Lexicon of Musical Invective

Inaugura esta sección de reseñas de libros el Lexicon of Musical Invective de Nicolas Slonimsky (1884-1995). Este director, editor y autor de obras sobre música era famoso por su agudo sentido del humor. En este texto da prueba fehaciente de ello. Slonimsky nos presenta no lo que cabría esperar -una compilación de las críticas halagüeñas- sino los exabruptos más salvajes y humorísticos de críticos, en muchos casos de gran prestigio en su tiempo. La selección de las críticas, que comprenden desde el tiempo de Beethoven hasta la mitad del siglo XX, están seleccionadas con esmero y criterio. En realidad, Slonimksy nos muestra a un crítico proclive al exceso, que se irrita con facilidad ante la música que no comprende, que está algo encumbrado, pero que posee una lengua afilada, un sentido del humor muy creativo, aunque forme parte del sarcasmo.

Slonimsky argumenta que la razón para estos excesos es el miedo a lo desconocido. Parece que ese miedo no debería estar presente en un crítico, alguien supuestamente que ejerce, obviamente, el sentido crítico, que actúa, al menos, con una fuerte voluntad de objetividad, que posee una perspectiva cultural e histórica. Pero no es así. Los críticos de este libro son humanos, demasiado humanos, y se dejan llevar por sus impulsos. Con frecuencia exhiben los mismos prejuicios y la misma carga de subjetividad que el lego más ignorante. Es divertido ver, por ejemplo, las críticas feroces de los críticos americanos hacia la música de vanguardia europea; o también la reacción de los críticos europeos a la música inspirada en estilos de Oriente. Ahí se palpa con claridad el prejuicio centrista, el que consiste en juzgar a la cultura propia como criterio exclusivo de interpretación.

Pero hay otros prejuicios tan preocupante como el centrismo cultural. El caso del crítico Philip Hale es sintomático. Este crítico escucha el Don Juan de Strauss y dice, entre otras lindezas, que "Strauss has little invention, and his muscial thoughts are of little worth". Esto ocurre en 1891. Once años después, y, suponemos, tras haber pasado por un proceso de asimilación de las ideas musicales de Strauss, en otra crítica dice que "A daring brilliant composition; one that paints the hero as might a master's brush on canvas. How expressive the themes!". Es un tema recurrente. Las cacofonías del presente son las armonías del futuro, aunque muchos críticos de esta compilación se han horrorizado ante el futuro inminente y han tratado de no que este no llegue nunca.

De vez en cuando los compositores se revuelven y devuelven la crítica. Max Reger escribió a un crítico que había sido especialmente duro con él las siguientes letras: " Estoy sentado en la habitación más pequeña de la casa. Tengo su crítica delante de mí. Dentro de un momento la tendré detrás". Muy humorística.

En la siguiente sección se muestra una pequeña selección de las críticas para que el lector se haga una idea. El libro es totalmente recomendable, una joya del humor, que a la vez nos hace reflexionar sobre el papel de la crítica y los críticos. Dejo las críticas originales en inglés para que el lector aprecie también el ingenio literario en el idioma original.

Las críticas feroces


Este crítico de The Harmonicon se queja de la longitud de una manera que mueve a la ternura.

We find Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial... The last movement, a chorus, is heterogeneus. What relation it bears to the symphony we could not make out; and here, as well as in other parts, the want of intelligible design is too apparent.

(The Harmonicon, Londres, abril de 1825)


In the preceding symphonies, the traces of the third style of Beethoven are limited to a few wrong chords, superimposed intervals of a second, the failure to prepare and to resolve dissonances. In the Seventh Symphony, the fantasm mounts. Look, for instance, at the deplorable ending of the Andante. Look, and weep! Can one imagine F sharp and G sharp accompanied by a chord of A minor! Can one imagine a musician who has the sad courage to debase in this way his own masterpiece, to throw the purest part of his genius into the hideous claws of the chimera, as one throws a bone to a dog. It is in the last movement that the figure of the chimera is completed by adding melodic ugliness to harmonic ugliness. When I heard this flayed harmony, I experienced a shudder, and a line of La Fontaine came back to my memory: On vous sangla le pauvre drille! -and they whipped the poor devil!

(A. Oulibicheff, Beethoven, ses critiques et ses glossateurs, París, 1857)


Splitting the convulsively inflated larynx of the Muse, Berg utters tortured mistuned cackling, a pandemonium of chopped-up orchestral sounds, mishandled men's throats, bestial outcries, bellowing rattling, and all other evil noises... Berg is the poisoner of the well of German music.

