listen magazine feature
The Life and Times of Virgil Thomson
By Jed Distler
At one point in John Huszar’s documentary film Virgil Thomson at 90, Thomson says, “People ask me if I’m part of the American school of composers. Of course I am. I’m one of its founders.” Asked about his standing among writers on music, Thomson simply replies, “Up there with Shaw, of course.” False modesty played no part in Thomson’s long and colorful life, which came to a close a quarter century ago on September 20, 1989, a few months short of his ninety-third birthday. Whether as Gertrude Stein’s operatic collaborator, iconic music critic, elder statesman correcting an interviewer’s grammar, or acerbic bon vivant painstakingly organizing a dinner party, Thomson knew what he was about, and pinpointed what made the music world tick. He was direct, decisive, and opinionated, erudite yet plain spoken. While he understood and absorbed the allusive, suggestive characteristics of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French composers, he “didn’t do nuance.”
Thomson got annoyed at pianists who inserted dynamic hairpins or rounded off phrases into his music when none were there, unwittingly turning a half-remembered Missouri hymn tune into a Chopin Nocturne. “Play it straight” or “Play it plain,” he’d say. Thomson enjoyed socializing, but had no use for long-windedness, and frequently snapped at colleagues and friends to “get to the point!” When asked, Thomson tended to explain everything — his peerless ability to set words to music, his underrated mastery of orchestration, or how to prepare leg of lamb — in terms of rules or precepts. Be precise, follow the rules, and you’ll hear every word, every instrument. Bring the lamb to table at this time, and no other. To be sure, these rules often were concocted and broken by Thomson himself, but no matter.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1896, Thomson first studied piano and, at twelve, became a paid organist at the Calvary Baptist Church. He joined the army at seventeen, and enrolled at Harvard. Thomson’s faculty advisor, Edward Burlingame Hill, was a prolific composer whose advocacy of new works by Stravinsky and Schoenberg and interest in American gospel, jazz and folk music impressed his young student. Touring Europe with the Harvard Glee Club led to Thomson’s eventual decision to make Paris his home base. He liked to tell friends that he chose Paris because he’d “rather starve where the food is good.” There, he became one of the first of a legion of Nadia Boulanger’s American pupils — whose luminaries would range from Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Elliott Carter to Philip Glass and Quincy Jones — and graduated with his first major concert work, the Sonata da Chiesa for five instruments.
While Thomson got to know nearly all of the visual artists, writers, and musicians active in 1920s Paris (including his closest companion, painter Maurice Grosser), Erik Satie and Gertrude Stein were the crucial influences who led Thomson to his own voice. Satie’s seemingly simple yet artfully structured and tersely expressive Socrate made an indelible impact, as did the innate musicality and sonorous colorations of Stein’s controversial deconstruction of the English language. Stein delighted in Thomson’s setting of her prose poems “Susie Asado,” “Capital Capitals” and “Preciosilla” — and proposed a collaboration. First, Stein wrote the libretto to Four Saints in Three Acts. Then Thomson sat at his piano, reading the words aloud, letting their musical rhythms and colors take shape. He set every word (including stage directions) to music that evoked hymn tunes, spirituals, American band music, and the simple cadences of Missouri speech. Suffice it to say that Four Saints resembled no other opera before it.
Audiences and critics were alternately enchanted and baffled in the wake of its 1934 Broadway premiere featuring Florine Stettheimer’s cellophane-based designs, theater newcomer John Houseman’s direction, choreography by Frederick Ashton, and (unusual for the time) an all-black cast, which ensured Thomson’s notoriety as a composer. Stein and Thomson reunited for their second and final opera in 1947, The Mother Of Us All, a work many consider to be Thomson’s theatrical masterpiece. The composer’s brand of tart Americana turned up a few years later in two celebrated scores for Pare Lorentz’s documentary films The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, and the ballet score Filling Station. His music for Robert J. Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story became the first film score to win the Pulitzer Prize.
One particular genre central to Thomson’s oeuvre was the musical portrait, composed in the presence of a sitter, just as a painter portrays a model. Thomson first got the idea from Gertrude Stein’s similarly conceived literary portraits. The process was simple: you posed, and Thomson wrote music. He composed directly onto manuscript paper, away from the piano, and without interruption. You sat four to six feet away from him. He forbade you to speak, but you could read or take a nap. Usually after about an hour, Thomson reached the bottom of the manuscript page and stopped. The next day he’d make minor adjustments or revisions, if needed.
