Virgil Thomson - Vignettes of His Life and Times
by Paul Wittke
The Man of Letters
Virgil Thomson is our most audacious and witty music critic. His fine-tuned prose is impeccable, his knowledge encyclopedic, fearless, and blunt to the point of rudeness. He was funny even when he was offensive. With a wicked tongue he gave away trade secrets. Reading him was a daily necessity, the only critic who told the truth as he saw it, who was up and who was down in the seesaw of the music world. He was more often right than wrong and the problems he discussed have not disappeared. The power of the media, conglomerates, and technological exploitation is even more pervasive today; the cast of characters has changed, not the scenario. "We are fighting for our professional living against distribution" he wrote in the 1960s.
He was a bull in a China shop, not geared for making friends. He deflated Toscanini and Jascha Heifetz ("silk-underwear music"). He thought the inflation of their personalities got in the way of their performances. Powerful icons were laid waste -- the Metropolitan Opera berated for its outmoded and snobbish policies, the stranglehold and ruthlessness of the Columbia Artists hierarchy exposed. (A great deal more may be found in A Virgil Thomson Reader edited by John Rockwell.)
Of his eight books, all contain incisive insights worth pondering, especially Virgil Thomson, The State of Music, and The Art of Judging Music: his elucidation of how, why, and for whom a composer writes, the manifold tactics he is often forced to devise to earn a decent living, how he maneuvers in society, the inner workings of musical politics, the ground-breaking exposé of "the music education racket," the difficulties of the real life of real musicians in the real world. This pragmatic and no-nonsense attitude was counterbalanced by an uncanny prescience; he seemed to be able to see around corners and be a few paces ahead of everyone else. In 1946 he told Pierre Boulez that "by using a carefully thought out and complex way, you produce by 30 a handful of unforgettable works. But by then you are a prisoner of your method...so you write less and less...without freedom, no one is a master."
Thomson was certainly not the only composer of his generation to write intelligently about music. Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, and Aaron Copland too had a firm command of language and had perceptive things to say, and, like Thomson, were leading contributors to Minna Lederman's journal Modern Music. But Thomson was not only a professional writer and a professional composer but a professional critic on a daily newspaper. The State of Music (1939), his first book, was a minor bombshell. From then on he was an established writer as well as a composer.
Geoffrey Parsons hired him as critic for the Herald Tribune (1937), where he soon became the indisputable king who reigned over the New York music scene for 14 years until his decision to quit and devote himself entirely to composition (1951). But not quite. Virgil Thomson by Virgil Thomson, which appears to tell all, was published in 1966; other books followed. In the 1970s The New York Review of Books became his major outlet. Here some of his important essays first appeared, including "Cage and the Collage of Noises," "Making Black Music," "The Ives Case," "Stravinsky's Operas," and "The Art of Judging Music." The last book he wrote, Music with Words, was published in the year of his death.
Preceding Virgil Thomson as composer-critic-journalist was the genteel Deems Taylor, who wrote for The New York World and The New York American and had two operas produced at the Met (The King's Henchman and Peter Ibbetson). His music is pleasant, if not very distinguished, a bit on the lavender side like the novels of James Branch Cabell or Thornton Wilder. One of the wits of his day, Taylor was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, and the beloved radio commentator for the Sunday broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He wrestled with many of the subjects that Thomson did. Taylor was good-natured, an old school gentleman, amusing and truthful but unaggressive; he had none of the panache of Thomson's cool, patrician style. "Sassy but classy," Thomson modestly said of himself, and it was true.
Thomson's writing made him many friends and an equal number of enemies; his criticism of composers past and present, personal and idiosyncratic, was on balance evenhanded and fair. If he thought a composer had something of his own to say and did so by a direct, unencumbered route, he approved -- Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varèse, or the French-oriented Mexican Silvestre Revueltas. The French, of course, could do no wrong, and his bias toward them was often excessive. (We can dispute his belief that Honegger's Pacific 231 is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.) Poulenc, Milhaud, Sauguet, Satie, and later Messiaen were luminaries in his galaxy.
His disdain for Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Hindemith, Britten, and Shostakovich was undisguised. They were camp followers of the long-vanished Romantic Age of Brahms and Mahler. John Alden Carpenter's flirtation with French music was whipped cream. John Cage, in 1950, wrote a book-length study of Thomson's music at Thomson's request but made the cardinal error of doubting that his music had relevance for the coming generation (the 1960s). Cage admired most of Thomson's work but not enough to satisfy Mr. Thomson who retaliated years later in the New York Review article mentioned above. From then on there was a polite abyss between them, although Cage always acknowledged his debt to Thomson.
