Virgil Thomson - Vignettes of His Life and Times
by Paul Wittke
II. The Musician
Four Saints in Three Acts
Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-33), the first of the two Thomson-Stein operas, is the most abstruse. Stein conceived her libretto during her hermetic period, as Thomson was positioning himself in the Erik Satie-Kansas City orbit. He had apprenticed himself by setting Stein's "Susie Asado" (voice and piano, 1926), "Preciosilla" (1927), and one of his early successes, "Capital, Capitals" (four male singers and piano, 1927), and felt he was now ready to wrestle with an opera. Stein was charmed and flattered when he suggested a large-scale work, and enthusiastically agreed.
Since there is no plot or formal structure -- except that imposed upon it by Maurice Grosser with Stein's consent -- does the opera make any sense or is it just an elaborate intellectual prank? Does it have any meaning? Thomson says the slightly zany libretto is about many things, but that fundamentally the activity of 21 (not four) saints in four acts (not three) is an allegory of the quotidian life of creative people like themselves, enjoying life in contemporary Paris. The characters, the singing nuns and monks, are artists who gaily concentrate all their efforts on nonmaterialistic matters such as writing an opera or milling around in heaven, uninhibitedly striving to be saints.
Stein has never been explicit about the meaning of her text; gives no clues to the idiosyncratic components of the piece -- riddles, rhymes, children's games, jingles, repetition, numbers, names, non-sentences, words in no logical order, to mention only a few. Some phrases have become classics of the English language: "How many doors are floors are there in it," "Pigeons on the grass alas if they were not pigeons what were they," "To know to know to love her so," "Saint Theresa half in half out of doors," "What is the difference between a picture and pictured," "Four saints it makes it well fish."
Stein loved Spain, its people, its landscape, and its saints. This is rather odd, for she told Thomson and others that she had no religious belief and denied a hereafter. If this were really true, why did Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong companion, also Jewish, years after Stein's death, convert to Catholicism so that she could be reunited with her "beloved"? She must have known something Stein would not reveal to Thomson or anyone else.
Thomson always believed that Stein, who was not immune to jealousy, pictured herself as Saint Theresa, and James Joyce, whom she considered her only living literary rival, was Saint Ignatius.
With whom was Thomson consciously (or unconsciously) competing? He only admits the score was an homage to Kansas City. But he is explicit about how he responded to Stein's text and how he found an appropriate music for it. The deceptive, bland style of his diatonic harmony and plagal cadences refers deliberately to the Protestant hymnal, and the many parlando passages make a sly reference to Anglo-Saxon liturgical chant. The music is a potpourri of tempo changes and sounds -- a Baptist choir and its accompanying harmonium, waltzes, patter songs, tangos, foxtrots, sentimental parlor songs, folk dances, street music, ragtime, marches -- the sonic life of 19th-century mid-western America. It is a witty reverent-irreverent commentary and elaboration of the text. Except for a few places, he avoided dissonance because it would have been inappropriate to the ebullience of the text and would have retarded the energy implicit in the movements of the words and pauses between them. The music annotates the text; it does not sit on top of it. It is not an underpinning or a description of mood or emotion of which there is none in the opera. There is only a feeling of a constant interior movement of happiness: behind the static activity on the stage, the saints are bubbling over with life, having a grand time. No wonder the simplicity of the score was baffling and controversial when it was first performed in 1934. Thomson's music is a jolly partner of this jolly romp. His setting of Stein's text is adroit as a tightrope walker; he never flubs a beat of her prose rhythm and does so without parodying her cubistic manner. He found an equally original solution of his own, understood her unusual style, and forged an equally singular style to allow her words to come through.
Admittedly, the text is more outrageous, but Thomson's pokerfaced score is just as eccentric. Thomson and Stein were solipsists, fully aware of what they were doing and how they were doing it. Their supposed innocence is specious but adds to the sense of fun once we are aware of the sleight-of-hand trick they are performing.