(Germania, Berlin, 15 de diciembre de 1925)


The retrograde movement of Brahms's produciton is striking. True, he could never rise above the mediocre; but such nothingness, hollowness, such mousy obsequiousness as in the E minor Symphony works. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest representatives. Like God Almighty, Brahms understands the trick of making something out of nothing. Enough of the hideous game! Let Brahms be content that in his E minor Symphony he has found a language which gives the most persuasive expression of his mute despair: the language of the most intensive musical impotence.

(Hugo Wolf, Salonblatt, Viena, a 31 de enero de 1886)


I met Debussy at the Café Riche the other night and was struck by the unique ugliness of the man. His face is flat, the top of the head is flat, his eyes are prominent -the expression veiled and sombre- and, altogether, with his long hair, unkept beard, uncouth clothing, and soft hat, he looked more like a Bohemian, a Croat, a Hun, than a Gaul. His high, prominent cheek bones lend a Mongolian aspect to his face. The head is brachycephalic, the hair black... Richard Strauss via the music of Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz has set the pace for the cacophonists. Since his Don Quixote there has been nothing new devised -outside of China- to split the ears of diatonic lovers... Rémy de Gourmont has written of the 'dissociation of ideas.' Debussy puts the theory into practice, for in his peculiar idiom there seems to be no normal sequence... The form itself is decomposed. Tonalities are vague, even violently unnatural to unaccustomed ears... If the Western world ever adopted Eastern tonalities, Claude Debussy would be the one composer who would manage its system, with its quarter-tones and split quarters. Again I see his curious asymmetrical face, the pointed fawn ear, the projecting cheek bones -the man is a wraith from the East; his music was heard long ago in the hill temples of Borneo; was made as a symphony to welcome the head-hunters with their ghastly spoils of war!

(James Gibbons Huneker, New York Sun, 19 de julio de 1903)


Elektra has known for some time that her papa was killed by mamma and her mamma's gentleman friend... She screams and then gets down and digs up out of the dirt the axe her papa was killed with... Her mother is afraid of her. Elektra keeps on howling... The orchestra breaks into strange and earthly noises... Muted trumpets, woodwind in the lowest register and strings leaping in intervals of ninths and sevenths mingle in a medley of sounds which gives the idea of a snarling, frightened animal. In the great scene in which Elektra accuses her mother of murdering her father, the music ends with a long shrill whistle like that of a locomotive smashing glass and china, the bursting of bottles, the clashing of shovels and tongs, the groaning and creaking of rusty hinges and stubborn doors, avalanches in the mountains, the crying of babies, the squealing of rats, the grunting of pigs, the bellowing of cattle, the howling of cats and the roaring of wild beasts... I didn't pick a tune that I should imagine would be later on included in 'Gems from the Opera for the Parlor Organ.'

(Boston Herald, el 31 de enero de 1910)


The most essential characteristic of Le Sacre du Printemps is that it is the most dissonant and the most discordant composition yet written. Never was the system and the cult of the wrong note practiced with so much industry, zeal and fury. From the first measure to the last, whatever note one expects, it is never the one that comes, but one on the side, which should not come; whatever is suggested by a preceding chord, it is another chord that is heard; and this chord and this note are used deliberately to produce the impression of acute and almost cruel discord. When two themes are superposed, far be it from the composer's mind to use themes that fit together; quite to the contrary, he chooses such themes that their superposition should produce the most irritating friction and gnashing that can be imagined.

(Pierre Lalo, le Temps, París, 3 de junio de 1913)

This outline of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a tone picture of spring-fever in a zoo, is suggested as a means for helping the uninitiated to understand and enjoy this epoch-marking work.

I. The Rebellion and Escape.

Introduction: Harbingers of rebellion; consultation of the beasts.

1.- Slaying of the keepers. Escape of the animals.
2.- The mad flight of the crowd. Sudden silence.
3.- March of the militia. Shooting, shouting and general uproar, increasing to a final abrupt climax.

II.- The return of half-starved beasts. Subdued trumpeting, braying uproaring, chattering, howling, growling, etc. Terror of the poplace. Bear's choice of a victim. The dance of death. Noisy approach of a bombing plane. Bursting of a large bomb that finishes everyone and everything suddenly.

1.- Many different keys are used here in consideration of the scientific fact that no two animals vocalize in the same key.
2.- By a frequent change of tempo, the composer ingeniously suggests the different gaits of the various animals.
3.- This gives the audience a moment's respite. It is suggested that this time be spent in repeating the formula 'Bar by bar, measure by measure, discord by discord, my ears are growing stronger and stronger.'

(Boston Herald, el 27 de enero de 1924)



After hearing Varèse's Ionization, I am anxious that you should examine my composition scored for two stove and a kitchen sink. I've named it Concussion Symphony, descriptive of the disintegration of an Irish potato under the influence of a powerful atomizer.

(Enviado por Iona Lotta Bunk a Slonimsky después de dirigir Ionization en el Hollywood Bowl el 16 de julio de 1933)


Go to top