Dear Dorothy: Letters from Nicolas Slonimsky to Dorothy Adlow

The following is a guest post from Senior Music Reference Specialist Kevin LaVine.

Image: Courtesy University of Rochester Press

As an author, musicologist, conductor, composer, pianist, teacher, theoretician, cultural ambassador and lexicographer, Nicolas Slonimsky’s contributions to music scholarship are both inestimable and enduring.  Slonimsky was born in Tsarist Russia in 1894 and pursued his initial musical studies in his native St. Petersburg.  He emigrated to the United States in 1923 and quickly became involved in the American cultural milieu, obtaining a coaching position at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and associating himself with the leading musical figures of the era.

An interest in contemporary American music led Slonimsky to organize the Chamber Orchestra of Boston in 1927 for the purpose of presenting new, unfamiliar, and generally challenging musical works.  Slonimsky himself served as conductor of the ensemble, which gave the first performances of works by visionary composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Edgar Varèse, and others – composers whose names have since become established in the roster of musical luminaries of the twentieth century.

Slonimsky’s own avant garde musical compositions employed unexpected harmonies and novel juxtapositions of structural elements, often drawing inspiration from popular culture (e.g., a 1925 song for voice and piano based on the advertising slogan “Children Cry for Castoria!”; look for it on YouTube).  As a musical theoretician, Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947), a scholarly inventory of all conceivable (and even “inconceivable,” according to its author) musical patterns, was highly admired by pioneering jazz saxophonist/composer John Coltrane and innovative rock musician/composer Frank Zappa.  Zappa was so impressed with Slonimsky that he even invited him to perform one of his (Slonimsky’s) piano works at Zappa’s concert; the irrepressible Slonimsky, then aged 87 years old, obliged, albeit earplug-clad.  American contemporary composer John Adams has also acknowledged the influence of Slonimsky’s Thesaurus on his own work, and pays homage to Slonimsky’s “wit and hyper-energetic activity” in the title of his 1996 orchestral work, Slonimsky’s Earbox.

But it is perhaps his contributions as a musical lexicographer for which Slonimsky is best remembered today – a “muddy field” into which he “blundered,” notes Slonimsky himself – having assumed the editorship of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, expanding the dictionary greatly, scrupulously verifying its content, and turning the work into the major reference source that it remains to this day.  In addition to overseeing the expansion of Baker’s throughout its many editions (its most recent (2001) edition consists of six substantial volumes), Slonimsky published a major study of Latin American music (Music in Latin America, 1945), a chronology of musical events in the twentieth century (Music Since 1900, 1937/1994), as well as several translations and articles (including the notorious “Sex and the Music Librarian” (1968) – slyly described by its author as a result of “painstaking research” on his part – in reality an immensely entertaining yet scholarly study of composers’ indiscretions throughout Western music history).  Slonimsky’s other writings on music, collected and published in recent years by his daughter Electra Slonimsky Yourke, comprise no less than six volumes.  Finally, Slonimsky’s 1988 autobiography, Perfect Pitch (look for it in bookstores’ “Sports” sections, jokes Slonimsky himself) is referred to by composer John Adams as “one of the few genuinely original literary works about music.”

Slonimsky died in Los Angeles in 1995 at the age of 101, bringing to a close (as he writes in an obituary that he himself penned) “one of the most remarkable careers in the annals of twentieth-century music.”  (Here, as always, Slonimsky was not exaggerating.)  His enormous archive – including personal papers and research documentation compiled in the course of his scholarly activities, occupying some 500 linear feet of shelf space – has been preserved within the collections of the Library of Congress’s Music Division, where it is accessible for public examination.  The finding aid, or descriptive inventory, of the contents of the Slonimsky Collection may be examined on the Library’s website.

The effervescently witty, keenly observant and occasionally poignant letters that Slonimsky wrote to his wife, art critic and journalist Dorothy Adler, during his concert tours of the world vividly recount the adventures and impressions of one who has lived his life at the crossroads of cultural and historical movements.  This correspondence, housed within the Library of Congress’ Slonimsky Collection, serves as the basis for Dear Dorothy: Letters from Nicolas Slonimsky to Dorothy Adlow (University of Rochester Press, 2012), Electra Slonimsky Yourke’s most recent collection of her father’s writings.  The Library’s Center for the Book and the Music Division are honored to co-sponsor a reading of selections from Dear Dorothy by Ms. Yourke herself on Thursday, November 7, 2013, from 12-1pm in the Library’s Whittall Pavilion (Thomas Jefferson Building).

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