Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Nicolas Slonimsky

Nicolas Slonimsky (1893-1995)
Nicolas Slonimsky (1893-1995)

My Music History Monday post of November 25 last discussed, among other things, the role of the critic. Over the course of that post I asserted that “painful to the critical community though it may be, the fact remains that the surest way for a critic to be remembered is to get it wrong.” 

That statement led me to mention one of my very favorite musical resources:

“There is a wonderful book that I cannot live without entitled Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, gathered and edited by Nicolas Slonimsky, which catalogs all the worst things said about all our favorite composers.” 

Every music lover should own this book, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a wonderful, even inspiring read. A true critical bashing doesn’t just consist of saying that something was bad; no, way more often than not, the critics featured in the Lexicon launch their poison pens on flights of truly brutal, vituperative ugliness. For example, Eduard Hanslick’s famous (infamous!) review of the world premiere of Peter Tchaikovsky’s wonderful Violin Concerto in D, a review published in Vienna in the Neue Freie Presse on December 5, 1881, concludes this way:

“. . . Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.” (Page 207 of my University of Washington Press edition of Lexicon of Musical Invective.)

Dude: we get it; you didn’t like the concerto. But did you have to be a pig about it? The answer, of course, is yes, which is why the review is still quotable 138 years after it was written. (Predictably, our amusement over Hanslick’s review was Tchaikovsky’s pain: he was so devastated by the review that he was able to recite it, word-for-word in the original German, to the day he died.)

The point: it’s great fun to read a really well written, really mean-spirited bad review, especially if we know that in the end, it is the critic him/herself who has proven to be the loser.Continue reading, only on Patreon

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