A Book for Every Musician’s Shelf: The Lexicon of Musical Invective

November 1, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Books, History | 1 Comment

Every musician, and especially every striving composer of any level of success, should have a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time as both a source of mirth and of commiseration.

Nicolas Slonimsky

Although Slonimsky was a composer, conductor, and pianist, he is more well-known and successful as a musical critic and historian — a meta-musician of a sort. He was the lead editor of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians for 34 years, from 1958 to 1992, was a keen music critic, and published numerous reference works that many musicians and especially music historians rely on today. Music Since 1900 catalogues almost every important musical event in the 20th century, and the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns was a great influence on many 20th-century musicians and composers, from John Adams to Frank Zappa.

Slonimsky was well-known for his sense of humor. (The next time you get Baker’s in your hands, look up Slonimsky to see what he says about himself.) This humorous bent, added to his overarching musical knowledge, his mental stockpile of anecdotes, and the respect he had earned in the musical community, landed him on The Tonight Show sofa next to Johnny Carson a number of times.

Slonimsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 27, 1894, and died over 101 years later, on Christmas Day, 1995.

The Lexicon of Musical Invective

lexicon: The vocabulary of a subject
invective: Insulting or abusive language

Originally published in 1953, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, then, is a collection of abusive writings about the works of the world’s greatest composers. It begins with a 30-page explanatory essay called “Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar,” followed by a one-page explanation of “How the Lexicon Was Put Together and Who Helped.” The bulk of the book, then, consists of excerpts of abusive musical critiques pulled from diaries, letters, newspapers, and magazines, arranged alphabetically by the abused composers’ names.

Struggling composers can find here a place to commiserate and to be reminded that even the best composers couldn’t please everyone all the time. With a book like this, you can flip anywhere and just start reading, and you’ll find little insulting “gems” like this:

Berlioz is fantastic in the structure of his movements—unmeaningly so—and this (to say nothing of his crude and baseless method of harmonization, and his defiance of rule and common sense in part writing), renders his music necessarily tiresome and unattractive to a polite ear.
(Musical Examiner, London, June 1, 1844) [p. 58]


We believe that Shakespeare means Debussy’s ocean when he speaks of taking up arms against a sea of troubles. It may be possible, however, that in the transit to America, the title of this work has been changed. It is possible that Debussy did not intend to call it La Mer, but Le Mal de Mer, which would at once make the tone-picture as clear as day. It is a series of symphonic pictures of sea-sickness. . . .
(Louis Elson, Boston Daily Advertiser, April 22, 1907) [p. 94–95]

Depending on your own musical opinions, you might even find some agreement in the pages of this book. The works of Schoenberg, for example, still grate on the ears of some who may agree with an assessment like this:

The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer—the only one with the possible exception of Charles Ives—who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer. . . .
(Rudolph Elie, Boston Herald, November 11, 1950) [p. 165]

Regardless, The Lexicon of Musical Invective will leave you wondering what some of these critics were thinking, and what gall they had to put pen to paper to record their thoughts for posterity.

At the end of the book, you’ll find two indexes. The second is a standard index, but the first is by itself a joy to read. Called “The Invecticon,” and certainly couched in Slonimsky’s wry humor, it indexes specific insults hurled at the world’s composers, so that we find interest-piquing entries like this:

Bruckner, 82
Wagner, 242


Strauss, 194

Later editions might also include a supplement after the second index, offering more snarkiness aimed at Beethoven, Debussy, Puccini, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Webern.

ISBN10: 039332009X ISBN13: 978-0393320091
This most recent edition (August 2000, WW Norton & Co.) includes a foreword by Slonimsky’s intellectual and comedic heir, Peter Schikele
Call Number: ML3785 .S5 2000


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  1. […] First up was “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” a piece written by John Adams in 1995 to memorialize Nicholas Slonimsky. (I wrote about Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Music Invective here.) […]

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