Simanaitis Says

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“MUSICOLOGIST” CONJURES up the image of a musty academic muttering something or other about a dominant-seventh chord in Sixteenth Century works for the shawm. But then there was Nicolas Slonimsky, introduced in The Concise Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, as a “Russian-born American musicologist of manifold endeavors, a self-described failed wunderkind.”

Need I note that Slonimsky was the editor of Baker’s, now in its Eighth Edition, for more than five decades?


Nikolai Leonidovich Slonimsky, 1894-1995, came from what he described as a long line of “novelists, revolutionary poets, literary critics, university professors, translators, chessmasters, economists, mathematicians, inventors of useless languages, Hebrew scholars and speculative philosophers.”

Nick spent 30 of his 101 years in Los Angeles. He taught at UCLA, befriended the likes of Frank Zappa and was a delightful guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” I got to know him because of local classical radio station KFAC, where he’d have great fun with host Doug Ordunio.

I love the stories of Slonimsky and his family. He married Christian Science Monitor art critic Dorothy Adlow in Paris; avant-garde composer Edgard Varese, his best man. The Slonimsky daughter Electra learned Latin before English, and she would occasionally ask her father, “No, Daddy, what would my friends call that?”


Lectionary of Music: An Entertaining Reference and Reader’s Companion, by Nicolas Slonimsky, McGraw-Hill, 1989. This and other books cited here are listed at both and

Slonimsky published more than a dozen books, among them the Lectionary of Music, portions of which are shared here; a Lexicon of Musical Invective (a hoot of a collection of misguided music reviews); Perfect Pitch (his publisher rejected his preferred title, Failed Wunderkind); Nicolas Slonimsky: The First Hundred Years (a collection published in 1994); and Dear Dorothy—Letters from Nicolas Slonimsky to Dorothy Adlow (assembled by Electra Slonimsky Yourke).

Here is a brief sampling of Nick’s erudition from the Lectionary of Music.

On amateurs: Of all professions, medical doctors are the most enthusiastic amateurs of music…. A story is told about a famous pianist who played a concerto with a doctors’ orchestra.  Shortly afterward he suffered an attack of appendicitis; several surgeons from the orchestra volunteered to operate on him, but he declined. “I prefer to have my appendix removed by a member of the New York Philharmonic,” he declared with all solemnity.

On audience reaction, when the male singer was required to carry the amply built prima donna off the stage: “Make it in two trips,” shouted someone in the audience.

On the conductor’s stick: From the French bâton, but the French word for the conductor’s baton is baguette.


A baton; French, une baguette.

On catcalls: The term is unfair to cats who never meow derogatorily.


Nick and his cat Grody-To-The-Max, the name suggested by Frank Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit. See for other family images.

Rock ’n’ Roll gets more than a page as “the most powerful type of American popular music.” Nick traces the term back to the movie Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, 1934. He cites “Crazy, Man, Crazy,” by Bill Haley and the Comets, 1953, as well as the contribution of Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed. (Ever wonder why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in this city?)

On the shawm, an early form of the oboe: When George Bernard Shaw, in his days as a music critic, received a letter addressed to G.B. Shawm, he thought it was a spelling error until someone told him that it was an obsolete wind instrument producing a forced nasal sound.


Shawm, left; G.B. Shaw, right. Shawn image from

On Three Blind Mice: This perennial popular children’s song is probably the earliest printed nonreligious tune in music history. It was published in 1609 as a round for three voices.

On Wunderkind: Wonderkinder are often kept chronologically young by their parents’ cutting down their ages as they outgrow short pants. Mozart’s father advertised his genius son as being 8 years old during several successive years.

To me, Nick Slonimsky remained a wonderful wunderkind for 101 years. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013   

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2013 by in And Furthermore... and tagged , , .
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