Nicolas Slonimsky: Writings on Music (Four Volumes) by Nicolas Slonimsky, edited by Electra Slonimsky Yourke (Routledge) Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) was an influential and celebrated writer on music. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1894, in his 101 years he taught and coached music; conducted the premieres of several 20th century masterpieces; composed works for piano and voice; and oversaw the 5th-8th editions of the classic Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Beginning in 1926, Slonimsky resided in the United States. From his arrival, he wrote provocative articles on contemporary music and musicians, many of whom were his personal friends. Working as a freelance author, he built a large file of reviews, articles, and even manuscripts for books that were never published. This collection brings together the cream of this material in 4 volumes.
Volume One: Early Articles for the Boston Evening Transcript: Fleeing revolution-torn St. Petersburg in 1918, my father, Nicolas Slonimsky, first went to Kiev, then to Yalta in the Crimea in 1920, thence to Constantinople; finally, via Bulgaria, he arrived at his intended destination. Paris. late iii 1921. IIe was twenty-seven and, despite the revolutionary turmoil of his life to (late, had made his way as a working musician. He had taught piano, accompanied singers, coached, worked as a rehearsal pianist; he wrote on musical subjects for newspapers and journals along his itinerary of flight, and he had pounded the piano in silent movie houses. hi Paris. he became musical secretary to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, joining the many émigré Russians who sparked the lively musical life of Paris.
In 1923, the Russian tenor and opera director Vladimir Hosing, having received funding from George Eastman to start an opera company in Rochester. New York, invited my father to join the staff as accompanist and coach. Mv father accepted eagerly and boarded a transatlantic liner with his few possessions and a British book of basic language instruction. He did not speak a word of English.
Undeterred, he applied his analytical skills, his knowledge of' other languages. including Greek and Latin, and his musical ear to the task of mastering American English. His approach was to avoid using a dictionary and to treat the language as an "extinct dialect." His boisterous fellow artists at the Eastman School, including the novelist Paul Horgan and the director Rouben Manuoulian, were no help—they enthusiastically adopted his mislocutions as much more fun than the correct ones. At the movies he studied the subtitles, and he treated print advertisements. which he had never seen before, as tutorials in the lingua franca. Hence. by the time Koussevitzky, now conductor of the Boston Symphony
Orchestra, invited him to leave Rochester and become the BSO's rehearsal coach: he could also act as official bilingual secretary . His credentials, his job. and his additional independent activities as accompanist, teacher, and lecturer quickly earned him a place in the Boston "intelligentsia." His English was fluent by then, though still accented.
The Boston Evening Transcript, a daily newspaper, conceived of itself as modest, conservative, partisan, and in good taste, specializing in literature and theater. It had come into being in 1830, founded by Lynde M. Walter, a well-born graduate of Harvard University. From 1842, the Transcript was edited by the founder's sister, Miss Cornelia W. Walter, called "the brilliant lady editor" by some but not by Edgar Allan Poe, who, after she criticized him, described her as "the pretty little witch." In the 1880s, its editor was Edward Clement, known as "the Beau Brummel of Boston journalism." With a circulation of about 17,000, it continued to emphasize the arts, especially music and drama.
There is no record of how my father came to write for the Transcript. starting in 1927. His position as Koussevitzky's secretary and musical assistant had just come to a calamitous end upon the publication of an article in the Boston Herald headlined "Mv Secretary Knows More Than I Do The Boss," for which he, among many others, had been inter-viewed. But his photo was featured. He tried to explain to the maestro that the quote referred to the secretary to the President of' the United Frit Company, but to no avail. As he tells it in his autobiography, Perfect Pitch, he was summoned to the Koussevitzky home:
Koussevitzky motioned me to repair to the hying room, with Mrs. Koussevitzky leading the way. He proceeded to speak in measured tones as if addressing a defendant in a court of law: "I have nothing against your making extra money by playing the piano in clubs and at social functions," he began. "But we have a right to demand that you leave my name out of' your publicity. . . Then Mrs. Koussevitzky broke her silence. "Like a dirty Odessa Jew." she remarked icily. "von are trying to pull your sordid little tricks behind Mr., Koussevitzky 's back." Considering that Koussevitzky was himself a Jew, born nearer to Odessa than I. her remark was fantastic in its rudeness.
