Nicolas Slonimsky: Maverick Conductor
by Carol J. Oja
In March 1932, as Hitler's National Socialist Party rode a steamroller to power, a Russian-American conductor in his mid-thirties arrived in Berlin with enough cash in his pocket to hire the Berlin Philharmonic for two concerts of "ultramodern" American music. The conductor was Nicolas Slonimsky, and the music had been composed by Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Amadeo Roldán, Carl Ruggles, Adolph Weiss, and Edgard Varèse. It was a time when concert life in the German capital had "suffered from the depression," as the journal Modern Music reported to readers in the United States, and high quality players could be had at low cost.
The results were extraordinary. The German musicians vigorously tackled a batch of difficult scores, critics enthused about the brilliant young conductor, and American orchestral works gained an audience abroad. Slonimsky later proclaimed that these concerts "marked the height of my achievements as a symphonic conductor."
Slonimsky's Berlin concert was one of a series of events presented by him outside the United States under the auspices of the Pan American Association of Composers, a new-music performance society based in New York. All represented strategic advances in the process of integrating American modernism into an international marketplace. The others occurred in Paris (two concerts in 1931, with two more in 1932), Budapest (in 1932); and Havana (two in 1933). None of the programs pandered to the public but instead administered straight doses of ultra-modernism from the Western Hemisphere. Often the music had recently been published by Henry Cowell's New Music Quarterly or performed in his California concert series, showing the interconnectedness of modernist networks of the day.
This was by no means the first time that the music of American modernists had been heard in Europe. American music had been performed on programs of the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) since the early 1920s, and figures such as Virgil Thomson and George Antheil had produced entire programs of their compositions in Paris. But these events usually involved solo or chamber works. Mustering the political and financial clout to obtain an orchestral performance was a whole other matter.
Slonimsky was in the process of defining a revolutionary identity for himself as a conductor. After arriving in the United States, he had worked as an assistant to Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, and in 1927 he founded his own ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra of Boston, which was made of up players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Four years later, he brought the group to New York's Town Hall for the world premiere of Ives's Three Places in New England, and he also conducted a New Music Society concert in San Francisco. Slonimsky was climbing a summit that conductors still find grueling: trying to forge a career as an advocate for new music.
Then in June 1931, Slonimsky tackled Paris, hiring local musicians for a pair of concerts, just as he would do in Berlin the following year. All this was underwritten by Charles Ives, although according to Slonimsky this patronage was "to remain a secret." With typical impishness, Slonimsky recalled in his autobiography that "large posters were placed on Paris kiosques and pissoirs announcing my concerts of 'Musique américaine, mexicaine, et cubaine.'" The programs included Ives's Three Places in New England, Ruggles's Men and Mountains, Cowell's Synchrony, Chávez's Energía, and Varèse's Intégrales, among other new works;"I had a brilliant audience at my first Paris concert," Slonimsky recalled. "Composers, journalists, painters, Italian futurists-all came at the behest of the indefatigable Varèse." Although critics seemed puzzled by the music, they raved about the skill of the conductor. "We have, sans blague, just discovered America, thanks to a Christopher Columbus resident of Boston," wrote the well-known French critic André Coeuroy. "This Cristopher Columbus is called Slonimsky. Retain this name. It is that of a young musician astonishingly gifted . . . and a conductor of a promising future."
After two more Paris concerts the following year, Slonimsky moved on to Berlin, where his conducting was one again hailed. "No word of praise is too high for the conductor Slonimsky," wrote Heinrich Strobel in the Börsen-Courier. "This is a talent of the first rank," declared Alfred Einstein in the Berliner Tageblatt.
Slonimsky himself enthused over the Berlin experience, calling it "even more exciting than Paris." He went on: "Never in my unhappily brief career as a conductor did I enjoy such marvellous co-operation. The virtuosity of the individual players was beyond praise. . . . I had four rehearsals with the Berlin Philharmonic, and never once did the players show any displeasure with the music or with my conducting." He recalled that the musicians were especially "amused and excited like children when I unloaded on the stage an assortment of multicolored Cuban gourds, that made the stage look like a tropical fruit market." These instruments were used in Roldán's La Rebambaramba, which turned out to be one of the orchestra's favorite pieces. "They became virtuosos on the Quijada del Burro, the jawbone of an ass," Slonimsky drolled, "practicing on it some brilliant dental glissandos."
The Pan American Association of Composers (PAAC), which sponsored all these concerts, was one of a slew of new-music organizations that sprung up during the 1920s-a now-legendary period when American composers learned the benefits of organizing their efforts and marketing their music. Henry Cowell took charge of the PAAC, extending the pro-ultramodern philosophy of his California-based New Music Society to the East Coast.
The PAAC set itself apart by addressing itself "exclusively [to] composers who are citizens of the countries of North, Central, and South America." It reached throughout the Western Hemisphere, trying to generate a sense of community among composers of diverse cultures who shared one important trait: they were not European.
For Slonimsky, the European concerts under the aegis of the PAAC marked the peak of his career on the podium. In 1933, he was hired to conduct for eight weeks at the Hollywood Bowl but ran into resistance. Both musicians and audiences objected to the new compositions he programmed, and he was dismissed before his contract ended. "The word spread," as Slonimsky recalled in his autobiography, "that I was a dangerous musical revolutionary who inflicted hideous noise on concert-goers expecting to hear beautiful music." After that, he continued to conduct occasionally, most notably the premiere of Varèse's Ionisation in 1934. But with the depression in full swing and the modernist movement challenged by a growing populism, a conductor of radical scores was in little demand. Soon after, Slonimsky turned his attention to musicology and lexicography, where he gained fame both for his impeccable scholarship and wicked wit. Most notable among his bibliographic achievements were Music Since 1900, a compendium of documents charting the rise of 20th-century modernism, and editorial supervision of Baker's Biographical Dictionary.
Back in the early 1930s, though, Henry Cowell had proudly declared that "Slonimsky has done great service to American music through having produced and conducted more works by original Americans than almost any other conductor." On January 21, 2001, the American Composers Orchestra will celebrate that achievement.
For further reading about Slonimsky's conducting career see his wonderfully vivid Perfect Pitch: A Life Story (Oxford University Press, 1988).
-Carol J. Oja is author of Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (Oxford University Press)