Perfect Pitch

Born in 1894 into an intellectually distinguished and thoroughly assimilated Russian-Jewish family, the young Nicolas Slonimsky displayed unusual proficiency in a variety of subjects, most notably music. His facility at the keyboard and sense of perfect pitch greatly impressed not only his own aunt, legendary piano teacher Isabelle Vengerova, but the famous composer Alexander Glazunov as well. Although experiences of ensuing years humbled the multitalented prodigy to a degree, he retained a seemingly limitless reserve of wit and enthusiasm that characterized his activities as a respected conductor, pianist, composer, champion of contemporary music, lexicographer, theorist, and even game-show contestant.

Despite the fact that Slonimsky never became a “superstar” performer, his skills and resourcefulness enabled him to remain active in the music world even in the face of hardships. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, he moved through the expatriate musical communities of the Ukraine, Constantinople, Bulgaria, and Paris before being invited to become opera coach of the newly organized American Opera Company at the Eastman School of Music. Once in the United States, he engaged in varied musical pursuits, including working as an assistant to conductor Serge Koussevitzky and introducing the music of such important composers as Edgar Varese, Charles Ives, and Henry Cowell to audiences in North America, South America, and Europe. Later he received worldwide renown as a diligent and dynamic editor of music-reference works.

An incurably coy logophile, Slonimsky sometimes employs arcane jargon and foreign phrases without explanation or translation. Despite this stylistic quirk, his memoir is eminently entertaining. He scrupulously avoids mundane details in relating a wealth of stories about famous figures such as Fyodor Dostoevski, George Gershwin, and Frank Zappa, as well as such lesser-knowns as pianist Gregory Gourevitch, who performed music of Franz Liszt and Aleksandr Scriabin on a lightweight piano aboard the first passenger dirigible to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Like these anecdotes, his accounts of his family life are frequently humorous and occasionally tragic but always of interest.