He never saw Koussevitzky again. That was in January 1927.
Thereafter he pursued musical activities of his own and, within a fewshort years, conducted historic concerts introducing American music to European audiences. His championing of modern American composers, Ives in particular, brought attention to them and to him. In 1933, he con-ducted a series of landmark concerts of modem music at the Hollywood Bowl. Although the audiences did not welcome them. he succeeded in establishing himself' professionally as an important spokesman, analyst, and interpreter.
The only available source in collecting the articles in this volume is his own files, now in his collection at the Library of' Congress. There may have been more articles that he did not retain or that were lost over the years. Unfortunately. the Transcript microfilms are not indexed, so a search would require scrolling through hundreds of reels containing every page of the daily paper for many- years. Even the undated articles included here cannot, as a practical matter, be located and properly sequenced.
Most of these forty-eight Transcript articles. appearing at uneven intervals over nine years, were evidently timed for the visit of' a composer to Boston or the performance of' a work by the Boston Symphony. Hence they are especially interesting as contemporary analyses of composers of' emerging significance. Many of the subjects proved not to be of pantheon status, making these analyses all the more rare and valuable. As firsthand records of the world of new music in Boston in the twenties and early thirties, their depth of content is surprising for what were, after all, columns for a daily newspaper. There is no record of why my father's Transcript articles stopped in 1936.
On April 23, 1941, an editorial headlined "Hail and Farewell" appeared on the front page of the Transcript. "For 111 years the Transcript has been closely interwoven with the history and traditions of Boston and America." it read, but its circulation "has always been curtailed by the necessity of selling at a price [5 cents] higher than its immediate competitors." rendering it less successful in attracting advertising. Accordingly, it would cease publication in seven days. In the same issue, news headlines announced that German columns had smashed through the pass at Thermopylae and surrounded the Greek army: the king and government had fled to Crete. The arts pages reported that Lillian Hellman had won the Drama Critics' Circle award for Watch on the' Rhine.
The following days' editions were filled with mournful cries and calls for establishment of a fund to keep the Transcript in business. On April 28, the Transcript gratefully reported the enviable experience "the flowers for our own funeral," an avalanche of suggestions to keep the paper alive. Although contributions were received employees agreed to donate a portion of their wages, there was of success in a reasonable time. Readers were urged to offer jobs to "loyal workers."
Volume Two: Russian and Soviet Music and Composers: Selecting the articles for this volume has been harder than for the other volumes because of the profusion of writings available. Russian/Soviet music was, of course, one of' my father's major subject areas. He was personally a product of the great Russian musical tradition—born in St. Petersburg. his family part of the cultural elite, and lie attended the famous Conservatory there. His considerable talents gave him entrée to Russia's musical world as a young man, even as it was shaken and over-turned by war. revolution, and exile. The Russians who had the good luck to find exile in Paris constituted a core of musical life there, and he was part of that exalted group.
Although he moved on to identify and promote American modern music in particular. he remained in a unique position to monitor the eventful tale of Soviet music as it unfolded from the late '20s. He was professionally in full throttle, especially qualified to read and interpret politically driven musical policies as they were first handed down, then reversed, conceived anew and re-promulgated, around and around. He maintained direct contact with musical sources as best he could, with due regard for his counterparts' safety. He read Soviet bulletins, journals, and embassy publications, and he subscribed to the Daily Worker. He analyzed the effect the zigzagging policies had on individual composers' works, and he reported on their public mea culpas when they found themselves a step behind the latest government dicta.
