September 19, 1988 12:00 PM

by Nicolas Slonimsky

A minor composer, a failed conductor, a music scholar: None of these descriptions of Slonimsky would suggest that his autobiography could be so enjoyable. But Slonimsky’s keen wit and expansive mind allow him to portray the 94 years of his life in a way that sheds light on the painful birth of modern music and, in some respects, on the machinations of history. The man who played a funeral march at the service for Bolshevik leader Plekhanov, who played poker with Stravinsky in Biarritz and served as a soloist at a Frank Zappa rock concert clearly has something to talk about, and he does so vividly. Born in Russia with perfect pitch (the ability to name any note he hears), Slonimsky was baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith, along with his entire previously Jewish family, to escape persecution. As a teenager, Slonimsky became an oddball prodigy: He could play piano with his back to the instrument or perform a Chopin etude by rolling an orange on the keys. (He can still do both tricks.) As a young man, he heard Trotsky address peasants in a field and witnessed a bloody pogrom where a few inventive Jews scared off murderous attackers by banging on pots. When conditions grew intolerable, Slonimsky fled his native St. Petersburg to Kiev and Yalta and later came to the U.S. as a music teacher and private pianist to Kodak boss George Eastman. As a composer of short humorous pieces, he transformed 1920s ads for toothpaste and laxatives into operatic songs. Slonimsky may have made his greatest contribution to society by promoting the works of such modern composers as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives when they were unknowns. He also edits the reference work, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, gathering a vast amount of trivia that he shares in his book. He recalls that Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini once stopped a bad rehearsal to grab a soloist by her breasts and shout, “If only these were brains!” Though he drifts in a few skimmable spots into music theory beyond the average reader’s ken, Slonimsky keeps his book moving with ironic jabs—at himself as well as others. He ends with a countdown to 1994, when he will finish his first (and probably last) century: “I am now 7. Next year, diabolo volente, I will be 6. In 1994 I will be zero. On this hopeful note, I conclude my rueful autopsy.” (Oxford, $21.95)

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