Room 95--The late great Nicholas Slonimsky

Nicholas Slonimsky

Formerly the world’s most famous musicologist, Nicholas Slonimsky was born April 27, 1894 and died December 25, 1995 (not an inappropriate day for someone named Nicholas). He was an amazing and at the same time a rather tragic individual. As he put it, he was a failed wunderkind, meaning I guess that his parents expected him to be a child prodigy but he never made the cut. He was born in St. Petersburg and as I understand it, he taught the last Russian czar's nephew the piano.

I remember the look on his face when I asked him about being in the search party that found the body of Julian Scriabin (Alexander's son) in the Dneiper River near Kiev. He became very sorrowful and talked about finding "that poor little boy." A few years after that event, he decided to get away from the Russian Revolution. He went south to Constantinople where he became a pianist in a silent movie orchestra. A few years later he found himself where all artists in Europe eventually found themselves—Paris.

It was in this city that he met the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky. In 1925 when that man came to the U.S. to take over the leadership of the Boston Symphony, Nicholas came with him as his secretary. Suddenly he was in heaven, for two of the most famous contemporary composers of the early 20th century in America lived in New England—Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles. He got to know both of them and he became quite a champion of Ives' music. In fact he was responsible for creating the first performance edition of Three Places in New England by Ives. He met everyone and anyone, even Edgard Varese. Slonimsky even conducted the premiere performance of that composer's Ionisation. On top of that he was THE classical music lexicographer in the world, editing Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians for many years. I didn't meet him until he was 85 years old and living in an apartment on Wilshire Blvd. near Westwood in 1979.

The interview excerpt you are about to hear was recorded at that time, and Nicholas was surprisingly energetic. This chat was recorded for a program which aired for about a year on KFAC, called “At Home With,” where I would go to a famous musical figure’s home and interview them. This is one of several excerpts that will be put up here. Regrettably, this is the only portion of the show that survives today.


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