In due course all these
contacts across (or through or around) the Iron Curtain attracted the attention
of the FBI. It is not clear when his file, obtained via the Freedom of
Information Act. was first set up. The Bureau was, naturally, interested in his
activities with supposedly Communist, or subversive, or pro-Soviet, etc.
organizations which. if one credits the agency, proliferated in the Boston area
during the 1940s. dost of the ones my father admittedly associated with
by allowing his name
to be put on a masthead or playing the piano at an event or signing a telegram to FDR—said they were dedicated to Russian war relief, Soviet-American friendship, progressive causes, and peace. His Dailey Worker subscription is repeatedly noted in the official FBI file, which also contains an offprint of "The Changing Style of Soviet Music" (originally published in the American Musicological Society's Journal), which is included as Chapter 19 herein.
At one point, the agency put a mail cover on him for a month. The pursuit of "leads" from the items intercepted constitutes one of the funniest reports I have ever read. It hardly need be said that the file reveals far more about the FBI than it does about Nicolas Slonimsky.
It all ended happily. After all the years, the special agents sought and received authorization to actually interview him in May 1953. To his astonishment, they had precise questions about quite a number of Russia-oriented organizations and publications, as well the dates of his appearances and writings and contacts with various individuals. When they asked his views on Communism, he loosed a blast against Soviet repression, brutality, hypocrisy, and the suppression of artists. The encounter is fully described in his autobiography, Perfect Pitch. It is also quite fully and fairly reported in the FFBI file (which my father never saw I obtained it after his death). Almost immediately- after the interview, his file was closed.
Given his credentials, my father was often asked to write articles on Soviet music as it evolved, and especially after the unleashing of each new political orientation. The writings are all interesting. but obviously there is a lot of overlap. I have selected the most comprehensive and analytic articles and regretfully left aside many others that contained material of' value but, overall, are less informative now than they were at the time. Inevitably there is a certain amount of repetition of the history up to the date of each article; but the commitment of this collection is to preserve the articles as they were written, with no editing Whatever. According) such repetition and even some contradiction is inevitable.
The articles on individual composers form an admittedly unbalanced section. The total collection from which to choose was also unbalanced, ranging from strong, serious writings to more lightweight introductory biographies for general newspaper readership. The former were given priority here. Accordingly, a long piece on Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with Mme. von Meek is not included, nor are less comprehensive writings on composers already represented. Then why three Shostakovich articles:' Because they're good. The reader is also directed to Volume I. with several interesting articles on Russian composers, especially Stravinsky, originally written for the Boston Evening Transcript.
Although most of my father's writings are of an objective, analytic, or reportorial nature-albeit well spiced with opinion-some few are personal. Clearly the experiences dearest to his heart involved visits back to his native land. In 1963, the U.S. State Department sent him to several countries in Eastern Europe and to Russia as a kind of musical ambassador from the U.S. to the musical world of these several countries. He seems to have carried off his mission in fine form, meeting with the musical establishments and also the anti-establishments that were beginning to be tolerated in the more relaxed political environment. The lively narrative that concludes this volume captures some of these experiences and shows what a good ambassador lie was, both above and under ground. He was thrilled to meet so many bright and talented composers. some of' whom lie already knew through correspondence, and they seem to have been equally thrilled to meet this authentic Russo-Western modernist who could speak with them on their own terms and in their languages—and show them a thing or two.
To me, this exuberant saga is a perfect counterbalance to the rather sober, dictionary-like opening chapter, carefully laving out history to date. After observing from afar the twists and turns through half' a century, he finally plunges back into the transformed musical geography of his youth. He finds talent in abundance, he observes their hunger for a new and free artistic life, he feels their urgent desire to find out what has been going on in the West during their long period of deprivation. This is the human side of Soviet musical history.
