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Nicholas Slonimsky

The First Recordings of Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives

by Jed Distler

In an age where compact disc reissues have escalated to unprecedented proportions, one category of historic recordings remains relatively unexplored. Few reissue labels have tapped into the considerable, if not comprehensive, wealth of twentieth century music recorded during the 78 era. Quite a few of these works were recorded within close proximity to their world premières. One will often find the composer participating either in a performing or supervisory capacity. More significantly, these recordings offer first hand evidence of how interpreters deal with music for which no performing tradition exists.

Several cogent examples of this can be gleamed from a handful of discs dating from the early thirties that constitute the first commercial recordings of music by Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives. They were led by a young, Boston based Russian émigré named Nicholas Slonimsky, better known in his later years as a musical lexicographer, and author of the classic Lexicon of Musical Invective, an anthology of bad reviews throughout history of works that have since come to be regarded as masterpieces.

Ironically, it was precisely this kind of criticism that helped thwart Nicholas Slonimsky's meteoric and regrettably short lived conducting career. In the late twenties and early thirties Slonimsky specialized in radical and, as they were called, "ultra-modern" works by American and Latin American composers. An advocate of cutting edge figures like Ives, Varèse, Henry Cowell, and Carl Ruggles, Slonimsky devised unorthodox methods to achieve accurate performances of their music, such as beating two meters simultaneously with each hand.

Slonimsky often downplayed his musical accomplishments, and jokingly referred to himself as a "failed wunderkind" on more than one occasion. Yet he had everything from the beginning: absolute pitch, a steel trap musical memory, and an extraordinary talent for sight reading orchestral scores at the piano. Following stints as Serge Koussevitsky's secretary and rehearsal pianist, first in Paris and then in Boston, Slonimsky himself began to conduct in earnest, polishing his craft with the Harvard University Symphony Orchestra. Eventually he worked up the confidence to form his own group, the Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Word got around about a new ensemble that promoted contemporary music, and dozens of composers came out of the woodwork, offering scores. One of Slonimsky's main contacts was the tone cluster pioneer Henry Cowell, who in turn introduced the conductor to Charles Ives. In his autobiography Perfect Pitch, Slonimsky remembered his first encounter with Ives' Three Places in New England:

"As I looked over the score, I experienced a strange, but unmistakable, feeling that I was looking at a work of genius. I cannot tell precisely why this music produced such an impression on me. The score possessed elements that seemed to be mutually incompatible and even incongruous: a freely flowing melody derived from American folk-songs, set in harmonies that were highly dissonant, but soon resolving into clearances of serene, cerulean beauty in triadic formations that created a spiritual catharsis."

Slonimsky gave Three Places In New England its world première at New York's Town Hall on January 10th, 1931, with the composer present. Later that year Ives financed two Slonimsky concerts in Paris given over to new American music. Along with the Ives work, Slonimsky programmed Integrales by Edgard Varèse, the composer whose non-linear forms and use of percussion as a structural rather decorative element had far-reaching influence on composers as diverse as Elliott Carter and Frank Zappa. Varèse worked extensively behind the scenes to promote these concerts, setting up interviews and helping establish artistic contacts for Slonimsky Ives also underwrote the conductor's return to Europe the following year for concerts in France, Germany, and Hungary. Slonimsky guest conducted Furtwängler's Berlin Philharmonic in works by Ives, Cowell, Ruggles, Varèse, and the Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán. Although audience opinion was greatly divided, the musicians were wholeheartedly enthusiastic, and reviews were ecstatic.

If the Berlin concerts were a major stepping stone of his conducting career, the crowning glory was probably the world première of Varèse's Ionisation . The event took place in New York, March 6th, 1933, on a concert presented by the Pan American Association of Composers. Varèse founded the organization in 1926, whose membership included both Cowell and Slonimsky. Composed two years earlier, and dedicated to Slonimsky, Ionisation is scored for thirteen players who maneuver their way through an arsenal of percussion instruments, from Chinese blocks and gongs of all sizes, to a colorful array of hand percussion and police sirens, the latter a Varèse trademark.