An underlying stratum of the opera is its theme of a desire to return to a lost Eden (a wish Thomson never abandoned); it gives a fairy-tale polish, an idyllic sheen of a Golden Age. These two Americans in Paris had a deep-rooted nostalgia for their young years, memories hidden under layers of cosmopolitan sophistication. It is perhaps the reason that there is no tension, conflict, or evil in the opera. It is a carnival of childlike, not childish, religious mysticism by two supposedly nonreligious people.
Thomson's nothing-on-the-page score (a Thomson trademark), written at a period when harmonic and rhythmic complexity was all the rage, was considered either reactionary or revolutionary. But no one denied its American authenticity. Today we wonder what the furor was all about.
Although written nearly 70 years ago, Four Saints is still original, fresh, and controversial and did change the course of American opera. Only in recent years are there signs of appreciation for what Stein and Thomson have done. A few figures such as Philip Glass and John Cage have openly acknowledged their theatrical debt to Thomson. Their music and librettos are of course more advanced and very different, but the thrust of their dramaturgy is not. Thomson's music per se has no followers. His age and its specific problems are long since past, and no one will ever duplicate the guile of his not-simple-at-all simplicity. Besides, the combination of two such rare, droll, and outlandish creators like Stein and Thomson are infrequent in the history of culture and in the history of early 20th-century modernism. Their fortunate partnership was unique. They were made for each other.
The Mother of Us All
The Mother of Us All, written 20 years later, has many of the attributes of Four Saints but is a richer, more mature, work. Humorous as the opera is, there is a sobriety, a serenity quite different from the shimmering spontaneity of its predecessor. Stein and Thomson have not abandoned their wit, gaiety, and irreverence but the fun and games of the Parisian twenties are over. The ruder world of 1947 has become obtrusive, its creators wiser and disillusioned.
The libretto is more coherent, both verbally and dramatically, almost has a story line, a sea change from the dada activities of Four Saints. Stein is no longer as Steinish and Virgil Thomson once again skillfully shaped his score to her almost naturalistic text. The music is an amplification of the grab-bag style of Four Saints, but the hand is firmer, more self-assured and audacious, if not quite as buoyant. It is even more American, consisting of the same assortment of sentimental ballads, hymns, waltzes, etc., to which are added trumpet calls, circus band music, drum rolls, fanfares, and oratorical slogans to capture the rambunctiousness of the political arena. As in Four Saints all the music is of his own invention. Here he is more 20th-century, writing impressionistic, descriptive music (the Snow Scene in particular), love duets, trios, wedding and funeral music.
The score, like Four Saints, is far more than a parade of American vernacular set pieces. There is an overall architecture that gives cohesion and substance to this work -- a firm theatrical unity. The variety of the music, its mathematical balance, the precision and logic of its movement, the color of the orchestration, and Thomson's by now famous musical affinity for setting Stein's texts make this work sui generis.
The opera is ostensibly about the career and dedication of Susan B. Anthony to the 19th-century activities of women's rights told by Stein in her own unique and charming way. The people in her version are anachronistic. Few, if any, had any relationship to Susan; John Adams died 20 years before Lillian Russell was born; Ulysses S. Grant discusses Dwight D. Eisenhower; the debate between Daniel Webster and Susan never took place; they probably never met. Other 19th-century figures -- Andrew Jackson, Anthony Comstock, Thaddeus Stevens -- never knew or were aware of each other. Some characters were close friends of Stein -- Constance Fletcher, a playwright (in the opera loved by John Adams), and the Yale librarian, Donald Gallup, who would later oversee the publication of her posthumous works.
Beneath all the folderol on the stage, a rumbling sense of desperation is evident. The raucous energy of the political meetings, the give and take of debates, the wry comments of the characters, even the tender love scenes, cannot hide the fact that change is in the air. It is this double awareness of inaction in action that makes the opera so compelling. By some mysterious alchemical process, only Stein and Thomson together could achieve this active stasis. Odd as these operas are, they have a touching human quality, and in this one the two collaborators reveal their hearts on their sleeves. Virgil Thomson let his guard down and wrote some very, for him, intimate if formal and restrained love music (certainly not Tristan and Isolde -- he was a cool customer, not an overheated romantic). But then the lovers didn't even live in the same century. Thomson's music in these scenes of Victorian ardor adumbrates the style of equivalent situations in Lord Byron.