As the years passed and my father was no longer in the lead of Russian-American musical communication. he continued to take great pleasure in the re-emergence of' Russian no longer Soviet) musical greatness. Among those who not only survived but prevailed was his own nephew Sergei Slonimsky, Sergei and his family now live in the apartment in St. Petersburg that his parents moved into after their marriage early in the twentieth century, a lineage amazingly unbroken in the cultural history of that great and beautiful city. Sergei's numerous compositions, including symphonies, operas, ballets, chamber pieces, and songs, are all published and widely performed. His 70th birthday this year was the occasion of major national recognition of his achievements. He and my father were very proud of each other. and it was gratifying to observe their deep, natural, spontaneous communication. It was in the language of music, but it was only possible in the language of family. No more fitting legacy could be imagined for my father than the primacy of his lateral descendant in the musical life of his nation.
Volume 3: Music of the Modern Era
You would not expect a person of my father's cultural heritage—steeped in the Russian musical tradition, trained in its premier conservatory—to he attracted to "modern" music. He had everything to gain from the old musical regime: he was educated in it, he performed it brilliantly, and it was prevalent, offering the opportunity for a successful career. Piano was his instrument, taught by his formidable Aunt Isabelle Vengerova from childhood. His rich education in the theory and practice of music could also have suited him for composing or conducting, a purveyor of the classical tradition at its highest level.
But that's not what happened. He was interested in the modern seemingly from the moment of expulsion from his pre-Revolutionary cultural cocoon and continued to be so for the following 50 years—during which, of course, the definition of modern evolved and twisted and morphed and turned inside out, and even reverted to "classical." Why did he choose to be a proponent of the modern? Surely it had to do with his intellectual curiosity, impatience with repetition, and rebellious spirit, but further psychologizing is pointless.
This volume opens with a short article written in 1926, when he had barely mastered English. He takes on the definition of modern music—by suggesting what it isn't. In those days, perhaps, definitions seemed necessary but the time had also come to accept the new era in its many manifestations. Acceptance of the unfamiliar was a personal characteristic and a recurrent theme in his writings. While the traditionalists bemoaned deviations from the mandates of history, he applauded innovation—adding new elements, smashing and reassembling the old ones—but only if intellectually valid and esthetically driven. Also, throughout his life, he could not resist an idea if it was fun—dropping a
piano from a helicopter, playing the cello topless (female only), titling a symphony Penis Dimension.
In his twenties and thirties, he dedicated a burgeoning conducting career to the works of modern composers. His concerts in Paris, Berlin. and Budapest in 19.31-:32 brought to Europe for the first time works of the American modern sensibility: Riegger, Ives, Cowell, Ruggles, Weiss. Roldan. Varese. The concerts created a sensation, provoking vehement criticism and equally vehement support. During the summer of 1933, in a series of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, he conducted these composers' works and others, but this esthetic was simply not acceptable to the general audience or the sponsors. It was essentially the end of his con-ducting career.
Thereafter, his support for modern music was confined to writing and lecturing, but he continued to be influential even when not participating directly. His personal experience with rejection of the modern found startling resonance as he researched composers' lives for the dictionaries he was editing. He found that the very titans worshipped by the conservative establishment were themselves often savagely criticized in their own times. Burrowing through contemporary newspapers at the library, he saw that Beethoven's Second Symphony was "hideously writhing," Fit-kilo suffered from "atrocious harmony," and the Ninth "outrageous clamor." Brahms's Second Symphony was termed "ugly and ungenial," his Serenade, op. 11 contained an excess of "this ultra-modern kind of writing," and anyone who could swallow his Piano Concerto in B-flat major "enjoys an enviable digestion." One critic opined that Sibelius was even worse than Debussy. Another observed that Verdi's opera Macbeth contained melodies "such as a man born deaf would compose."
All this was irresistible. His Lexicon of Musical Invective was brought out in 1953. In his introduction, he gives a name to the phenomenon: Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar, and calls it a "psychological inhibition." There is a prognosis for this condition: "it takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a 'Modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty to elevate it to a masterpiece." The Lexicon provides solace to practitioners in all the arts. It has been in print for fifty years, and was reissued recently with an introduction by Peter Schickele, who called it "a festival of dyspepsia."
