stravinsky had a toothache the day he completed "Le Sacre du Printemps," or that Schoenberg and Rossini had triskaidekaphobia, an irrational fear of the number 13.

He enlivened his dictionary entries with astute, witty and sometimes waspish observations, and in the later editions of Baker, he introduced some musicians with lavish evaluations. Where The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians soberly describes Mozart, for example, as "one of the composers who brought the Viennese Classical style to its height," Mr. Slonimsky's identifying sentence reads: "Supreme Austrian genius of music whose works in every genre are unsurpassed in lyric beauty, rhythmic variety and effortless melodic invention."

Mr. Slonimsky's entertaining style was reflected in his other activities. A favorite party trick -- one he performed at an Alice Tully Hall tribute to him in 1987 and also on the "Tonight Show" -- was to play the melody line of the Chopin "Black Key" Etude by rolling an orange across the keys. Seemingly open to musical experiences of all kinds, he performed some of his own music at a Frank Zappa concert in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1981 and maintained a friendship with the iconoclastic rock composer. He named his cat Grody-to-the-Max, after learning the expression from Zappa's daughter, Moon Unit.

But he had a thoroughly serious side as well. He was a vigorous champion of new music all his life. In the 1920's he founded the Chamber Orchestra of Boston, and he gave premieres of Ives's "Three Places in New England" in 1931 and Varese's "Ionisation" in 1933. (Varese dedicated the work to him.) He also championed Henry Cowell and Carlos Chavez, and conducted Bartók's First Piano Concerto with the composer as soloist. He later said his conducting career had foundered because of his insistence on programming new music.

Nicolas Slonimsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 27, 1894. In his autobiographical entry in Baker, he wrote:

"Possessed by inordinate ambition, aggravated by the endemic intellectuality of his family of both maternal and paternal branches (novelists, revolutionary poets, literary critics, mathematicians, inventors of useless artificial languages, Hebrew scholars, speculative philosophers), he became determined to excel beyond common decency in all these doctrines."

He excelled in several of them, but music -- though absent from the list of family achievements -- was his primary interest from the age of 6, when he began studying piano with Isabelle Vengerova, his aunt (and later a teacher of Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein). He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 1914. He was drafted into the Russian Army just before the revolution.

In 1918 he began touring as a vocal accompanist, then worked his way through Turkey and Bulgaria as a pianist in theaters and silent movie houses, arriving in Paris in 1921. There he became a rehearsal pianist for the conductor Serge Koussevitzky.

He came to the United States in 1923 to work as an accompanist in the newly created opera department at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he continued his composition and conducting studies.

After two years there, he moved to Boston to resume his position as Koussevitzky's assistant. He also taught music theory at the Boston Conservatory and the Malkin Conservatory, and he began to contribute articles on music to The Boston Evening Transcript, The Christian Science Monitor and Etude magazine. In 1927, he started his Chamber Orchestra of Boston and began to solicit music from composers he admired.

Ives, thrilled with Mr. Slonimsky's performance of "Three Places," sponsored a European tour that allowed Mr. Slonimsky to present recent American works. In Paris, during that 1931 tour, he married Dorothy Adlow, an art critic for The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Slonimsky became an American citizen the same year.

His conducting career flourished briefly, but by the mid-1940's he had returned to academia. He headed the Slavonic languages and literature department at Harvard from 1945 to 1947, and toured Europe and the Middle East as a lecturer for the State Department. After his wife died in 1964, he moved to Los Angeles and taught for three years at the University of California.

His first book, "Music Since 1900," appeared in 1937. A day-by-day chronology of important as well as amusing but trivial events in 20th-century music, the work has been revised several times, most recently in 1987. In his Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947), he ingeniously catalogued combinations of notes that could be used as musical themes. Jazz musicians found the book particularly useful; John Coltrane reportedly required his band members to play through it.

Mr. Slonimsky edited the Thompson's International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians from 1946 to 1958 and in 1958 became editor of the Baker, beginning with the fifth edition. He completely revamped the book for the sixth edition, published in 1978, and oversaw two more editions as well as abridged versions. Taking a break from biography, he turned his attention to musical terms in his Lectionary of Music (1989).

His books also include the "Lexicon of Musical Invective" (1953), a collection of scathing reviews of musical masterpieces; "Music of Latin America" (1945), "The Road to Music" (1947) and "A Thing or Two About Music" (1948). His autobiography (which he wanted to call "Failed Wunderkind") was published as "Perfect Pitch" in 1988.

As a composer, Mr. Slonimsky wrote (in his own Baker entry) that he "cultivated miniature forms, usually with a gimmick." These include a set of "Advertising Songs" (settings of advertising copy that had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, 1925); "Gravestones at Hancock" (settings of epitaphs, 1945); "Studies in Black and White" (a piano work in which one hand played black keys, the other white keys, 1928), "My Toy Balloon" (which he described as his "only decent orchestral work," 1945) and "51 Minitudes for Piano" (1972-76).

He is survived by a daughter, Electra Yourke of Manhattan, and two grandchildren.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on April 12, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1989, 1994 and again in 1999.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.