Stein's libretto has a cutting edge: it does not have the naive blithe spirit of Four Saints. Like Thomson, she knew the America they both loved was gone forever and wrote a moving and eloquent valentine to rural America at the turn of the century. On another level she used political hoopla as a shield to tacitly admit that possibly her life was not quite the success she had so belligerently proclaimed it to be; maybe she was not the savior of 20th-century literature or even one of its blazing pioneers. The end of the opera, the resignation of Susan B. Anthony -- and Thomson wrote some lovely music for it -- points to this possible conclusion. Susan's last words, "Life is strife, I am a martyr all my life not to what I was but to what was done. But do we want what we have got has it not gone, what makes it live, has it not gone, because now it is had it my long life." Are these the last words of Gertrude Stein?
But the opera is not heavy in its execution. It has all the Stein-Thomson wit and charm and lively fun. Yet when we leave the theater and think about it we cannot deny that it has a rueful quality, a mature, resigned acceptance, without bitterness or mawkish tears, of the fragility of life. In her later writing, Stein was much more conciliatory toward her readers and discarded most of her previous gnomic experimental methods. Does this opera tell us why?
It is quite evident that the close relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is openly displayed in the opera by Susan and Ann. Throughout their lives, it was handled tactfully, and the emotional scenes in the opera that portray this situation are delicately written. Neither Thomson nor Stein were in any way vulgar people, and even when and if their work had an autobiographical component, it was most artfully and tastefully handled.
The many-faceted elegancies of The Mother of Us All are what fascinate us. What on the surface appears to be a good-natured political cartoon is in reality something quite different. Not only is it an affectionate foray into our historic past, but two artists are saying goodbye to their past and perhaps to each other. (Stein died the same year she wrote the libretto.) There is much more here than meets the eye and ear. The Mother of Us All is like a precious heirloom, grandmother's handmade quilt, faded photographs of remote relatives, contact with another age, time, and place. It strikes a chord in us that sets in motion feelings of homesickness hidden deep within us, not sad, not saccharine, not sentimental. It makes us aware of our poignant human oneness.
As Stein wrote, "When this you see, remember me." And Virgil Thomson found just the exact, heartrending music for this, for which he, too, will be remembered.
Lord Byron, the most complex of Thomson's three operas, was written about 30 years after the Stein collaborations. Like its predecessors, hidden beneath its surface lies a myriad of meanings. Unlike the Saints and Susan B. Anthony, the life and psychology of a decadent English poet would be an anomaly in Kansas City.
The situations and characters in Lord Byron would be at ease in an Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward play. It is supposedly about a poet who had had the bad taste to leave a much too frank memoir to be published after his death; this precludes his burial in Westminster Abbey by the Anglican Church. At least such a farcical situation opens and closes the work. On a deeper level Lord Byron is a portrait of a man who has experienced everything; his jaundiced eye has seen all the tricks the world can play. Life is closing in on him, everything is fraught with danger. His milieu, the rich aristocracy, is unhappy in ways the bourgeoisie could never conceive. The private life of such people is lived under a glass dome where every move is instantly telegraphed to their intimates like a seismographic report. Byron, melancholy, brooding, profligate, undisciplined, accomplished, handsome, sought after, was deformed from birth with a clubfoot. All that wealth and fame had to offer could not compensate for or make him forget it. It was the central fact of his life and the unstated core of the opera.
It is interesting that Virgil Thomson spent seven years, late in life, on this particular subject. If, as he admitted, he had a continuing fascination with the poet (so did Gertrude Stein), he must have felt that they had something in common. What was it? Was this worldly man really at heart a romantic in the Byronic sense, even though all his life he cleverly denied it?
Lord Byron was certainly not a family man. Neither was Virgil Thomson. But he, unlike Byron, was not a licentious libertine, for whatever hidden passions or proclivities he may have had, outwardly he was respectable, courtly, and decorous.
