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NICK SLONIMSKY PLANNED to title his autobiography Failed Wunderkind, but was persuaded otherwise. Wisely too: Having been told by his mother that he was a genius at age 6, Slonimsky recalled later, “This revelation came as no surprise to me.” He became a musicologist, linguist, conductor, pianist, composer, lexicographer, friend of Frank Zappa, and a centenarian.

Nikolai Leonidovich Slominsky, 1894–1995, Russian-American polyglot, with Gordy to the Max. The cat’s name was suggested by Moon Unit, Frank Zappa’s daughter. Image by Slonimsky’s daughter Electra Yourke.

Nick’s book Lectionary of Music, McGraw-Hill, 1989, contains a wonderful collection of erudition and wit. Here are tidbits gleaned from the book’s Conducting entry, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

A Conductor’s Job. “The art of conducting,” Nick says, “is the most elusive of musical pursuits. Ideally, it requires total mastery of the musical score and an ability to coordinate the players and singers so that they create a euphonious ensemble….” On the other hand (one not wielding a baton, though), he also offers “the cynical notion that conductors are useless at best and nuisances at worst.”

Batons—a Mini-history. Minimally, conductors are responsible for signaling the first beat and tempo. “In Baroque practice,” Nick notes, “it was usually up to the maestro al cembalo, the “master at the keyboard,” to give these directions. When performing groups evolved into multimusical bodies, the first violinist usually initiated the proceedings with a motion of his bow. An alternative was for the composer-conductor to beat time on a desk with a small stick or roll of paper, occasionally stamping his foot on the floor.”

Nick shares an oft-told tale: “Legend has it that Lully who was the leader of the petits violons du roi for Louis XIV, struck his foot with the sharp point of his conducting baton causing a fatal gangrene.”

Jean-Baptiste Lully, 1632–1687, Italian-born French composer working in the court of Louis XIV.

“The Russian conductor Wassily Safonoff was the first to become batonless; he said that in abandoning the baton, he acquired ten batons with his fingers.”

Vasily Ilyich Safonov, 1852–1918, Russian pianist, teacher, conductor, and composer. Image from 1902.

Dictators of the Baton. “Hans von Bülow in particular,” Nick says, “was as famous for his Prussian brutality as for his superior musicianship. A typical anecdote deals with his dislike of two members of his orchestra named Schultz and Schmidt. One day the manager announced to him that Schmidt had died. ‘Und Schultz?’ Bülow asked coldly.”

Hans Guido Freiherr von Bülow, 1830–1894, German conductor, pianist, and composer.

On the other hand (likely not holding a baton), wife Cosima left von Bülow for Richard Wagner in 1870. Cosima, illegitimate daughter of pianist Franz Liszt, had five children while married to von Bülow: Daniela, 1860; Blandina, 1863; Isolde, 1865; Eva, 1867; and Siegfried, 1869.

On June 10, 1865, precisely two months after Isolde’s birth, von Bülow conducted the premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Coincidence or what?

Orchestras Sans Conductors. Nick observes, “An interesting experiment was made in Russia after the Revolution to dispense with the conductor as an undemocratic vestige of musical imperialism.”

Pervy Simfonichesky Ansambl Bez Dirizhyora, a Conductorless Symphonic Ensemble, or Persimfans, was named an Honored Collective by the Soviet government in the 1920s. Image from The Moscow Times, April 29, 2014.

“Indeed,” Nick continues, “a conductorless orchestra of Moscow lasted for ten seasons until it was abandoned as a perverse distortion of socialism, and the conductors returned to the Soviet podium to exercise their authoritarian power over the downtrodden musical masses.”

I sure enjoy Slonimsky’s erudition and wit. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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