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Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time Paperback – August 17, 2000

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About the Author

Nicolas Slonimsky, pianist, composer, conductor, author, lexicographer, jingle writer, and parent who spoke Latin to his daughter, died in 1996 at the age of 100.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; New Ed edition (August 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039332009X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393320091
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #544,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Bob Zeidler on May 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
...is a "fresher" expression for Nicholas Slonimsky's introduction, "Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar," to this howler of a compendium of musical criticism.

In a nutshell, this book is a collection of excerpts from reviews, commentary and correspondence regarding the music of forty-three composers over a 150-year span, beginning with Beethoven and ending (approximately) with Bartók, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. While most of the composers are well-known, some (Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles, Edgar Varèse) are hardly household names. For the most part, the commentary closely follows, in time, the premieres of the works described. (In some cases, this may be years after their original premieres. It often took, in times past, years for the works to get from "the country of origin" to the venues that were the domains of the reviewers and critics. History - and this book - have shown that this extra time was not necessarily an asset in evaluating the works more accurately.)

A quick page count by composer shows that Wagner (at 27 pages), Schoenberg (at 20 pages), Stravinsky (at 19 pages), Strauss (at 16 pages), and Debussy (at 15 pages) come under the greatest critical scrutiny, or, in retrospect, the greatest "fear of the unknown." Surprisingly, other "true revolutionaries" come off somewhat better: Berlioz (at 5 pages), Mahler (at 4 pages), to name two. Even "universally-loved" composers who wrote music which these days is commonly considered accessible don't escape the critics' wrath: Bizet, Brahms, Puccini, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky are some who didn't exactly become accepted overnight.

It's not as if these music critics "who blew it" didn't know their field appropriately.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
I first heard about Nicolas Slonimsky's collection of scathing reviews of brilliant music on a 1992 episode of the radio show Schickele Mix, the first time that a radio show prompted me to rush out and buy a reference book. It was difficult to find a copy of the book then, and even more difficult later when it went out of print, so how nice it is to have it back in print in this new edition, and how even nicer that the new edition contains a new forward by the same Peter Schickele whose radio show introduced me to the book all those years ago.
The radio show turned out to be but a small sampling of the many hundreds of classical music reviews that were collected by Slonimsky into this volume. In its entirety it is really amazing how many different negative reviews have been written about music now often considered masterpieces, and what amount of wit and creativity went into these insults. However, the radio show had the advantage of being able to play recordings of the music along with the reviews to highlight the disparity between how we hear these pieces today and what they sounded like to selected critics when they were new. So although many readers may gain amusement merely from reading these reviews, much as my friend who watched Siskel and Ebert just for the enjoyment of hearing them argue, they are much more amusing and insightful if you are somewhat familiar with the composers and music reviewed or if you pick up some recordings of the pieces described. It would be even better if it was possible to get an audio version of this book with music samples, perhaps based on that radio program.
This is not a book for reading straight through in one sitting, but for checking out a few reviews at a time.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Robert Pomicter Jr. on August 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
A favorite book by all of our music school staff members, this collection of witty and razor-tongued "reviews" by critics is sure to please the classical music lover!
The introduction by Peter Shickele (a.k.a. P.D.Q. Bach) is equally brilliant and the wonderful "index of invectives" only adds to the great humor of this work, as well as providing a great way for younger music students to "enter" into the this work for some "instant" insight!
It should be stated, however, that some familiarity with the works of the many composers included in this book is a must... otherwise the humor is lost.
The book could have been improved, perhaps, by arranging the composers in a chronological order, or by time period, rather than alphabetically as much of the invectives seem to be the product of one major factor: the inability for the minds of critics to understand musical progress!
Well written, engaging, and always a delight to read and re-read!
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Format: Paperback
Nicolas Slonimsky's LEXICON OF MUSICAL INVECTIVE collects those critical reviews of composers from Beethoven's time which proved "biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgements". It's handily arranged in alphabetic order by composer, so while listening to, say, Bela Bartok's first piano concerto, you can amuse yourself with a 1928 review from the Cincinnati Enquirer:

"Mr. Bartok elected to play his composition dignified by the title Concerto for Pianoforte and Orchestra. Note the ommission of key. Ultra-moderns cannot be bothered with such trifling designations ... It has been said that the Concerto is based on folk tunes. They have been successfully concealed. Only tonal chaos arises from the diabolical employment of unrelated keys simultaneously."

A 1913 review from the Boston Journal manages to make unprophetic judgements about two composers in one go:

"For the most part the latest symphony [the Sibelius Fourth] from the pen of Finland's foremost composer is a tangle of the most dismal dissonances. It eclipses the saddest and sourest moments of Debussy."

In addition to these citations, Slonimsky offers his own analysis of critical tendencies in the opening essay "Non-Acceptance of the Familiar". To the elderly among the old critics, Slonimsky notes, new music always seems louder than what they are used to. They also often resorted to linguistic similes, comparing new music to "Chinese", a then-handy symbol of incomprehensibility. He gives some general anecdotes about the world of music reviewing, such as a Russian journalist writing a review on Prokofiev's "Scythian Suite" before the concert even took place--he was fired when the review appeared but the piece had actually be taken off the programme at the last minute.
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