Jack Larson's intelligent libretto -- a drawing-room conversation piece -- is riddled with spicy, explosive subjects that imply incest, adultery, homosexuality -- subjects clean living Americans only enjoy watching on televised confessional shows. But this is an adult opera and Thomson's polished music reflects the moods and feelings of elegant members of London high society, where love and temptation are more complicated. The music, like this society, operates behind a screen of polite masks; it often has the power to punctuate the veneer of that society's tightly controlled emotions, even at times to indicate graphically to the listener what is not expressed in words.
The music is regal, courtly, and in the many madrigal passages one senses a subtle homage to Purcell and the Elizabethans. Its strategically controlled arias, duets, choruses, and ensembles have the dignity of a social ritual, almost a masque. Its sound is Anglo-Saxon, its musical ambiance, liturgical hymns and 19th-century English, Irish, and Scottish ballads, and a not so distant connection with the parlor songs sung in Missouri of the same period. This is Thomson's most ambitious score, and he has put a great deal of himself in it. It contains many commendable things, but it lacks the sustained lyricism needed to make it absolutely convincing. The opening elegy ("Byron is dead") has the nobility and solemnity of a Roman frieze, the evocation he achieved in Solemn Music and Wheat Field at Noon. The emotional music verges on passion but never quite achieves it; the passages of rapier thrust dialogue are accompanied by witty and ironic music that could underscore a Restoration play. There are only a few flickerings of Parisian days, the inevitable waltz, usually in reference to Byron's clubfoot ("It's the one dance your leg can do naturally"). But here the waltz does not have the gaiety of the early Synthetic Waltzes, the Mayor La Guardia Waltzes, or the Lillian Russell waltz in The Mother of Us All. Its dramatic purpose is ambiguous, almost ominous. The stag party is rather tame, only mildly ribald, never riotous, well-dressed gentlemen at a posh gentlemen's club. There are references to Thomson's favorite tune, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," as well as "Auld Lang Syne," "London Bridge is Falling Down," and "Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms." Considering the inflammatory nature and implications of the theme, the score and libretto are models of tact and good taste. As connoisseurs of Byron's life and psychology, Thomson and Larson understood that the poet's real passion, in spite of his many amours and excesses, was not basically sensual; his passion was the passing scene, the actualities of life, what happened to him and the people he was associated with -- in short, he was a man very much like Virgil Thomson. Perhaps this is why he was drawn to Byron.
Lord Byron is Byronic in that it is about a subject and yet is apart from it. Thomson and Larson observe and comment on the events and characters but give no clue to their own attitudes to them or their problems. They seem to have taken Auden, Kallman, and Stravinsky, the creators of The Rake's Progress, as their model. (No comparison of the two operas is meant.)
This aloofness is fascinating but frustrating. It is why we admire Lord Byron but do not love it. We are not musically or dramatically caught up in it on a human level. It is a sort of highbrow whodunit, with an ambiguous last scene. Who really was the man about to be buried? The Establishment has rejected him on the grounds of rigid 19th-century morality. The writers deplore this Victorian viewpoint; for them only the great English poets -- Milton and the rest -- have the acumen to accept him as one of their own, suggesting that an artist's true worth can only be judged by one's peers.
This banal, snobbish, and old-fashioned conclusion is surprising and unsettling, and slightly offensive, especially in an age when bedroom biography is a sine qua non. Either Virgil Thomson was hiding something or he was forcing us to think and draw our own conclusions. It was his style to do both.
An oddity of all these operas is that they open with a drumroll, a procedure used for every public occasion to draw attention to whatever was being offered, from a military parade to a raree-show or a circus. Did Virgil Thomson mean that art was nothing but a sideshow of life? Or did he mean that art, as ritual, must be paid attention to, for that was what life was really about?
Virgil Thomson wrote reams of music in many genres, from piano pieces to operas and concertos, but after he found his basic methods of expression, he did not deviate much from them. Therefore, only a few of his many works will be discussed. Being acutely aware of who he was and what he wanted to achieve, perhaps so complex a person could never have fully attached himself to any one style, although Debussy and Satie revolutionized his thinking. His individualism was expressed by any musical technique, past and present, he thought he needed, from chant to 20th-century fashionable techniques; a true eclectic long before the word became today's cliché.
