The triumph of true tone. Slonimsky missed fame but lived a life worth noting

Perfect Pitch, A Life Story, by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York: Oxford University Press. 263 pp., illustrated. $25. Nicolas Slonimsky was 47 years old when his wife told him to grow up. Scion of a Russian Jewish family of great intellectual prowess - it included the Christian philosopher Vladimir Soloyvov and the true inventor of the telegraph! - Slonimsky had botched his own career as a conductor with a program of modern music at the Hollywood Bowl in 1933. Before that in Paris and Boston he had been secretary and ``piano-pounder'' to the great Serge Koussevitsky, who fired him for ``insubordination'' in 1927.

In the '20s, Slonimsky had been coach in the opera department at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. As a Wunderkind, he had wowed his teachers at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with his ``perfect pitch.''

Slonimsky would have preferred to tell his life backward, as I just have: That way, it has a rising curve of accomplishment. By 1941, the year his wife told him to grow up, he was a father (Electra came the year he bombed at the Hollywood Bowl), a writer (his children's articles on music for The Christian Science Monitor were later made into a book), and a tireless promoter of modern music.

To say he also promoted himself would not be untrue, but it would miss the point of his career. Wiseacre, showoff, smarty-pants, brat: Slonimsky was, is, all of these. Illustrating Hobbes's theory of sudden triumph, he sometimes enjoyed startling people, drawing a feeling of self from their confusion. His pranks often originated in his fabled ``perfect pitch,'' as when he would point out to a greater conductor that in a particular performance of particularly dissonant modern music, the second viola played a wrong note.

But seen through his own eyes in ``Perfect Pitch: A Life Story,'' his career, his life, does have a kind of integrity. It's a story of great expectations foiled by life's little ironies, with an increase in humility along the way that in the end makes all the difference. The humility is hard won. By nature - and nurture - Slonimsky is an ebullient egotist. He opens his story by reflecting on ``the philosophical problem of individual existence'' and his mother's expectation that he would be a genius like generations of his family.

Part of the value of his book is its documentation of extraordinary people in prewar Russia, including, but by no means limited to, Slonimsky's own family. There are memorable scenes, as when he was asked to play a funeral march at the service for Georgi Plekhanov, who had led the first popular demonstration in St. Petersburg in 1876. Lenin and Trotsky were conspicuously absent. According to the ancient Russian ritual, Plekhanov lay in state in an open coffin. Slonimsky ``studied intently the conformations of his face, trying to form a rational theory about the interdependence between men of great ideas and blind historical events.''

Speaking of ironies: Hounded out of Russia by anti-Semitic revolutionaries, Slonimsky was in Berlin in 1932 conducting ``Three Places in New England,'' by Charles Ives, among other modern pieces. He writes, ``Never in my unhappily brief career as a conductor did I enjoy such a marvelous cooperation. The virtuosity of the individual players was beyond praise. The muted trumpet solo, introducing Cowell's Synchrony, was sheer magic; I had never heard anything to equal it in purity of intonation or dynamic fervour.'' The compliments were reciprocal; he was a big hit.''

Within a year, some of his musicians would be forced to wear swastikas.

``Perfect Pitch,'' like most other memoirs by men, is haunted by women. By all accounts, Slonimsky's mother had a hold on him. She and her sister, Isabelle, a legendary piano teacher whose students included Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber, formed a set of formidable muses - which helps explain Slonimsky's wife's feeling that at 47 he had still to grow up. His wife was another matter. He has only praise for her. Dorothy Adlow was the much-loved art critic for The Christian Science Monitor. How much she meant to him can be quickly grasped by his account of her death in 1964. ``This was the only time in my life when I did not contemplate my own state of mind.... I was a wounded animal.... The dominating thought of my existence was to get out of Boston, which had become for me the City of Death.''

As fate would have it, he got a telephone call from an old friend asking him to take a teaching job at the University of California in Los Angeles. Shades of Hollywood Bowl, 1933! But no, he accepted, and has lived there since. The last concert he tells of in his book was an appearance with Frank Zappa at the Coliseum in Santa Monica in 1981.

Slonimsky did not become a great composer, pianist, or conductor. He did become one of music's foremost ``diaskeuasts'' (one of the many odd words he uses felicitously) or editors. He is unsurpassed as an editor of musical biographical dictionaries. But his verbal art goes beyond a happy vocabulary and the art of the raconteur. For all its bubbly, brash flamboyance, ``Perfect Pitch'' is informed by an artistic purpose that transcends the particulars, however fascinating. Slonimsky's life is that of a modern romantic enfant terrible growing into classical wisdom.

One grasps this in the form, as well as the content, of this remarkable book. Slonimsky's formal repertoire consists of one shape, mastered in all its phases. The shape is that of the ironic anecdote, a true story that ends by blowing itself up. Most often humorous, this form can be used to sad, even tragic, and sometimes profound effect. Slonimsky uses it for all these purposes.

In the course of his work on biographical dictionaries, Slonimsky was written many lives. Now he has written his own. Like the others, it's done to a ``t.'' It could well be that, in a life that has hitherto escaped the immortalizing embrace of the muses, Slonimsky has earned eternal laurels - for ``a life'' of that life! In another of life's little ironies, it's the muse of history that now bends down to crown the great Slonimsky.

Bravissimo, Slonimsky!

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

A Slonimsky sampler

The grave, balanced style:

Dorothy was seven years younger than I, but an eternity wiser. I was a bundle of nerves when she took me under her protective wing; patiently did she listen to my litanies, and with infinite tact taught me social amenities. Where I was ungovernable, she provided guidance, and where I was suspicious of others, she calmed me by rational argument.

The descriptive style:

I will never forget the amazing sight of a field of green and brown flowers in bloom as the plane was about to land at Havana airport. Incredibly, the flowers turned out to be palm trees, which looked so delicate and minuscule from the air.

The Slonimsky style:

The memorial gallery of composers, famous and infamous, whom I knew is vast and perturbing. I became a wailing wall for many of them; my left shoulder was irrigated, figuratively speaking, with their tears, and saturated with the salt, and sometimes sulphur, of their indignation against an unfeeling world.

The mixed style:

I collected minutiae of this quaint lore, added some parerga and paralipomena from other sources, and threw the resultant tossed salad into the format of a book.

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