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I’VE BEEN ENJOYING Nick Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. Its theses are two-fold and clear: You can’t please everyone. And critics write for readability, not necessarily for perpetuity. 

Lexicon of Musical Invective, by Nicholas Sloninsky, Washington University Press, 1984.

Nick sets a high standard: “The criterion of selection here is the exact opposite to that of a press agent. Instead of picking a quotably flattering phrase out of context from an otherwise tepid review, the Lexicon of Musical Invective cites biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgements.… The present collection is, then, not a chrestomathy but a Schimpflexicon.” 

You go, Nick!

I admit I had to look up chrestomathy (a language primer; etymologically, “useful stuff to know”) and Schimpflexikon (An H.L. Mencken invention; loosely, “a dictionary of vituperation”). Here are tidbits gleaned from Slonimsky’s fine book, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Beethoven’s Pastoral. “Opinions are much divided concerning the merits of the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, though very few venture to deny that it is much too long.”—The Harmonicon, London, June 1823.

This reminds me of that great line in the movie Amadeus, when Emperor Joseph II says to Mozart, “Dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes an ear can hear in an evening.”

Ludvig van Beethoven, 1770–1827, German musical genius. See THE ARROGANCE OF GENIUS here at Simanaitis Says.

Beethoven’s Ninth. “… the much admired Ninth Symphony, the fourth movement of which seems to me so ugly, in such bad taste, and in the conception of Schiller’s Ode so cheap that I cannot even now understand how such a genius as Beethoven could write it down.”—Quoted from a Providence, R.I., newspaper in The Orchestra, London, June 20, 1868. 

The reviewer could not have imagined Leonard Bernstein’s Celebration Concert performance of the Ninth Symphony at the crumbled Berlin Wall in 1989. In Schiller’s Ode, Bernstein changed one word, Freude (Joy) to Freiheit (Freedom). 

Bernstein gained inspiration from this wall inscription.

Berg’s Lulu. “After a second performance of the excerpts from Lulu, this reviewer is moved to remark that he considers them involved trash, as he did at the first hearing, and a score that will not outlast the decade that gave it birth.”—Olin Downes, The New York Times, November 29, 1935.

Lulu, as portrayed by Marlis Petersen at the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 production. See LULUS ON MY MIND here at Simanaitis Says.

I note that 2015-1935 = 80 years, rather more than Downes’ “the decade that gave it birth.” 

Gershwin’s An American in Paris. “… is a nauseous claptrap, so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane, that the average movie audience would be bored by it.”—Herbert F. Peyser, New York Telegram, December 14, 1928. 

Let’s defer to the next generation’s views of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron: Wikipedia notes that the 1951 movie An American in Paris garnered eight Academy Award nominations and won six, including Best Picture. 

A Critic’s View. “Why,” Slonimsky asks, “do music critics, who are in private life, most of them, the mildest of creatures, resort so often to the language of vituperation?” (Critic Eduard Hanslick once said a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto “stank to the ear.”)

Slonimsky shares an opinion of music critic Philip Hale: “I think that the violence of Dr. Hanslick was as much inspired by the desire to write a readable article as by any just indignation.” That is, such articles can be fun to read, and Nick seems to agree. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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