The most significant trait of this admixture is nostalgia. Not for a moment did he forget his doppelgänger, Missouri: Paris may have been his city but Kansas City was his home town. This trait distinguished him from all other composers of that period and made him, as Aaron Copland said, the "Father of American Music." Copland sagely spotted and grasped the reverberations of this style in the 44 measures of the second-act Intermezzo of Four Saints. (Thomson has never been given credit for his influence on the music of Copland and his school.)
Thomson foraged freely and borrowed economically with no frills and roulades; the result is very sophisticated, very French, very sec and as American as apple pie. Simple on the surface, the music is never naive. The composer was urbane, surprised by nothing; he believed that writing a symphony or constructing a sentence should be practical and workmanlike, like designing a building or an automobile. This should not blind us to the fact that Thomson was foremost a creative artist, who when he sometimes allowed his emotions to surface could compose tender music, compassionate and riddled with longing.
Sonata da chiesa
His first major work, Sonata da chiesa, written in 1926 as a graduation piece for his study with Nadia Boulanger, is a seminal prelude to his entire career. It was a deliberate prank, academically a learned parody poking fun at its own seriousness, very much the attitude of his friends Poulenc and Cocteau. The structure is traditional, its disparate instrumentation innovative. The first movement is discordant and unresolved, a sound he cultivated by less stringent, polytonal (augmented triads) means over the years -- the Snow Scene in Mother of Us All (1947), movements of his three symphonies (1928, 1941, 1972), (Symphony No. 3 is an orchestral version of his Second String Quartet), and concertos (Cello, 1950) (Flute, 1954), some of the Five Blake Songs (1951), and Pange Lingua (1962) for organ. But this sound is at its most consistently extreme in the Shipwreck and Love Scene from Byron's Don Juan (1967) and at the end of the Requiem Mass. Yet this kind of music also has a dignity that filters through works like Wheat Field at Noon (1948) and A Solemn Music (1949). In this Sonata Thomson, ever alert to hidden and esoteric jokes, may have been parodying Stravinsky's homage to Debussy, Symphony of Wind Instruments (1920), and saying farewell to Boulanger, an admirer of the great Russian composer.
The tonal blocks of the opening chorale that move like an iceberg wend their way through all his music. Against this is a peculiar melismatic melody which could be (to him) a distillation of liturgical chant, another quintessential ingredient of his style. The second movement is a tango, the first of many he was to write. (Tangos and waltzes surely had some personal significance to him. He never abandoned the style.) Here the undulating rhythm in the woodwinds accompanies a strange viola solo, a similar device he used in the first Portrait, a "Portrait of Señorita Juanita de Medina Accompanied by Her Mother." The display of the double fugue in the last movement is Virgil Thomson flexing his muscles; he always relished the challenge of contrapuntal techniques.
Symphony on a Hymn Tune
The witty Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928) was the first appearance of a style adumbrated in Four Saints. Here Thomson began to shed his antipathy to expressing personal feelings, but he did so in an elegant, reticent way. The Symphony, also his first large-scale orchestral foray, is basically a series of variations on Foundation (and other hymn tunes). It is a soundscape that strips the Missourian of his French clothing. Thomson has come home to Kansas City. From now on his music is thoroughly American, nervous, energetic, humorous, sentimental, and nostalgic. Now his style is distinctively recognizable -- cinematic, shifting rapidly from one episode and genre to another, direct, never striving for dramatic heights. Like Satie, he discarded any overblown, philosophical, overwrought emotional patina that had accrued to music over the centuries. Music was "a normal function of life," "should not strive for 'greatness'." But on closer inspection we also have here an inkling of his later neo-romantic style. Hearing this work, or later ones like The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), we are caught up short. They do not tie us up in neurotic knots; they are touching, sad, alive.
This is achieved by the barest of means -- the lonely sound of a train whistle passing in the night (nostalgia), the Sunday school hymn (when we unquestioningly believed in what we were told), a ticking clock (Proustian passage of time), barn dances (rough but polite), street sounds, country life, the commonplace experiences of everyday activities (composed by a man who reveled in the sybaritic life).