Thomson's attitude toward Charles Ives and George Gershwin is a little more complicated, subtle, and personal. He admired them and their music, but there is a barbed reluctance to truly accepting them. They were musically suspect, for they undermined his authority and could not be fobbed off with a glib quip. They were (and are) considered the American composers by the general public.
Ives challenged Thomson on his own territory. By more complex and dissonant means, he used the same bric-a-brac montage of 19th-century memorabilia to evoke the American past. But Ives's past was puritanical New England, stiff, stuffy, the snobbish Northeast, not the homespun, middle class, relaxed, unassuming Midwest of Thomson. They certainly had much in common, especially Anglo-Saxon hymnology, but the plain religion of the Kansas City Baptist Church was far removed from the Concord Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two composers are polar personalities, Ives introspective, craggy, eccentric; Thomson extrovert, cosmopolitan, a witty denizen of Gay Parée. Ives, a full-time, successful business man, was only a part-time musician, not a professional musician; Thomson a thorough, professional musician but a business man of quite a different sort. Besides, Ives was a very wealthy man.
The Gershwin problem was more obvious. His natural genius was undeniable, he exuberantly and effortlessly exuded music like Schubert. But he had no formal training (at least Ives had that), and his music lacked structure and form, was not professional. Gershwin's Piano Concerto (1926) was a loose cannon next to Aaron Copland's (1927) (one of Nadia Boulanger's star pupils), yet the Gershwin composition had the audacity to become an American classic, appreciated by millions, while the Copland, fine as it is, a period piece. Even worse, Gershwin's jazz was white man's jazz, ersatz, not the expression of what Thomson truly (and rightly) thought jazz to be, an authentic expression of a social condition -- the music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor was authentic jazz, felt and experienced as an inborn part of their heritage. Gershwin was a by-product of commercial Broadway, his music a combination of Harlem and the synagogue. Thomson's posture was not insincere. During the 1930s, when the question of highbrow/lowbrow music was first seriously discussed, Thomson sided with the academics. Milhaud's use of jazz (just as ersatz) in La Création du Monde (1923) was the first salvo of the argument. The Gershwin problem is still being squabbled over. Thomson entered the fray 60 years ago.
His letters from his earliest years are those of a born writer, exhibiting all the artfully contrived, wonderful phrases of his published writing. Unfortunately, his early flashes of poetry, feeling for nature, and descriptive writing diminished as he grew older, as if he had decided to dampen that segment of his imaginative response as being too intimate or sentimental. However, curiosity, perspicacity, intelligence, and a zest for life never deserted him, nor did his ardor for recipes, both American and French. While thinking of food, he gave us food for thought.
At the Yaddo-Sessions concerts in 1931 Copland programmed Thomson's uproarious setting of Gertrude Stein's Capital, Capitals. This witty composition of the dialogue of four cities put Thomson on the map; its nonchalant impudence and Parisian flavor was enjoyed and discussed. Thomson was stimulated by this and wrote two Piano Sonatas in a similar vein; the first one for Gertrude Stein. She could only play white notes and the span of an octave was all she could handle. (Thomson later orchestrated the second sonata.)
So it was from the very beginning of their careers that Thomson and Copland were intertwined, and it is no accident that they are credited with being the fathers of the American music that came of age in the 1930s. The next 15 years or so belonged to them. Thomson was there first with the Stein operas and the technique he unveiled in Symphony on a Hymn Tune set the tone. Copland always acknowledged his debt to Thomson, saying that "he is about as original a personality as America can boast." We forget Thomson's contribution because Copland's brand of Americana, Billy the Kid, Our Town, and Appalachian Spring continue to dominate our concert life. The composers do not sound alike -- Copland having added other styles to his arsenal -- but they are united in their devotion to the American scene. And they were devoted to each other throughout their long lives. In the 20s, they had Boulanger in common; but Copland's Parisian orbit, even peripherally, was not that of Thomson's. Two extraordinary talents -- Copland a New Yorker, gentle, ever helpful, rather sober, introspective; and Thomson, Parisian Midwesterner (and vice versa) volatile, party going, extroverted -- they were the Siamese twins who were possessed by a desire to forge a new American music, and they did.