Much of my father's time and energy was devoted to researching and updating Baker Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, which he took over in the early 50s, and writing other books, notably Music Since 1900. In this work, he followed contemporary creators in detail, diligently updating their progress and products, but he never wrote a book on modern music per se and he only wrote articles when requested. Accordingly, this volume cannot be a complete or consistent series of writings. Nevertheless, the general articles, in conjunction with the articles on individual composers, cover most major "modern" composers, explaining how their disparate concepts and innovations overturned traditional thinking and created the modern era.
The history of the monograph on Roy Harris is unknown. He and my father had a warm personal relationship; perhaps there was some project afoot when it was written in 1952-53, but it is one of the very few selections in these volumes that was never published.
The remaining items are the most enduring of a large number of pieces created for different outlets, including musical journals, as introductions to others' works, and in magazines and newspapers. Other articles on music of the modern era those that were written for the Boston Evening Transcript and those about modern Russian music and composers are found in the first two volumes of this series.
Volume Four: Slonimskyana
At the beginning, it was not at all obvious how to organize this collection of Slonimsky writings, numbering in the hundreds. Clearly, Russian and Soviet music would be central. But also American music, North and South. Modern music cuts across all geographical categories. The articles varied considerably in length, tone, depth, intended readership. Written over more than fifty years, their historic perspective and writing style shift and evolve. Most of the earlier articles are about the present, while many of the later ones look back on that present that was. How should they be organized into four volumes?
Finally, it emerged that the Boston Evening Transcript articles, though on diverse subjects, comprised a coherent stylistic and historic unit for the first volume. Russian/Soviet pieces then became volume two, and modern music, worldwide, was the obvious third volume. All articles on these three topics were pulled from the mix, regardless of when they were written or whether they were coherent in terms of style and length (they weren't).
That left ... everything else, still a very large number of writings. Heterogeneous as to subject (to say the least), they were variously interesting, provocative, funny, scholarly, cerebral, offbeat, opinionated—in other words, Slonimskyana. Within this elastic title, articles on any subject, of any nature, from any source, of whatever length, could be included: herein the reader finds The Best of Everything Else.
Ah, but how should they be organized? In what categories, what order? I confess that the five categories I created are absolutely artificial. As packages, some groupings are a bit lumpy, but not, I hope, offensive. Within each, the articles are in chronological order.
This volume includes a higher proportion of articles that I have only in manuscript form, without dates or publication information. They were obviously all written for a purpose—my father would never have sat down to write on The Plush Era of Music in the U.S. just for the fun of it but either they were not finally published or they were published but he did not receive or retain the printed version. To readers (or publishers) who recognize any of the unattributed articles in this or the other volumes, I offer my apologies for failing to provide proper credit.
The heterogeneity of this volume demonstrates that my father was not a scholar in the conventional sense, munching his way through a century, a style, or a composer. He did not have to worry about tenure. He had no desire to know everything there is to know about any one topic or person. His researches were driven by pure intellectual curiosity (often resulting in a book project) or commissions and, although—like any scholar—he regularly lost all sense of time when at the library, his zeal diminished when he had satisfied his own interest or the needs of the particular project. His pedantic side was frilly fed by the endless updating of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, which he edited for some forty years.
He enjoyed direct research into primary sources; I am not aware that he read up on what other scholars were doing (unless reviewing their hooks). His interest was especially piqued by the prospect of proving somebody else wrong—an erroneous birth or death date, a romanticized anecdote (the weather at Mozart's funeral)—or historic ironies, most especially, the horrible reviews classical composers received from their contemporaries. All this sounds a bit dilettante-ish, but it was not, because of the background he brought to each topic. He drew upon his profound knowledge of the art and technique of music to produce numerous think pieces for professional readers, some of which I have included here. He wrote regular program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, many of which I collected for a recently' published volume called The Listener's Companion. A request for a book introduction (Chapter 1) elicited an amazingly comprehensive survey with detailed' analysis of the chamber music of numerous American composers.
In bringing out this series, my intention is to make these serious writings available to students, musicians, biographers. and other scholars. It seems a shame to allow them to accompany their volumes to the book grayeyard.