According to the composer's definition, ionisation is the process by which an atom liberates an electron, thereby assuming a positive electrical charge. The free electron travels until it is trapped by another atom, which then assumes a negative charge. Whether or not this process is literally depicted in the music, up to then no one had composed a score that explored non-pitched properties of sound with such intellectual rigor and timbral sensitivity. Varèse manipulates the listener's perception of attack, decay, and sonority by calibrating the multi-leveled strands of rhythmic counterpoint with consummate skill and elegance. In a letter dated December 17th, 1931 Varèse described Ionisation to harpist Carlos Salzedo as being "cryptic, synthesized, powerful and terse. And as for the structure: stunning mechanics."

The work generated enough controversy to arouse the interest of Columbia Records. Although the composer was not present for the world première, he arrived in New York in time to supervise preparations for the recording. Slonimsky recalled the session in his autobiography:

"We engaged the percussion players from the New York Philharmonic, but it soon became clear that they could never master the rhythms. In desperation, we appealed to fellow composers to take over the task; to them the Varèsian rhythm was child's play. As a result, my ensemble was star-studded. Carlos Salzedo, the great harpist, played the thematically important Chinese blocks. Paul Creston was at the anvils. Wallingford Riegger rubbed the güiro. Henry Cowell pounded tone-clusters on the piano keyboard. William Schumann, then a mere youngster, pulled the cord of the lion's roar."

Last but not least, Varèse himself manned the sirens, borrowed for the session from a retired New York City fireman.

The recording captures a considerable amount of detail, although the ambience is rather faded and drab. However, the microphone placement favors certain instruments above others, obscuring the overall balance. The crucial quintuplet figures played by the Chinese blocks, for instance, stick out to a fault, and the quasi-military motifs assigned to the tambour major dominate the texture at points when it should murmur in the background. Moreover, the snares don't resonate well in the dry acoustic, and overload the recording signal at loud moments. On the other hand, the cymbals and gongs are well reproduced, and the slightly distant sirens give depth to the sonic picture. The entrance of the chimes and piano towards the end is one of my favorite moments here. Slonimsky balances the passage in such a way that one barely notices that pitched instruments have entered into the raucous fray of sound.

A few minor textual notes: Slonimsky's tempo approximates quarter note=69, which Varèse had slowed down from quarter note=80, as originally printed. The Chinese Cymbal and Gong are heard at rehearsal numbers 7 and 8, instruments that the composer later replaced at that point with a cowbell.

While the full resplendence of Varèse's sound world is better realized on recordings of recent vintage, the Slonimsky performance played no small role in enhancing Varèse's reputation, and deserves a first class transfer (a mid 70s LP reissue on the American Finnadar label was hardly that). The record made an impact in unexpected ways too. As Slonimsky duly noted in his entry on Varèse in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, a group of scientists working on the atom bomb at Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1940 played the Ionisation record for relaxation and stimulation in their work.

More successful from a sonic standpoint were the two Ives works recorded for New Music Quarterly Recordings. The New Music Quarterly was founded by Henry Cowell in 1927. It was a subscription publication that published otherwise unobtainable scores by emerging young composers such as Henry Brant, Carlos Chavez, Ruth Crawford, Lou Harrison, Wallingford Riegger, Dane Rudhyar, and Stefan Wolpe, as well as elder statesmen like Ruggles and Ives. Similarly, New Music Quarterly Recordings (henceforth NMQR) was formed with the intention of documenting these and other new American works for which major labels saw no commercial potential. Subscribers received four twelve inch, double sided discs per year, while non-subscribers could purchase single discs through the Gramophone Shop in New York, a major outlet at the time for rare, esoteric items and hard to find imports.

Following the release of the first two NMQR discs, which featured chamber music by Crawford, Riegger, Chavez, and Adolph Weiss, plans were made for Slonimsky to conduct "Barn Dance," an excerpt from Washington's Birthday, for which he had given the world première in San Francisco on September 3rd, 1933, and "In The Night," the third piece from Theater Set for Chamber Orchestra. The second side of the disc would contain music by Ruggles – "Lilacs," from Men and Mountains, followed by the song Toys, sung by soprano Judith Litante, accompanied by Henry Brant at the piano.

In her painstakingly thorough dissertation on Henry Cowell's New Music projects, Rita Mead provides extensive documentation on the NMQR Ives/Ruggles session, which took place May 16, 1934 at Capitol Sound Studios in New York City. A few sources credit Slonimsky for conducting "Lilacs," but it was actually led by Charles Lichter, concertmaster for several of the Pan American concerts. Ives intention was to have Slonimsky conduct all three works. Ruggles, however, was dead set against Slonimsky's participation, having been dissatisfied with past performances. Furthermore, Wallingford Riegger felt that Lichter knew the works better than Slonimsky, and asked Ives, who was financing the project, for approval. Ives was not happy with the decision, but a compromise was reached whereby Slonimsky would conduct the Ives pieces, and Lichter take charge in "Lilacs".