Almost inadvertently Thomson helped launch Copland's career (and many others). In 1924 Thomson wrote a review for the Boston Transcript of a concert given in Paris by Serge Koussevitzky. It was this piece that alerted the American music establishment to Koussevitzky's ability and eventually led to the conductor's ascendancy to the papacy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky premiered a Copland piece, Music for the Theater, in 1925. What he has done for music by commissioning works by most of our top-notch composers cannot be overestimated. Thomson was not among them. Thomson had other advocates, his scores were widely played by his boon companion, Sir Thomas Beecham, Eugene Ormandy, Stokowski, and others.
During the post-World War II years, Thomson and Copland divided the spoils of victory between them; their affection for each other never diminished and their commendation of each other's music never flagged. When Copland flirted with serialism Thomson was respectful if not convinced; nor was he dishonest about Copland's inability to write a first class theater piece (except the ballets). Copland accepted Thomson's comments gracefully and constructively.
This period was indeed a time of great musical ferment in our history, as if the musical Zeitgeist of Paris had taken flight and landed in New York. Composers of every shape and size were busily at work, many seeming to live on a different planet -- Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles, Harry Partch, Edgard Varèse, Marc Blitzstein; the list could be extended. In this hassle of activity no one claimed to be king of the hill; they were members of a large wrangling family, the community of music -- but when the chips were down, friend or foe came to each other's aid and stood as one against any Philistine invader.
To the generation of the 1950s Copland's musical syntax became the most accessible; it was obvious that Thomson's French leaning and unique sophisticated music belonged to him alone. Yet, though his musical style may not have been a clarion call to the young, he was still very much a star performer, his high-pitched voice heard above the cacophony around him. Believing that as generations change the avant-garde becomes the old guard, and in time the old circle will reform and be again in the ascendency, he was positive that his music would also be returned to the fold.
He continued to compose constantly (until the end of his life), wrote essays, book reviews, and criticism, lectured, conducted, taught at prestigious universities, was one of the founders of the Arrow Music Press, the American Composers' Alliance, the Music Critics' Award, sat on the board of ASCAP, and was awarded many accolades and honors. He expected this as no more than his due, but it did not subdue his sense of humor. "My academic gowns can be worn in academic parades or as bathrobes."
In 1934 Thomson was in Paris, savoring the success of Four Saints, when he received a letter from the director of that opera, John Houseman, suggesting he return to New York and join him in a new "Off-Broadway" project, the Phoenix Theater. They would produce old and new serious plays calibrated for a thoughtful audience at affordable prices. This appealed to Thomson, who was intoxicated with the theater ever since, at the age of 12, he saw his first opera. The aura of theater magic making was in his blood, not the smell of greasepaint (he was not that kind of artist) but the challenge of solving the specific problems that each play demanded -- music to clarify its mood and inner substance -- that is what he loved to write. He was gifted as a composer who could annotate not dramatize what was happening on the stage. His theater was one of ideas, words, and lyricism -- not physical activity or soaring emotions. He was a master of background music -- a phase of theater music little appreciated, understood, or discussed. It is what makes the Stein operas and the Lorentz films so original and so successful.
Thomson's scores for the Houseman productions are mostly first rate, but unfortunately are so integrated with that specific theatrical experience that they cannot be performed as pure music. They were not conceived as such and fall into a category of music that is ironically of no use outside the arena of the theater pit.
The first score he wrote was for Countee Cullen's version of Euripides' Medea -- a project in which the young Martha Graham was involved, but which never materialized. Later Thomson arranged the choruses he had written for it (Seven Choruses from the Medea of Euripides) as a successful concert piece. Archibald MacLeish's dramatic Panic was substituted. It was however Kathleen Connell's production of Romeo and Juliet that changed the course of American theater. Playing Romeo was a magnetic young actor, Orson Welles, who was soon co-producing with Houseman plays for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) financed by the US government. Thomson's powerful score for a black version of Macbeth was followed by music for Leslie Howard's Hamlet, Tallulah Bankhead's Antony and Cleopatra, and the sensational Injunction Granted. The success of these works led to Thomson's ballet Filling Station and film The Plow that Broke the Plains.
