You Shall Know the Tooth and The Tooth Shall Set You Free

March 23, 2007 at 10:00 am 1 comment

You find some strange things in archives.  Shopping lists, unsent letters, candid photos, clippings on the verge of dust…  I recently happened upon the following:

Item: Unsealed envelope, business size, white.

Contents: One tooth, fake (porcelain?), appears to be a central or lateral incisor.  [note: I’m not dental expert]  It has been stained with use and age and even has a painted on false gum line.   There is a small metal brace coming out of the back of it.

What makes this particular item so interesting is what is scrawled on the outside of the envelope:

Inscription: “An artificial tooth formerly ornamenting the oral cavity of Nicolas Slonimsky, noted musicologist.

Catalogue value: $00.01

Sentimental value: $00.02”

Slonimsky remains a much celebrated scholar and his work is central to our continued investigation of music and its reception in twentieth-century America.  As one of the foremost “musical lexicographers” (Slonimsky’s term), much of his writing is readily available and accessible. Some of this was of his own doing, such as the single-sentence entries of Music Since 1900 (5th edition, 1994).  Others have taken it upon themselves to organize his multi-sentence essays into compilation form, such as Nicholas Slonimsky: The First Hundred Years (edited by Richard Kostelanetz, 1994) or Nicholas Slonimsky: Writings on Music (edited by Electra Slonimsky Yourke, 2005).  As one of the most active musicians and prolific musical commentators of the twentieth century, it is understandable that his work has become so prominent and so often referenced.  However, at the same time, it is precisely because of this status that his voice continues to be privileged above others.  While we are fortunate enough to have volumes (literally) of his writings, organized and indexed, the fact remains that many voices remain obscured – including those closest to him when he got his authorial start.

In 1925, Slonimsky came to Boston to assist Serge Koussivitsky.  As Slonimsky put it in his self-authored Baker’s entry, after he was “fired for insubordination in 1927,” he “learned to speak polysyllabic English and began writing music articles for the Boston Evening Transcript and the Christian Science Monitor.”* He wrote feature pieces for the much celebrated music-drama editor, Henry Taylor Parker (aka H.T.P.) at the Transcript.  It was there that Slonimsky came to know Isaac Goldberg.  Before and after becoming branded as “Gershwin’s first biographer,” Goldberg was an extremely active Boston-based critic.  He wrote essays on music, art, and theatre both at home and abroad.  Unfortunately, much of Goldberg’s work remains buried in un-indexed periodicals, some of which are currently only available on microfilm.  [Goldberg’s work as a music critic is an ongoing project of mine and something I plan to address further on future posts.]  The situation is different, however, for another of Slonimsky’s Boston-based associates, Mrs. Frances Sharf Fink. Which brings us back to that tooth…

I happened upon Slonimsky’s incisor, not in the Slonimsky collection at the Library of Congress, as one might expect (does one really ever expect to find a tooth?), but rather among the Frances Sharf Fink collection in Harvard University’s Houghton Library.  Who was Frances Fink and why did she have Slonimsky’s tooth?  Like Goldberg, she was a Boston-based author and critic.  She wrote on art and was a frequent contributor to not only the Christian Science Monitor (where she and Slonimsky may have first met), but also The Boston Herald and The Jewish Advocate (where she was also an editor).  Unlike Goldberg, a majority of her published writings were gathered into various clippings folders as a part of her collected materials at Harvard.  A quick review of these articles reveals that in addition to writing about art, Fink also produced record reviews (called “Disc-Courses”) and covered the Boston Yiddish theatre scene (a realm that became increasingly important in the years preceding World War II, especially given the distinctive environment of inter-war Jewish Boston.).

In addition to the clippings, the Frances Sharf Fink collection contains a great deal of correspondence.   For example, in preparation for a two-part “disc-courses” series on the recordings of George Gershwin, the enterprising Fink wrote to Gershwin (then in LA with less than a year to live) regarding the dating of his orchestral manuscripts.  She received two very helpful letters from the composer which reveal that Stravinsky was also involved in the project: “I would be happy to see what you and Mr. Stravinsky are writing.  Please put me down as a subscriber if it is to be published.”** Also found in this collection are more than fifty letters over a period of thirty years from Slonimsky to Frances Fink, which reveal both a personal and professional relationship.

In his 1988 autobiography Perfect Pitch, many of Slonimsky’s early Boston associates receive treatment, including what may be the only currently available account of Isaac Goldberg during these years.*** Given this, it is surprising that Slonimsky doesn’t mention his friendship with Fink or her work as a writer.

So, why did Fink have the tooth? Not being familiar with Slonimsky’s hand, I can not say for certain who wrote the tooth’s catalog information on the envelope.  However, it would be well worth someone’s time to look further into the Fink collection.  Not simply for her connection to Slonimsky, but for what she has to offer us in her own right.  I get the sense that an examination of her work would provide an important, non-New York, non-masculine perspective to musical and artistic discourse of the period.

One final note about the tooth:  While it appears that Slonimsky depended on Frances during the early part of his career, in the end, what he really needed was help from her husband, Nathan Fink, who, as it so happens, was a dentist.  -rrb-

* Nicholas Slonimsky, ed. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Eighth Edition (New York: Schirmer, 1990):1726.

** Folder 4: Gershwin, George, 1898-1937 – 3 letters to Frances Sharf Fink; 1936. Frances Sharf Fink Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

*** Nicolas Slonimsky, Perfect Pitch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988): 94-95.

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1 Comment

  • 1. amusicology  |  November 13, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Original comment made by Drew Massey at 2007-03-24 06:46

    Teeth Are Awesome
    Fink’s tooth-collecting also seems like a kickback to the souvenir culture of the 19th-century — see for example the collecting of loved ones’ hair as a way of remembering them.

    At the same time, Slonimsky’s tooth raises issues of the present-day scholar’s self-positioning towards the archive. What can we conclude about the tooth? In what way should we be skeptical or generous towards a previous person’s “archive fever”? How, precisely, does ephemera such as this fit in to a thoroughgoing historical narrative, which tends to priviledge documents like letters, diaries, etc? And so on. Drawing just from the recent “Bernstein’s Boston” conference, I’m struck by how difficult it is to come to terms with ephemera-based archival stuff, like looking at Bernstein’s doodles, or his hair company…


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