All this is to say that a volume legitimately titled Slonimskyana must include articles on diverse subjects, in different styles, for different readerships, written over more than half a century, and def king categorization.
The reader also finds a CD tucked into the back cover of this volume. An explanation of the recording and my father's liner notes for the original recordings are found in the Postlude to this volume.
One of the Internet's more profound effects, at least for librarians and researchers, is that it makes available to many individuals information and materials that were previously accessible to just a few. An excellent example of the wider array of resources now within easy reach is the Library of Congress's American Memory Collections. This site is part of the National Digital Library Program, "an effort to digitize and deliver electronically the distinctive, historical Americana holdings at the Library of Congress, including photographs, manuscripts, rare books, maps, recorded sound, and moving pictures." Collections from other libraries are also part of the program.
Currently, American Memory has more than 90 collections, most of them quite extensive. They include pieces of African American sheet music from 1850 to 1920; baseball cards from 1887 to 1914; Civil War maps and photographs; early films and sound recordings from the Edison Company; and the complete papers of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. A recent addition is "Fifty Years of Coca-Cola Television Advertisements," a preview of a donation from the Coca-Cola Company. This donation, consisting of 20,000 ads being given over a period of years, is the largest donation of corporate advertising in the library's history. Among collections currently in progress are some 12,500 items on nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Chinese immigration to California and the West and more than 1,600 National Press Club sound recordings going back to 1952.Most of the collections are searchable and have their own search tools. Users can also search multiple collections by keyword and type of material. A Collection Finder feature offers searching by topic, original format of material (manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, etc.), time period, place, Library of Congress division, and digital format (e.g., QuickTime, TIFF). Some of these categories, most notably topic and place, are quite broad, but more specificity may be added in the future, along with the ability to combine searches from different categories. Another feature, The Learning Page, offers resources and activities for students and teachers. There is greater curricular emphasis on primary source materials, and many reference publishers are responding by including more of these materials in their publications. But no printed work can match the richness available in the American Memory Collections. The site offers a wonderful example of how digital collections can work together with more traditional library holdings--the Web offering access to manuscripts, music, photographs, and so on and the books providing background, context, and analysis.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians Centennial Edition edited by Nicolas Slonimsky (Schirmer Books, Gale Group) Theodore Baker began the splendid Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians in 1900. Nicolas Slonimsky assumed responsibility for the fifth through eighth editions, permeating his entries with unique, irrepressible style that has become a trademark of this now standard reference work. Slonimsky opinions are couched in witty prose as concise evaluative estimations of classical music innovation and the vagaries of life and scholarship. This Centennial edition contains more than 3.5 million words, all of them amusing and informative, most of them penned by Slonimsky, making it one of the world's biographical and critical treasures.
From Aaltonen, Erkki (Finnish composer, born 1910) to Zylis-Gara, Teresa (Polish soprano, born 1935), this work radiates factual accuracy, critical (and opinionated) insights, fine humor, and a humane touch to the facts of musicians’ lives and art. Though originally oriented to classical music only, Slonimsky usually displayed a taste for the innovative and was quick to embraced the new trends in performance, and in this Centennial edition, hundreds of popular musicians (jazz, rock, blues, and more) swell the traditional ranks of classical musicians.
Sadly this will be the last edition Slonimsky will have any new contributions to as he died at the ripe age of 101 on Christmas day 1995. Classical music editor, Laura Kuhn with associate editors for jazz, Lewis Porter and for pop William Ruhlmann have managed well the inclusion of the more important pop and jazz personalities as well as continuing to maintain a rounded coverage of the classical music world. This work should not be overlooked by anyone interested in the lives of Musicians and composers in America and Europe. I hope the extended excerpt below encourages you to read the Prefaces as well as consult this magnificent reference work.
