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Slonimsky, Nicolas

Slonimsky, Nicolas

Born in 1894


Inducted in 1998

Nicolas Slonimsky was a truly unique figure: musicologist, critic, conductor, composer, musical lexicographer (he edited the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th editions of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians between 1958 and 1991). Born into a family of remarkable artists, scientists and inventors, Slonimsky was given his first piano lesson at the age of six by his aunt Isabelle Vengerova. He studied harmony and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 1914; after the 1917 Revolution he moved to Kiev, where he served as a rehearsal pianist for the opera and studied composition with Reinhold Gliere. Following a brief stint on the faculty of the Yalta Conservatory he headed for Western Europe, and wound up in Paris as "secretary and piano pounder to Serge Koussevitzky." In 1923 Slonimsky came to America and became an accompanist for the opera department of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. There he studied composition and had conducting lessons from Albert Coates, the English conductor who, like himself, was born in St. Petersburg. Koussevitzky took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1924, and Slonimsky went to work for him again the following year, but "was fired for insubordination in 1927." He taught at the Malkin and Boston conservatories, and in 1927 organized the Harvard University Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Boston. With the latter ensemble he championed new music, giving the premieres of Ives's Three Places in New England and Varese's Ionosation (dedicated to Slonimsky) as well as works by Henry Cowell, Carlos Chavez and numerous other composers. According to Slonimsky, it was in his "quest for trivial but not readily accessible information" that he "blundered into the muddy field of musical lexicography," first publishing Music since 1900, then editing Thompson's International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians from 1946 to 1958, and then accepting the editorship of Baker's, which he held until his death at the age of 101. He published his autobiography, Perfect Pitch, in 1988. Slonimsky performed some of his own music at a Frank Zappa concert in Santa Monica in 1981. His list of compositions includes piano music, a song cycle, a vocal canon, some early sung commercials, and his "only decent orchestral work," My Toy Balloon (1942), a set of variation on a Brazilian song, which calls for 100 colored balloons to be "exploded ffff at the climax."