Virgil Thomson's Filling Station (1937), a ballet, would never be mistaken for Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit, but it has a similar nonchalant, jaunty, French esprit. It was the first classical ballet with a definite all-American theme, preceding Copland's later incursion into the field, Billy the Kid (1938). The scenario was by Lincoln Kirstein, another French-American and founder with George Balanchine of the American Ballet Theatre. It included, besides the inevitable romance, truck drivers, gangsters, holdups, state troopers, a chase, a happy ending -- all the ingredients of pop art. The music ranged from the inevitable tango (recycled from Sonata da chiesa) to Salvation Army band music. Though dated, it has aged well and is of great historical interest.
The scores he wrote for the three Pare Lorentz films, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), The River (1937), and Louisiana Story (1948), are Thomson at his shining best. There are only a few traces of Paris in this homespun music. Every note is honest, sincere, and without wrapping himself in the American flag, he recreates the time, place, and people of rural life during the Depression years of the 1930s. The Plow and The River are pictorial documentaries, illustrating the human tragedies of unemployment in towns and cities, the pathos of drifters that resulted from the devastation of the soil of the Great Plains from Texas to Canada, and the use and abuse of Southern waterways before the reclamation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. To prepare himself for this assignment, Thomson immersed himself in the study of folklore material. The scores utilize a large quota of music based on back-country sources -- white spirituals, hoedowns, cowboy songs, blues, folk tunes, fiddle tunes, banjo music, ballads -- they are so cleverly blended and redeployed with Thomson's own original music that it is impossible to tell them apart.
For Louisiana Story, written ten years later, Thomson culled material from The Southern Harmony, The Sacred Harp, the recordings of John and Alan Lomax, and particularly Louisiana French Folk Songs by Therese Whitfield. This film is also a documentary but has a slim scenario, the experiences of a young boy caught in the warfare between the encroaching oil industry and the Bayou inhabitants who have lived on the land for generations. There are two orchestral suites from the score.
Cajun music forms the basis of Acadian Airs and Dances, by now a Thomson classic. Louisiana Story Suite is more dramatic, composed in four sections of classical forms, and depicts the rite of passage of the boy. (1) Pastorale. The boy paddles his canoe through the bayou and is almost capsized by an amphibious oil-well tractor. (2) Chorale. A hymn tune accompanies the pumping of oil by a derrick while the boy wonders at its mechanization. (3) Passacaglia. The boy steals some alligator eggs and is attacked by the enraged beast. (4) Fugue. The boy fights for his life and is rescued by his father before the reptile can drag him into the swamp. This score, which deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, contains impressionistic and 12-tone devices, a deft mixture of Paris, Vienna, and our Deep South.
Three Pictures for Orchestra
Virgil Thomson's understanding of what a painting is and how it is painted by the artist is a key to our understanding of his Three Pictures for Orchestra -- "The Seine at Night" (1947), "Sea Piece with Birds" (1952), and "Wheat Field at Noon" (1948). They are not like the tone pictures of Richard Strauss or Hector Berlioz; they tell no story, have no implied action, no symbolic meaning. They are abstract musical compositions -- something we listen to the way we look at a painting. They are to be experienced as we experience a Cézanne or a Mark Rothko. They are "out there" as a painting is, and their full meaning comes only after seeing or hearing them, not while we are looking or listening. Although a total impersonal response is probably impossible, our first impact with these works, our personal reaction, is secondary. Later, after another viewing or hearing, we become involved in them and can reconstruct them in our own way and bring to them whatever we think they suggest or evoke.
The titles of the Three Pictures are an exact description. They are clues supplied by the composer to help us visualize exactly what this unadorned, nonrepresentative music is. It is the Seine, the sea, the birds, the wheat field. Thomson's program note on the Seine delineates what we are to listen for, using words that show the music's affinity with painting. He says the "melodic contours are deliberately archaic" (the lines), "the harmony for purposes of perspective is bitonal...polytonal," "there are scales...sets of...triads... four-note chords...organ sonorities" (color). Could anything be plainer?
What we hear listening to "Sea Piece with Birds" is not a Debussyan evocation of the sea. We sense something mysterious and brooding, sunlight on the water, unfathomable depths, cacophonous cawing of gulls, a musical experience similar to what we have when we look at a painting by Winslow Homer.
