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Essay
Nicolas Slonimsky: Maverick Conductor

Essay
A Conducting Career never To Be

 

Sunday, January 21, 2001 at 3pm
"Berlin 1931"

Notes on the Program
by Carol J. Oja

More than twenty years before John Cage took Darmstadt by storm, a small but determined group of composers decided the time had come for European audiences to experience the newest American orchestral works. They were united under the banner of the Pan American Association, one of many composer advocacy groups that sprung up in New York during the 1920s. The idea of performing new American music abroad was not entirely new. The ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) had been featuring an American work or two on its annual continental festivals, and a few American composers-notably Henry Cowell, George Antheil, and Virgil Thomson-had presented concerts abroad. But these events largely featured solo or chamber music. Hiring an orchestra was an entirely different matter. The Pan American Association changed all that through a dazzling triumvirate: the energetic leadership of Henry Cowell, the conducting skill of Nicolas Slonimsky, and the financial generosity of Charles Ives. This afternoon's concert celebrates the series of events that resulted in Paris, Berlin, and Budapest during 1931 and 1932.

The first of these took place in June 1931 when Slonimsky tackled Paris, hiring local musicians for a pair of concerts, as he would do consistently for his events abroad. The program was the same as this afternoon's. 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.'" He went on, "I had a brilliant audience at my first Paris concert. 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 Christopher Columbus is called Slonimsky. Retain this name. It is that of a young musician astonishingly gifted . . . and a conductor of a promising future."

After a second Paris concert in 1931 and two more the following year, Slonimsky moved on to Berlin, where Hitler's National Socialist Party was rising to power. Slonimsky's skill on the podium again earned kudos. "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 Amadeo 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 events, 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.

At the same time, Slonimsky was in the process of defining a revolutionary role for himself as a conductor. After arriving in the United States in 1923, he worked as an assistant to Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, and in 1927 he founded his own ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra of Boston, which drew upon 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 New Music Society concerts in San Francisco. By trying to forge a career as an advocate of new music, Slonimsky was climbing a summit that conductors still find grueling.

The European concerts under the aegis of the PAAC marked the peak of Slonimsky's 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 New York 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 "Slonimsky has done great service to American music through having produced and conducted more works by original Americans than almost any other conductor." With this string of European performances, Slonimsky and the PAAC made it clear that modernist American composers sought nothing less than parity with their European peers. The Depression and World War II interrupted the momentum they had built up. But by the early 1950s a new generation of American modernists slowly began reaping the benefits.

* * *

Already beginning to feel the power of his pen, Slonimsky not only conducted the European concerts but also wrote program notes that helped introduce these radical Yankees to new audiences. The version that is interwoven below comes from the first Berlin concert in March 1932 and was translated by Bernd Gottinger. A copy of this program is housed in the Nicolas Slonimsky Collection at the Library of Congress.

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Three Places in New England
Charles Ives
Born October 20, 1874 in Danbury, CT
Died May 19, 1954 in New York, NY

Slonimsky had the following to say about Ives:

Three Places in New England provides a critical key to how Slonimsky's European concerts came about. In 1930, Ives had submitted the work to the ISCM for possible performance in its annual European new-music festival, and the jury turned it down. Ives then financed Slonimsky and the Chamber Orchestra of Boston to premiere the work in Town Hall in January 1931; after that, he sent it on an oceanliner for concerts abroad. Given the degree to which historians have depicted Ives as an outsider, there were surprising reactions from European critics. Alfred Einstein called him "the most original and national" of "the radical group of [American] composers." And Boris de Schloezer, especially well-known for his writing about Stravinsky, described Ives as "stand[ing] totally apart; . . . he is not an imitator; he has something to say." He went on, "His art is at times coarse and clumsy, but in him there is genuine strength and inventiveness, thematically as well as rhythmically."

Three Places in New England (assembled by Ives in 1913-14, restored and edited by James B. Sinclair in 1975) has three movements: "The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment)," "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut," and "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." The first movement, which takes its inspiration from a bas-relief depicting an African-American Civil War regiment, comments on race in America, fusing Stephen Foster's Old Black Joe with Battle Cry of Freedom and Marching through Georgia, both rallying tunes of the Civil War. The composer's prose preface reads as follows:

Moving-Marching-Faces of Souls!
Marked with generations of pain,
Part-freers of a Destiny,
Slowly, restlessly-swaying us on with you
Towards another Freedom!
The man on horseback, carved from
A native quarry of the world Liberty
And from what your country was made.
You images of a Divine Law
Carve in the shadow of a saddened heart-
Never light abandoned-
Of an age and of a nation.
Above and beyond that compelling mass
Rises the drum-beat of the common-heart
In the silence of a strange and
Sounding afterglow
Moving-Marching-Faces of Souls!

The second movement, as H. Wiley Hitchcock has vividly described it, "is a boy's fantasies as he surveys a Revolutionary War memorial at an old campsite; it combines the gay, brassy music of a Fourth of July picnic . . . and the boy's hallucinatory vision of ghostly military musicians." The composer's preface to this movement reads:

And the work concludes, again in the words of Hitchcock, "with a riverside revery . . . in which murmuring waters, swelling then ebbing, and mists in the river valley are evoked in meandering chromatic swirls, with 'cloud sounds' circling above them, while a gently curving, freely developing melody spins itself out in the middle of the texture." Ives prefaces the movement with excerpts of a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson:

Contented river! In thy dreamy realm-
The cloudy willow and the plumy elm..

