Virgil Thomson (1896 – 1989) was a many-faceted composer of great originality and a music critic of singular brilliance. After studying at Harvard, he moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, and remained in France for most of the next 15 years, meeting Cocteau, Stravinsky, Satie and the artists of Les Six. When he finally returned to the US in 1940, he became chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. Thomson composed in almost every genre, utilizing a style marked by sharp wit and overt playfulness, and produced a highly original body of work rooted in American speech rhythms and hymnbook harmony. Among his most famous works are the operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (both with texts by Gertrude Stein), scores to The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River (films by Pare Lorentz), and Louisiana Story (film by Robert Flaherty). In addition to his compositions, he was the author of eight books, including an autobiography. Included in his many honors and awards are the Pulitzer Prize, a Brandeis Award, the Gold Medal for Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Book Circle Award, and the Kennedy Center Honors. The 25th anniversary of his death is being commemorated during 2014.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was a many-faceted American composer of great originality and a music critic of singular brilliance. Throughout 2014, the 25th anniversary of his death is being commemorated. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 25, 1896, Thomson studied at Harvard. After a prolonged period in Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and met luminaries including Cocteau, Stravinsky, Satie, and the composers of Les Six, he returned to the United States where he was chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune for 14 years beginning in 1940.
Thomson composed in almost every genre of music. Utilizing a musical style marked by sharp wit and overt playfulness, Thomson produced a highly original body of work rooted in American speech rhythms and hymnbook harmony. His music was most influenced by Satie's ideals of clarity, simplicity, irony, and humor. Among his most famous works are the operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (both with texts by Gertrude Stein with whom he formed a legendary artistic collaboration), scores to The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River (films by Pare Lorentz), and Louisiana Story (film by Robert Flaherty). He also produced ballet scores, incidental music for the theatre, and a genre in which he created more than 140 works: the musical portrait. In addition to his compositions, he was the author of eight books, including an autobiography.
Included in his many honors and awards are the Pulitzer Prize, 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.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was a many-faceted American composer of great originality and a music critic of singular brilliance. Throughout 2014, the 25th anniversary of his death is being commemorated. 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.
“He is about as original a personality as America can boast… the Father of American Music.” – Aaron Copland
“American music wouldn’t be the same without him.” – 435 Magazine
“Thomson’s phrasing was original, irreverent, intriguing to a broad audience and spot on.” – NPR Radio
“…Thomson still matters, partly because he was such an oddity in his own time, too, and partly because his ear was sharp, his influence stealthy and delayed. He invigorated Lou Harrison and Mark Blitztein and prepared the way for Philip Glass. His sensibility was deadpan and straightforward.” – Justin Davidson, WonderingSound.com
“He was, often enough, one of the great American composers of his time.” – The Buffalo News
“He writes with genteel simplicity in many of his works, but he’s also unafraid of unorthodox chords and quirky instrumentation…music that eschews grandiosity but is expertly crafted.” – 435 Magazine
“Thomson had an ear perpetually cocked for the natural musicality of American life…he set English text to music with exemplary finesse…he had argued the case for simplicity, and won.” – Justin Davidson, WonderingSound.com
“In his music and his prose, Virgil Thomson perfected a whimsically deadpan sensibility.” – The Nation
“He’ll sharpen your listening skills, no matter what kind of music you like.” – Times-Picayune
“He was a formidable player in his historical moment, and his moment reverberates into our own…inimitable.” – The New Yorker
“..the most important American music critic of the 20th century.” – Wall Street Journal
“Thomson…wrote as well with words as with notes.” – NPR Radio
“Thomson as critic — not unlike Thomson as composer — was a master of the short form. Thomson’s prose has a simplicity, a directness and rhythmic energy that seem a lot like his music.” – Opera News
“He was…in a thoroughly representative way, a newspaper critic on par with Mencken.” – The Buffalo News
“Thomson, one of the most important, lively and stylish music critics of all time…” – The New York Times
“Virgil Thomson was one of the greatest stylists in American English prose.” – Orange County Register
“…a fearless, creative and idiosyncratic brain… we are not the same after reading him as we were before.” – Tim Page, Opera News
“Virgil Thomson – the greatest classical music critic any American newspaper ever had” – The Buffalo News
“No music critic has ever been more readable…” – Wall Street Journal
“One doesn’t need fully to know all the music or people involved to profit from encountering Thomson’s lively, stimulating writing. “ - Opera Magazine
“Thomson had an ear perpetually cocked for the natural musicality of American life…he had argued the case for simplicity, and won.” – Justin Davidson, WonderingSound.com
“Even today, when both the music and the issues he wrote about have congealed into specialized hauteur, Thomson, like much of Mencken, remains riotously readable...” – The Buffalo News
“Over the past many years, there has been no better writer and raconteur on music than the American composer Virgil Thomson.” – WOSU Radio
“…one of the best regular critics of any subject whatsoever who ever walked into any newspaper’s city room…it was his outrageous wit, candor, brilliance…” – The Buffalo News
“In his music and his prose, Virgil Thomson perfected a whimsically deadpan sensibility.” – The Nation
“…it is difficult to think of an American critic more lucid than Thomson, or, for that matter, a wittier one, or one who reads so well these many years later.” - The New Criterion
“At his best… he was surgically acute.” – The New Yorker
“His voice is laconic, authoritative, civilized, and cosmopolitan.” – Classical Voice North America
“Thomson wrote the best and wittiest music criticism since Bernard Shaw.” - Washington Post
“The forthright wit of Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) set a bar that has been often imitated but rarely matched.” – The Arts Fuse
About music and composition:
About his early music-making: ''I improvised with flat hands and the full arm, always with the pedal down and always loud, bathing in musical sound at its most intense, naming my creations after the Chicago fire and similar events.''
“I've never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down.”
“The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.”
“I don't care what other critics say, I only hope to be played.”
About his musical portraits: “I look at you and I write down what I hear.”
“I never learned to verbalize an abstract musical concept. No thank you. The whole point of being a serious musician is to avoid verbalization whenever you can.”
About composing: “Let your mind alone, and see what happens.”
Music was “a normal function of life…should not strive for ‘greatness’.”
“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’s fundamental belief was that music should be “as simple as a friendly conversation.”
About his writings:
''I can describe things and persons, narrate facts. But, I do not assemble my pictures and my people into situations where they take on memorability, which is what storytellers do. Nor can I make a language change its sound or words their meaning, which is the faculty of poets. Language, to me, is merely for telling the truth about something.''
“You explain how it went, and as far as you can figure out how it got that way.”
“Reviewing music or reviewing anything is a writing job. It's nice if you are experienced in the field you are writing about, but writing is what you are doing.”
“Sassy but classy,” Thomson modestly said of his prose.
''I felt at home in France with its music, its food, its people, its reading and writing. I said to my friends that if I was going to starve, I might as well starve where the food is good.”
“In Paris, you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise.”
About Kansas City, Missouri
“To anyone brought up there, as I was, ‘Kansas City’ always meant the Missouri one… You did not speak of Kansas City, Kansas, often...or go there unless you had business.”
About Gertrude Stein
''Poetry alone is always a bit amorphous and poetry as spontaneously structured as Gertrude Stein's had long seemed to me to need musical reinforcement. I do not mean that her writing lacks music; I mean that it likes music.''
Stein and Thomson hit it off, he said, “like two Harvard men.”
“My academic gowns can be worn in academic parades or as bathrobes.”
“Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.”
“I don't go around regretting things that don't happen.”