"Wheat Field at Noon" is a sonic equivalent of viewing a work by Andrew Wyeth -- the color of the meridian sun, symmetrical rows of wheat, lonely expanses of land and space. But the music does not explicate such an imaginary painting, it becomes the painting itself.
In these works Thomson is not weaving on the nostalgic loom. There are no hymns, dances, or parlor songs. Music is heard through our ears without the intervention of emotion. The style is not picturesque but dissonant, granitic, serial writing organized in an original tonal way. "Wheat Field" particularly is closely related to the gravitas music of A Solemn Music. Gertrude Stein would not approve. These works have nothing in common with Four Saints except Virgil Thomson.
Virgil Thomson was not the initiator of musical portraits. Composers had always written them. Robert Schumann, also literary and musical, wrote many personal ones deeply concealed in all his music. His portraits, like Thomson's, include not only the sitter but ideas and events that occurred to him during their composition.
But Thomson's portraits are singular in that they were drawn from life. Gertrude Stein did this in literature and Thomson, ever her disciple, aspired to do so in music. The score page was his canvas. The "model" would sit for his or her portrait. Thomson then proceeded to write, automatically, whatever came into his head, pausing at certain places to read what he had done, then continue to add new material, again pausing and adding until he was satisfied that he had captured the sitter's total and individual personality. If someone else was in the room, or something happened during the procedure, he would include that in the portrait, as well as any stray thought or reminiscence that came into his mind. He cites as an example that "When I did Mora Maar...he (Picasso) came along, out of curiosity...he got into the portrait...he couldn't be in a room without being noticed."
He composed more than 150 portraits: Picasso, Mina Curtis, Lou Harrison, Sylvia Marlowe, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Aaron Copland, Maurice Grosser, Eugene Ormandy, Alexander Smallens, and others. The majority are for piano, and if performed as a group, tend to be monotonous. They are clever and witty, but more is needed to hold our interest, particularly since most of the people portrayed were known principally to the composer. This makes their personalities indecipherable, since the sitter is long since dead. Even if we know that "Miss Furr and Miss Spune" were painters and "Marthe-Marthine" played the violin, it does not contribute to our enjoying the music. Most of the portraits today give the impression of "in" jokes; their manipulation of academic forms -- scales, canonic passages, wrong notes, waltzes, childlike exercises, classical allusions, hymns, etc. -- soon become precious, coy, and manneristic. They rarely use a piano's panoply of sonic resources. To come alive for us today they need the color of instrumentation to bring out any originality they may contain. Those written for instrumental combinations, or later orchestrated by the composer (or others), are far more accessible and interesting. Among them are Five Portraits for Four Clarinets, which includes "Portrait of a Young Man in Good Health" (Maurice Grosser with a cold) and three portraits of the painter Christian Bernard; Five Ladies for Violin and Piano (one of whom is Alice B. Toklas); Family Portrait for Brass Quintet; and Four Portraits for Cello and Piano (including "Bugles and Birds," a portrait of Picasso). An excellent book on this subject is Anthony Tommasini's Virgil Thomson's Musical Portraits.
It is obvious that Thomson was not really at ease in writing for the piano. One of the exceptions is the charming Suite from his 1975 ballet, Parson Weems and the Cherry Tree. Thomson's handling of colonial music at the time of Washington is the American Thomson in full bloom; its reels, ballads, and English and Scots tunes exactly on target.
For a composer who claimed he had no metaphysical beliefs, and was only a "nominal Christian," Thomson wrote a considerable quantity of sacred music from his Harvard days to the neglected Missa pro defunctis (1960). This Requiem Mass is defrocked church music, part secular, part sacred, connoting an attitude toward the church devoid of piety and unctuousness. It is apparent also that this music, which runs the gamut from simple arrangements of hymns ("My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," , "Variations on Sunday School Tunes," [1926-27], to choral works like The Nativity as Sung by the Shepherds ), is conceived as pure theater. The ritual of the liturgy fascinated him, he says, not theological, philosophical, or mystical ecstasies. This music, like everything he wrote, is an admixture of all the ingredients of his secular style (it even includes an occasional touch of jazz in the Mass), yet in spite of its diversity it conveys a warm, reverent attitude toward humanity. Thomson may not have been a reverend, but his church music is never irreverent.
