Jazz musicians will possibly know Nicolas Slonimsky for his Thesaurus of Scale Patterns. Famously, Coltrane practised out of it and I come across musicians today who still explore it. Just the other day, I was chatting to a saxophonist about Tcherepnin’s nine-note scale (the interval pattern is half, whole, half, three times over, and it’s sort of neither major nor minor – and both).
Slonimsky was a prolific writer, and I’ve recently been revisiting his Lexicon of Musical Invective.
In this he curates two centuries worth of the most damning commentaries on composers ever committed to acid-proof paper. The reviewers are a mixed bag – some are composers in their own right, some are celebrated authors, some are irate newspaper readers, some know what they’re talking about, some… er, rather less so. Some are bitter, some are biased.
What they have in common is a shocking and often hilarious sharpness of tongue, and all of them seem to have been having a really bad day…
Here’s Alan (Jock) Dent putting the boot into Bartok’s Fourth Quartet: “The third movement began with a dog howling at midnight, proceeded to imitate the regurgitations of the less-refined … water-closet cistern, modulating thence into the mass snoring of a Naval dormitory around the dawn – and concluded inconsequently with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow.”
And here’s Hugo Wolf trolling Brahms’ Bb Piano Concerto: “[He] who can swallow this concerto with appetite, can calmly await a famine; it is to be assumed that he enjoys an enviable digestion, and … will be able to get along splendidly on the nutritive equivalent of window glass, cork stoppers, stove pipes and the like.”
The scribes at the Gazette Musicale de Paris simply couldn’t find a single scrap of melody in Rigoletto – or in fact in all of Verdi, try as they might (or most probably didn’t). But then nationalism has ever been prone to selective hearing.
Slonimsky was a champion of “modern music” and his preface (in which he runs through some of the timeless tricks of the trade for budding splenetics) is framed by the notion of hatred of the unfamiliar. Which to a certain extent we’re all prey to from time to time, no matter how adventurous our ears. You might think something is a self-indulgent incoherent ugly racket because you don’t understand it… but you never know – sometimes it might actually be a self-indulgent incoherent ugly racket.
Nor does a musician have to push the boundaries of what’s socially or physically bearable – but then critics will call them derivate and dull. Can’t win, really, so I suppose there’s nothing for it but to just get on with what we do.
As I’ve remarked before, jazz critics are a pleasant lot as a rule these days – they tend to be rather protective of their minority interest and are more likely to say nothing than something bad (it wasn’t always thus). When have you read a 1-star jazz review recently? Of course, the internet is a different story – it pulsates to the rhythm of the vicious and intemperate… wearing masks of course.
So if you’ve had an absolute monstering and are feeling a bit blue, dip into this anthology for a hair of the dog and a scandalous, guilty giggle. Or just pass a few idle moments looking up what’s been written about your favourite or least favourite composer.
You might agree with some of them, but even if you don’t, it’s interesting to realise that, for instance, Beethoven hasn’t always been universally regarded as the best thing since the invention of knees.
The London Harmonicon (yeah, that august journal – I’m none the wiser either) in particular, seems to have been written by people whose dog had been run over by a cart driven by a dishevelled German. Couldn’t have been Handel – he was shevelled, you see. Anyway, old George Fred might have been German but he was our kind of German…
NO SUCH THING AS GOOD PUBLICITY?
This book is a useful reminder that in days of old, hatchet jobs tended to be delivered with rather more elegance and wit than you tend to find online. Causing offence and outrage purely for the sake of it seems to be a growth industry these days, and more than ever a lucrative career path for those attracted to the life of the high-profile flinger of dung.
Anyway, to borrow from batty old Ludwig, if it must be so, so it must be. But there isn’t a single “u suck u f***” to be found in the Lexicon. Lesson there kiddies – if you’re going to slag someone off, at least try be articulate, and preferably amusing, while you’re about it.
Just for once, I’d like to hear of a tweet denouncing someone as “a chaotic overinflated poltroon displaying all the poetry of the manual for a washing machine” or something like that. I’m afraid “ur mom smells :p” doesn’t really count as criticism, let alone invective.