Below is a brief excerpt from Slonimsky’s Sixth Edition Preface so that one can get a sense of his style:
How much of personal life ought to be reported in a dignified biographical dictionary? Volumes have been written speculating about the identity of Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved," even though the famous letter addressed to her was never sent off. Should a biographer be so bold as to doubt a great man's own confession of love? A conscientious biographer took exception to Goethe's declaration that he had never loved anyone as much as Lili Schonemann. "Here the great Goethe errs," he commented: "His greatest love was Frederike Drion." From the sublime to contemporary love lore. The formidable Hungarian pianist Nyiregyhazi was married nine times, and admitted to 65 extra-marital liaisons. Is this proper information in a biographical dictionary? The marriages, perhaps; the liaisons, only famous ones, like Liszt's and Chopin's.
It was only recently that the known homosexuality of Tchaikovsky became a matter of open discussion in his biographies; first inkling of it appeared in the preface to the 1934 edition of Tchaikovsky's correspondence with his benefactress Madame von Meck. In 1940 a collection of his letters to the family, including those to his brother and biographer Modest who was also a homosexual, was published in Russia, but it was soon withdrawn from publication and became a sort of bibliographical phantom; an expurgated edition was published later. In subsequent books on Tchaikovsky published in Russia the matter is unmentioned. But a strange mass of unfounded rumors began circulating both in Russia and abroad shortly after Tchaikovsky's death that he committed a "suicide by cholera," that he deliberately drank unboiled water during a raging cholera epidemic in St. Petersburg, and this despite his fear of cholera which had been the cause of his mother's death. The stories that I heard during my visit to Russia in 1962 were right out of Gothic horror tales. It seems that Tchaikovsky became involved in a homosexual affair with a young member of the Russian Imperial family, and that when Czar Alexander III got wind of it, he served the Tchaikovsky family an ultimatum: either have Tchaikovsky take poison, or have him tried for sodomy and sent to Siberia. Tchaikovsky accepted the verdict, and with the connivance of his personal physician Dr. Bertenson, was given a poison that produced symptoms similar to those of cholera. As additional evidence that Tchaikovsky did not die of cholera, the proponents of this theory argue, was the fact that his body was allowed to lie in state and that several of his intimates kissed him on the mouth, as the Russian death ritual allows, whereas cholera victims were buried in zinc-lined sealed coffins to prevent contagion.
Dramatic deaths should rightly be noted in biographies, but grisly details had better be left out. It is not advisable to follow the type of reporting exemplified in an obituary of Sir Armine Woodhouse in The Annual Register of London for the year 1777, noting that his death "was occasioned by a fishbone in his throat."
Percy A. Scholes took credit for sending the British writer on music, Arthur Eaglefield Hull, to his death under the wheels of a train. He wrote me: "Hull's suicide was the result of my exposure of his thefts in his book Music, Classical, Romantic and Modern. He threw himself under a train."
A suicide directly connected with a musical composition was that of Rezso Seress, Hungarian author of the sad, sad song "Gloomy Sunday" At one time the playing of the tune was forbidden in Central Europe because it drove several impressionable people to suicide. Seress himself jumped out the window, on a Monday, not gloomy Sunday.
Musical murders are surprisingly
few; singers are occasionally murdered out of jealousy, but not famous singers.
The most spectacular murder, never conclusively solved, was that of the French
eighteenth-century musician jean Marie Leclair, stabbed to death in his own
house. Since nothing was taken, it could not have been a burglary. I proposed a
theory that he was done to death by his estranged wife who was a professional
engraver and publisher of some of Leclair's music, and had sharp tools at her
disposal, but my painstaking argumentation in favor of this theory was
pooh-poohed by the foremost French music historian Marc Pincherle and others.
Dementia, insanity and bodily disintegration are scourges that hit many composers, and in most cases they were caused by syphilis. Undoubtedly, the tragic illnesses of Schumann, Smetana, Hugo Wolf and MacDowell were all caused by the lues, the morbus gallicus as it was usually described in the past centuries. In his book on Delius, Sir Thomas Beecham remarks ruefully that the goddess Aphrodite Pandemos repaid Delius cruelly for his lifelong worship at her altar. Delius died blind and paralyzed.