Virgil Thomson's place in the history of American art song is undisputed. The clarity of his prosody, like Samuel Barber's, is the barometer by which all composers in this genre are measured. Barber and Thomson were temperamentally and musically completely antithetical, but they did share intelligence of a high order, an oversupply of trenchant, sophisticated wit, a profound love of language, and an illimitable knowledge of the arts.
In Thomson's setting of poems, as in his operas, each word is given priority at the moment it is sung. The words are not embellished by an elaborate, coloristic piano accompaniment. The piano has no separate identity, it moves along with the voice as an equal partner. Its function is modest, never bringing attention to itself -- Liszt could never paraphrase it. Chords are interjected at incisive moments, as are playful scale passages, recitatives, hymnlike phrases, all the paraphernalia found in his other works.
In their undramatic way, the songs are very theatrical -- Thomson boasts of being a man of the theater -- but his theater is one of gestures, not of action. The singer and pianist are like two well-seasoned performers who have timed every movement and never upstage each other. All the songs, whether they are Elizabethan settings of Thomas Campion (four songs), or Shakespeare Songs, or sardonic like "The Cat," oddly liturgical like the five Praises and Prayers, menacing like "The Tiger," witty like "Two by Marianne Moore," subtle and sadly lyrical like the Kenneth Koch set Mostly About Love, or nonsense ditties like Edward Lear's "The Courtship of Bongly Bo," or the dada-like "Portrait of F. B." -- all, by some thaumaturgic trick, are homogeneous. Their world is exclusive, controlled, and inhabited by Virgil Thomson. If one desires to explore this world, there is an abundance of material to choose from.
Three works for voice and orchestra have been unduly overlooked -- Five Blake Songs (1951) and Feast of Love (1964), and Collected Poems for Soprano, Baritone, and Piano (or Orchestra, 1959). It is possible that Blake's poem "The Tiger" could have had a private meaning for Thomson. He set the poem twice, earlier as a song and later as one of his Five Blake Songs. In both settings, the music is frightening and spooky. In the first version a few dissonant chords set the mood. In the Five Blake Songs, the coloration of the orchestration, particularly the growling brass, makes the words seem even more foreboding. The texts of these songs are not the mystical Blake, but the innocent English poet, a literary brother of the Robert Louis Stevenson whose A Child's Garden of Verses has the same childlike quality. Thomson's setting of Blake's "Land of Dreams" is perfect, the music not only matching the mood of the text, but does so by creating an English-Scots atmosphere, an atmosphere which permeates most of the cycle. Collected Poems is a witty setting in Thomson's American style of Kenneth Koch's poetic montage.
The carnal Feast of Love is an erotic setting of a randy poem, Pervigilium veneris, of the second or fourth century A.D. The music is never openly bacchantic, but as in Lord Byron, its not-so-hidden passions are expressed in civilized, Olympian terms. The deft orchestration is rife with stimulating suggestions.
Is there an easily recognizable Virgil Thomson sound, as there is a Copland or an Ives? In his Americana music, yes, but it is remote and, at present, has no place in our current vogue. There is, too, a groundswell of Anglo-Saxon secular and church music that places it in the mainstream of traditional counterpoint, though in his own free-wheeling way. Ironically, Thomson's French style (not his French bias) never had the sensual sound of the native impressionists.
More than most composers, Virgil Thomson was a "personality," the making of which was a lifelong occupation and in the long run tripped him up. He was too clever in his use of source material, had too unappeasable an appetite for everything about and of music to make an indelible inroad into any one field (except the stylish brand of Americana he originated in the Stein operas). His wit was too verbal and cerebral to translate fully into music. Here his writing took over. His "personality" had more than one trained outlet. The music he gave us, much of it individual, is not the whole man; the writer is just as significant. Music may have been his centerpiece -- he certainly believed it was -- but we know when we hear his compositions that there is more than meets the ear.
©2002 - 2012 The Virgil Thomson Foundation