Ives relayed meticulous performance instructions to Riegger: "(Barn dance) is a rough dance, and the strings should fiddle it & not "play it too nice" with accents they kind of dig into – down bow & not glide into pretty – you know what I mean." The composer's description of the amorphous and serene "In The Night" is especially touching: "The whole piece is but an attempt to get a simple picture of darkness, silence, the loneliness of an old man who has lost everything but his faith, and night sounds."

By all accounts, the principal participants were happy with the final results. The Ives selections were reissued in 1971 on an American Orion LP, ORD 7150, in a filtered transfer that hardly suggests the crisp impact of the original 78 pressing. "Barn Dance" is preceded by a few, slow introductory measures from the previous section (rehearsal letter L), which Ms. Mead justifiably hears as being out of context. I actually like the sudden shift of mood and style when the dance starts, since abrupt transitions of this kind are typical Ivesian fingerprints. The orchestra digs into the music with gusto and delicious accentuation, even though a few of the metric sticky-wickets are rather touch and go. Still, the individual lines are clearly audible, and much of the playing is deliciously characterized, like the zany piccolo flourish two bars before letter S. Listeners will have no trouble identifying fleeting quotes from "Camptown Races", "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow", and "Turkey In The Straw." As for "In The Night", Ives had suggested that a trombone be added to the solo cellos playing the hymn tune "Abide With Me" towards the end, but they are reproduced as written – "distinct but not loud." Slonimsky also prolongs the final measure. One would be hard pressed to find two contrasting excerpts that capsulize Ives' aesthetic more succinctly than these. Certainly they were an apt choice for record buyers coming to Ives for the first time.

The recordings are also fascinating from a standpoint of instrumental and vocal style. The extended horn solo in "In The Night", for example, is played with a fairly consistent, quick vibrato that is typical of the popular, salon orchestras of that era. Occasional portamenti from the strings are a carry over from romantic performance practice, and actually give the music an added poignancy. Interestingly enough, the portamenti do not lend themselves as well to Ruggles leaner, more austere style, and the slightly more distant pickup, plus Lichter's shapeless conducting, do scant justice to the music. Similarly with "Toys," Judith Litante's rolled "r"s and odd placement of vowels seem stylistically incongruent, although her diction is excellent and intonation squeaky clean (the concluding high B is sensational). Henry Brant's incisive but supportive accompaniment is a big plus.

The final recording Slonimsky made for NMQR was dedicated to the phonographic premier of Varèse's Oct André, written in 1923. The 1938 recording is not quite up to the best sonic standards of the day, and the performance, though competent enough, lacks the inner rhythm, melodic subtext, and care with dynamics that characterize the best modern recorded versions. But the unidentified trombonist is wonderful, and those glissando licks in the second movement have never sounded more lascivious.

Slonimsky's conducting career came to a virtual halt when he was released from his contract to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a series of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Slonimsky mentioned that these concerts were broadcast, and that he spoke on the radio during intermission. One wonders if air-checks exist. What does exist is a snippet of silent movie footage from the Hollywood Bowl, showing the conductor in action, but no one yet has figured out what he's conducting. Audiences and critics were unsympathetic to this kind of music, and their antipathy made itself felt at the box office.

He went on to become the world's foremost musical lexicographer, chiefly for his editorship of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Slonimsky's insatiable passion for accuracy, together with an irrepressible wit and keen sense of irony resulted in a reference book whose entries are as playful and lively as they are inexorably reliable. One suspects, however, that Nicholas Slonimsky's greatest musical fulfillment in his later years, was to witness not only the vindication but also a newfound popularity for the composers he had stubbornly championed in his youth.


Varèse: Ionisation. Pan American Chamber Orchestra. Columbia A 4095N

Ives: Barn Dance, from Washington's Birthday; In The Night from Theater Set for Orchestra. Pan American Chamber Orchestra. New Music Quarterly Recordings 1013A/B

Varèse: Oct André. New Music Quarterly Recordings 1411A/B

(Published In the Autumn 1996 issue of International Classical Record Collector/Gramophone)

Copyright © 1997, Jed Distler.