Thou hast grown human laboring with men
At wheel and spindle; sorrow thou dost ken;&ldots;

Thou beautiful! From every dreamy hill
What eye but wanders with thee at thy will,
Imagining thy silver course unseen
Convoyed by two attendant streams of green&ldots;.

Contented river! And yet over-shy
To mask thy beauty from the eager eye; Hast thou a thought to hide from field and town?
In some deep current of the sunlit brown
Art thou disquieted-still uncontent
With praise from thy Homeric bard, who lent
The world the placidness thou gavest him?
Thee Bryant loved when life was at its brim;&ldots;

Ah! There's a restive triple, and the swift
Red leaves-September's firstlings-faster drift;

Wouldst thou away, dear stream? Come, whisper near!
I also of much resting have a fear;
Let me tomorrow thy companion be,
By fall and shallow to the adventurous sea!

 

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American Life
Adolph Weiss
Born September 12, 1891, in Baltimore, MD
Died February 21, 1971, in Van Nuys, CA

In his Berlin program notes, this is how Slonimsky presented Weiss to the Deutschlanders:

Weiss was in fact Schoenberg's first American pupil (1926), and he went on to be a teacher of John Cage (1933). As for the Conductorless Orchestra, it was founded in New York in 1928-the same year as the PAAC-and conceived as a cooperative. The players put up expenses for the concerts, negotiated with one another on fine points of interpretation, and chose the repertory.

American Life (1929) had another distinction: it was the first work published in Henry Cowell's "New Music Orchestra Series," which was inaugurated in 1932. European reviewers gave mixed reactions. Josef Rufer, an assistant of Schoenberg who later published a major treatise on twelve-tone writing, called Weiss a "clever, fine musician, technically the most mature of these composers."

American Life represents a fascinating transatlantic fusion. Here was an American composer of German heritage who studied in Germany and became a disciple of one of its most influential early twentieth-century composers, then turned around to write a work incorporating gestures from American jazz. The "jazz" component of the work is far from rigorous, consisting mostly of syncopated rhythms, occasional call and response, the prominence of trumpet and saxophone, and the use of brushed snare and a version of high-hat cymbal. Writers since Slonimsky-notably Gilbert Chase and David Baker-have declared the work's harmonic structure as not being twelve-tone but rather quartal (based on a fourth). It delivers a zippy, five-minute surge of restless energy.

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Men and Mountains
Carl Ruggles
Born March 11, 1876, in East Marion, MA
Died October 24, 1971, in Bennington, VT

Inscribed at the head of Ruggles's score to Men and Mountains (1924) are the words of William Blake: "Great things are done when men and mountains meet." Using dissonant counterpoint to generate ecstatic sublimity, Men and Mountains illustrates the yin-yang fusion of American ultramodernisn, a blend of the radical compositional craft promoted by Charles Seeger and the mystical reveries of Dane Rudhyar. Unlike Three Places in New England, Men and Mountains does not find its national character in the quotation of folk tunes or the evocation of historic sites. Rather it does so through lofty ideals and grand utterance.

Slonimsky introduced Ruggles to the Berliners just as nimbly as he had Weiss and Ives. Here too he was searching for images that would help translate what they were about to hear. In doing so, he elevated what might otherwise have seemed provincial:

Men and Mountains falls in three movements: "Men, A Rhapsodic Proclamation," "Lilacs," and "Marching Mountains." Although the entire score is extremely concentrated and intense, the middle movement stands out for projecting an ethereal sense of space. Each of its two internal sections swell deliberately and contemplatively.

Men and Mountains was published by Henry Cowell in the New Music Quarterly, and Lou Harrison was among those who first encountered Ruggles's music through that score, discovering it in the San Francisco Public Library Music Department. "I was instantly aware," Harrison recalled, "that while this music was in the chromatic dissonant style and showed a certain resemblance to Berg and Schoenberg, it also held something rare, something different. . . Its special form of polyphony instantly gave off a freshness, a lift, that made the familiar materials of dissonant counterpoint seem new and right at the same time."

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Synchrony
Henry Cowell
Born March 11, 1897, in Menlo Park, CA
Died December 10, 1967, in Shady, NY

Slonimsky's assessment of Cowell was full and enthusiastic:

Conceived for Martha Graham but never performed by her, Synchrony was intended as a multimedia work. As is typical of Cowell's early compositions, it represents a blend of convention and daring. The guru of experimentalism often kept one foot on familiar ground. Clusters and intensely dissonated triads unfold with an atonal melody, but there are also diatonic gestures.

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Suite de "La Rebambaramba"
Amadeo Roldán
Born July 12, 1900 in Paris, France
Died March 7, 1939, in Havana, Cuba

An African-Cuban composer, Amadeo Roldán stands as an icon of Cuban history. In Havana today, both the High School for the Performing Arts and a large concert hall are named for him. Back in the early 1930s, the PAAC gave Roldán the extraordinary opportunity of having his music performed in New York and Europe. Slonimsky also conducted a concert of the PAAC in Havana in 1933.

Slonimsky made the following observations about his Cuban contemporary:

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Carol J. Oja is author of Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (Oxford University Press, 2000). She is on the faculty of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.


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