In light of recent disclosures, free from displaced piety for a great man, it appears that Beethoven, too, was the victim of syphilis. His deafness was only a symptom (as in the case of Smetana), which does not necessarily indicate a venereal infection. But there are too many other circumstances that lead to this sad conclusion, recounted in the recent study by Dieter Kerner, Krankheiten grosser Musiker.
Even the worshipful speculation as to psychological causes of physical decline and death, so cherished in old-fashioned biography, has no place in a book of reference. I brushed aside such probings into a person's psyche as found in an old entry on the eighteenth century French composer Isouard, to the effect that he was so deeply "mortified" by his failure to be elected to the French Academy that "although a married man," he abandoned work, "plunged into dissipation, and died."
Triskaidecaphobia, an irrational fear of number 13, demonstrably affected the state of mind of two great composers, Rossini and Schoenberg. In addition to his superstition about the malevolent character of 13, Rossini was also fearful of Friday. He died on November 13, 1868, which was a Friday. Numerologists could cite his case to prove predestination. Schoenberg's case is remarkable because there is so much recent evidence that his triskaidecaphobia was not a whimsical pose. He was born on the 13th of the month of September in 1874, and he regarded it ominous in his personal destiny. He sometimes avoided using 13 in numbering the bars of his works. When he realized that the title of his work Moses and Aaron contained 13 letters, he crossed out the second "a" in Aaron, even though the spelling Aron cannot be substantiated either in German or in English. When someone thoughtlessly remarked to him on his 76th birthday that 7 + 6 = 13, he seemed genuinely upset; he died at that age. On his last day of life, July 13,1951, he remarked to his wife that he would be all right if he would survive the ominous day, but he did not, and died.
Going over my list of morituri, centenarians or near-centenarians, I came upon the name of Victor Kuzdo a Hungarian-American violinist born, or so the old edition of Baker's said, in 1869. I wrote to Kuzdo at his last known address, which I found in an old musical directory, in effect asking him whether he was living or dead. A few days later I received from him a dictated postcard saying that, although practically blind, he was still alive and well in Glendale, California. Furthermore, he took the opportunity to correct his date of birth: he was born in 1863, not in 1869, and had shortly before celebrated his 100th anniversary! But this was not the end of the story; soon afterwards I got a letter from a real-estate man in Glendale notifying me that Kuzdo was in the habit of diminishing his age, and that he was actually 103, not 100! How could he be sure? Simple: he was a numerologist. When the inevitable end came to Kuzdo on February 24, 1966, his death certificate gave his age as 106. He was born in 1859, not in 1860, not in 1869.
The most remarkable woman centenarian on my list was Margaret Ruthven Lang, of the Boston musical dynasty of Lang, who died at the age of 104 in 1972. She was a regular symphony goer since the early days of the Boston Symphony. On her 100th birthday the orchestra played the hymn Old Hundred in her honor. The Russian-French singer Marie Olenine d'Alheim lived to be 100. Among other recent centenarians was the French conductor and composer Henri-Paul Busser who died in 1973 at the age of 101.
It would be most interesting to compile actuarial tables of life expectancy of musicians according to their specialties. One thing appears certain: great musicians die young; consider Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Scriabin. It is a fascinating speculation to project Mozart's life from 1756 into 1840, and Schubert's life to an even later date! One may indulge in a reverie that very great musicians are summoned to Heaven because they would be more at home there.
Statistically speaking, organists live the longest lives, perhaps because their sedentary occupation keeps them from wasting their energy on idle pastimes. Scholars and pedagogues come next in longevity; conductors are fairly durable, too; among instrumentalists, those handling big instruments, like the double bass or trombone, live longer than violinists who in turn live longer than flutists and oboe players who are apt to be frail in physique. Among singers, tenors dissipate their vitality faster than bass singers. In all musical categories mediocrities outlive great artists by a large margin.
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