Though Houseman was the synergist of this laudable phase of Thomson's career, it led to a dead end. The composer did not continue working with him and Welles when they originated the Mercury Theater. Later, Houseman and Thomson patched up whatever differences they had (Welles, by this time, had moved on to Hollywood) and collaborated on the famous production of Much Ado About Nothing (1957) with Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Drake. Thomson's essay on this subject is one of the most illuminating of its kind (1959). The score for Robert Lewis's production of Truman Capote's The Grass Harp is also top-drawer Thomson.
Houseman's later triple career as a film director, writer, and actor is common knowledge. Their feelings for each other surfaced again when Houseman directed Thomson's Lord Byron when it premiered at the Juilliard School of Music in 1972.
Years before the war forced him to leave Paris, Thomson was aware that the frothy days of his former life were over. In 1933 he had told Lincoln Kirstein: "The dominant chic is no longer the Americans in exile -- Pound, Stein, Hemingway -- but Marxist-tinged German refugees, a result of the influx of exiles from Hitler." (His upbeat manner always hid a penetrating political awareness, though he was in no sense "political.")
Thomson's resilience made readjusting to living in New York a non-traumatic event. Without missing a beat he settled in its cultural life, and sought and found new opportunities. Shrewdly in the 1920s and 1930s, though Paris was his mistress, he always kept an affair going with New York, often returning there to compose film scores, theater music, ballets, chamber, and choral works by request and commission.
His intellectual curiosity never diminished; he kept abreast of all that was new, gathering the young around him -- Ned Rorem, Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Frank O'Hara. They were fascinated by his con brio spirit, his healthy vitality; he was a paternal figure to them, with all the love-hate such a symbiotic relationship incurs. Ned Rorem, his most gifted pupil -- writer and composer -- in his fearless and honest diaries has written a vivid and often touching chronicle of the years he had known him. Another pupil, Paul Bowles, known now for his somewhat decadent novels of exotic behavior, was in his incarnation as a musician, a gifted writer of songs and theater music.
Thomson's gradual loss of hearing did not put a damper on his activities, but it was a problem to his close associates. During a lull in a conversation or attending a concert he would doze off, but at the appropriate moment would manage to wake from his theatrical somnambulism to come out with the witty zinger they were waiting for.
Thomson did make a miscalculation that had a negative effect on his career. When he retired from the Herald Tribune he thought his position secure enough to guarantee him performances by the major American orchestras. He was wrong; his too honest reviews had irritated many established institutions and his works were only sporadically programmed. Part of this neglect may have been due to his musical style, but certainly a major factor was personal, a retaliatory vendetta against him. His second mistake was that he did not attach himself to any one well established publisher, preferring to control his own financial and distribution destiny. In his last years he did try, unsuccessfully, to change his situation. Because of this, throughout his career he had no professional organization that was obligated to publish and promote his music as one of their "house composers." Of course, he was published and performed, but not with the devotion he would have had if he was one publisher's "property."
In 1934 Thomson became a resident at the Hotel Chelsea in New York, a Victorian building that opened in 1884. Many literary people -- Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams -- have lived there. Despite its regal elegance, it always had a slightly randy, seedy appearance.
Entering his apartment on the 9th floor, you walked into a past era which was very European, and which left contemporary obstreperous New York far below. Every object in it was a significant part of his history and revealed the cultural milieu of a man whose life for more than half a century was spent interacting with the international avant-garde, particularly the Paris of the 1920s. The enormous sitting room, because of pictures hung on its red and blue walls, made the apartment seem larger than it was. Book cases contained works of his friends old and new -- first editions of Stein, Cocteau, Cummings, Joyce, Gide, Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, James Merrill, Edward Albee, and Truman Capote. Photographs, periodicals of the 20s, paintings and sculpture by Maurice Grosser, Jean Arp, Florine Stettenheimer, Leonid Berman, Christian Berard, Yves Tanguy, Paul Tchelitchew, every one an irreplaceable visual memoir of a lasting friendship. A grand piano, a fireplace, his favorite armchair, and a large cupboard dominated the room. Conspicuous on the top of the cupboard was a set of Vuitton luggage. This was both a pretentious display of vanity and a constant reminder of his hasty retreat from France with Man Ray in 1940. That's all he could manage to take with him.
