Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was a many-faceted American composer of great originality and a music critic of singular brilliance. Utilizing a musical style marked by sharp wit and overt playfulness, he composed in almost every genre of music, producing a highly original body of work rooted in American speech rhythms and hymnbook harmony. His music was influenced by Satie’s ideals of clarity, simplicity, irony, and humor. Though mostly diatonic and tonal in feeling, some of his work was densely chromatic (Three Tone Poems) and even 12-tone in organization (A Solemn Music).
Born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 25, 1896, Thomson was imbued with a strong sense of place—of rootedness in heartland America and its Protestant traditions. His early connection to music came through the church, through piano lessons beginning at age 5, and stints accompanying theatricals and silent films. The music he heard was part and parcel of the wide world around him: Civil War songs, cowboy songs, the blues, barn-dance music, Baptist hymns, folk songs, popular songs, in addition to the canons of Western art music that he studied. After attending high school and a local junior college, he joined the army and was stationed in New York City. He was also trained in radio telephony at Columbia University and in aviation at a pilots’ ground school in Texas. He was set for embarkation for France when the war ended.
In 1919, he enrolled as a student at Harvard. There he worked as an assistant to his counterpoint teacher, Archibald Davison, who was also the director of the Harvard Glee Club, and he studied composition with Edward Burlingame Hill. Both men whetted Thomson’s curiosity for all things French and helped Thomson secure a fellowship to travel to Paris in 1921, where he studied organ and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger, and met Cocteau, Stein, Stravinsky and Satie, among many others. Returning to Harvard in 1922, he graduated in 1923.
For the next few years he traveled between New York and Boston where he served as organist for the King’s Chapel, and he began to contribute serious music journalism to publications like Mencken’s American Mercury and Vanity Fair.
It was not long, however, before Europe would once again exert its call, and in 1925 he returned to Paris, where he lived, apart from visits to the US, until 1940.
In 1927 he journeyed to Spain to collaborate with Gertrude Stein on their opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which they completed in 1928. The opera received its premiere in Hartford in 1934 with an all-black cast in an extraordinary visual production with choreography by Frederick Ashton. Thomson created scores to The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River (films by Pare Lorentz), and Louisiana Story (film by Robert Flaherty) during 1936 and 1937. During the 1930’s and beyond, he also produced ballet scores, incidental music for the theater, and musical portraits, a genre in which he created more than 140 works. Thomson was the first composer to write the portrait in the subject’s presence, as a painter would do, and indeed as Gertrude Stein had produced her literary portraits. Revised later very seldom, a portrait was a spontaneous, intuitive act for Thomson.
Returning to New York in 1940, he settled into his final home, the Chelsea Hotel, and accepted a job as chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, a position he held until 1951. His second opera with Stein, The Mother of Us All, based on the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony, premiered in 1947. Much later, the critic Andrew Porter would write in the pages of the New Yorker that he considered The Mother of Us All one of the greatest American operas. In 1948 Thomson created the score for the film Louisiana Story, which won the Pulitzer Prize in music that year. After his resignation from the Tribune he devoted himself to a third opera, Lord Byron, and to writing his autobiography in 1966 and his book American Music Since 1910 in 1971. Until the end of his life, he continued to compose, travel widely, lecture at universities, publish articles, and conduct.
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, his many honors and awards included a Brandeis Award, the gold medal for music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Book Circle Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and 20 honorary doctorates.