To these rooms like pilgrims to a hermitage came the elite of the day -- Stravinsky, Boulez, Beecham, Oscar Levant, Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Philip Johnson, Peggy Guggenheim, Edward Albee, and others. They came for the same reason artists congregated at 17 quai Voltaire, debonair conversations and fabulous food. Thomson was an amazing cook and could whip up a gourmet meal with a few cans from the supermarket. Always impeccably dressed, he reigned like a beloved maharaja, although his activities were more restricted than in former years. Like Truman Capote, whom he resembled in size (5'2"), he was to the manner born, his chic parties a social event.
From his command post in the Chelsea, Thomson directed and conscripted, admonished and advised by phone -- usually from his bed, clad in expensive, bright pajamas -- all those around him, a power broker with a wide reach. He was more informed about the inner mechanism, frictions, and amours of the New York scene than almost anyone, his experience and acquaintances were worldwide, and his total recall of everyone and everything mind boggling. His barbs could still barbecue, but when the tantrum subsided and the verbal dust settled, whether wounded or unscathed, one had to grudgingly admit there was still fire in the old volcano. His faculties were in fine working order, his advice or scolding not always unbiased, but never without some degree of truth, if often painful.
There was at times a soft mellowness to some of his outbursts; if you defended yourself in a manner he could respect, the sentimental, Midwestern boy could be glimpsed. An example of this is the following true story.
Thomson had an appointment with the editor of one of his several publishers. After the usual sparring and aggressive discussion of the technical matters he did not approve of -- his way was always the only way music should be printed -- Thomson spied on the piano a three-volume set of Byron: A Biography by Leslie A. Marchand, which the editor had just purchased. Thomson suddenly relaxed, was warm and gracious, his conversation nearly civil. When he left the room he had under his arm the Byron (he was then in the throes of writing the opera). The editor quietly said: "Excuse me Mr. Thomson, but the books under your arm belong to me." Thomson, without batting an eye, with an innocent and sheepish smile (hiding the wolf), returned the books and replied: "Oh sweetie, I really thought you had bought them for me." The two men shook hands affectionately like father and son it was a draw.
From the 1930s until he died in 1964, Cole Porter lived at the Waldorf Towers on Park Avenue. From the 1940s until his death, Thomson lived at the Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd Street. These men of two remarkably divergent worlds and talents had one thing in common: they were both Midwesterners whose cosmopolitanism outdid any metropolitan boy in their urbanity. The immensely wealthy Porter, a dominant figure in high society, was crippled by a riding accident that destroyed his legs. His parties were social events, his wit and dinners the delight of the international jet and theater set. A world traveler, Porter was during the 1920s a darling of the Parisian beau monde. Endowed with gifts that could not be duplicated, Porter and Thomson deftly handled the English language with dexterity and clever buoyancy.
Thomson sported many of the traits and foibles of the very rich of which he hankered to be a part of -- the world into which Porter had always moved and belonged. Thomson and Porter, who drank from the same font of inside knowledge and gossip, were never happier than when they were the center of their own circle. From different backgrounds, they were brothers under the skin -- quick-witted, exuberant, hard-working, impish, inventive, sophisticated, glamorous. They added to the gaiety of our nation.
The Very Last Years
The last years of his life must have been an ordeal for him, although he seemed to enjoy every acerbic moment of it. To act the part and truly believe one is a living legend was surely extremely exhausting for even Virgil Thomson who spent his entire life being VT. He was both a delight and a problem to his "everbest" close circle of friends. Only his lifelong companion, Maurice Grosser, with a cleverly modulated gentle reprimand, a soft word, or a pat on the hand, could keep him under control when he became intractable. Only Grosser could resolve an awkward situation without rancor or embarrassment. Grosser died a year before Thomson, and the composer told one of his everbest friends a few months before his own demise that "it's almost unbearable. I've had enough." On 30 September 1989 he died quietly, in style, and had a self-organized memorial at St. John's "too-too" Divine Cathedral in New York.
How can one give even a partial picture of a creative artist so enigmatic? He disturbs us, makes us think about our attitudes, perceptions, and prejudices. No one will ever know what was going on in his unquiescent mind. Was he deeply disillusioned under his boulevardier exterior? Were his bombardments of bon mots and one-upmanships his first line of defense? Against what? Is laughter truly, as the philosophers tell us, the opposite of tears? Was he really the world-weary Lord Byron? Did he learn this at an early age in Missouri, where his ashes now lie quietly in Slater, not far from his beloved Kansas City?
©2002 - 2016 The Virgil Thomson Foundation