Thomspon with Gertrude Stein (left), poring over the score for Four Saints in Three Acts, performed by the Opera Ensemble of New York (right) in 1986.
In his more than one hundred fifty portraits spanning sixty years, the breadth of Thomson’s stylistic identity most readily reveals itself, as does the Who’s Who of famous and less celebrated artists, social figures, close friends and casual acquaintances encompassing Thomson’s list of sitters. The double portrait of David Watluck and Karen Brown Waltuck is a gorgeous canonic hymn, while those of Florine Stettheimer, Pablo Picasso and Jean Arp string together seemingly unrelated and disjunctive ideas like a stream of non-sequiturs. Cantankerous bitonality rules in a portrait of composer Gerald Busby, while Thomson’s steadfast assistant Louis Rispoli (tragically murdered in a 2012 gay hate crime) inspired a ravishing nocturne-like piece. Most of the portraits are for piano, with fascinating exceptions like the exotic sounding Percussion Piece (1941), which depicts Thomson’s one-time patron Jessie Lasell. Whether or not the portraits accurately portray their subjects, they diversely demonstrate what their composer described as “the discipline of spontaneity.”
Thomson’s parallel career as a writer on music first flowered in the 1920s. From 1932 until 1946, he contributed numerous articles to the New York League of Composers’ journal Modern Music on topics ranging from contemporaries like Copland and Gershwin to jazz and Charlie Chaplin’s film scores. Although Thomson claimed the main premise of his 1939 book The State of Music concerned “who does what to whom, and who gets paid,” it discussed topics like education, patronage, matters of employment and the role of musicians in society with audacious clarity and occasional prescience. Impressed by the book, New York Herald Tribune editor Geoffrey Parsons offered Thomson a position as the paper’s chief music critic. Thomson agreed. When asked why he accepted the job, Thomson candidly explained, “The general standard of music reviewing in New York had sunk so far that almost any change might bring improvement. Also, I thought perhaps my presence in a post so prominent might stimulate performance of my works.”
Thomson enjoyed socializing, but had no use for long-windedness, and frequently snapped at colleagues and friends to ‘get to the point!’
Nearly all of Thomson’s previously collected and uncollected Herald Tribune articles, reviews and editorials have been assembled in a new eleven-hundred-page book, Musical Chronicles: 1940–1954 (Library of America) together with large appendix containing early writings. Whether or not one agrees with all of his opinions, Thomson the prose stylist proves as consistently clear, succinct and playful as Thomson the composer. “He genuinely knew his field,” said Tim Page, who edited the collection. “He did not need to bury timid critiques within the context of history lessons or windy, subjective meditations. An orchestra played well or it didn’t; a soprano sang in tune or she was flat; a superstar lived up to his reputation or he didn’t. And, more often than not, Thomson not only delivered his verdicts stylishly but also explained how and why he came to those conclusions in language that was both entertaining to the layman and instructive for the professional musician.” Not surprisingly, Thomson was tough on his writer colleagues. “Stop stuttering,” he’d say when a review didn’t get to the proverbial point soon enough.
In addition to the book, the Thomson anniversary ushers in several important recording projects. A splendid new version of The Mother Of Us All (Albany Records) stems from the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater’s 2013 production, and favorably compares alongside the work’s 1976 disc premiere. Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project are featured in Four Saints in Three Acts’ second complete recording (BMOP/sound), the first since Nonesuch’s 1981 release celebrating Thomson’s eighty-fifth birthday.
Anthony Tommasini’s meticulously researched and insightful biography Virgil Thomson: Composer On the Aisle chronicles Thomson’s life and work in depth, from his struggle to accept his homosexuality to the challenges he faced in mounting his third and final opera Lord Byron, and remains essential reading. Newcomers to Thomson can find a number of significant works on disc in excellent modern performances. Yehuda Hanani’s Naxos recording of the invigorating 1951 Cello Concerto uses its original full orchestration. A Gil Rose/BMOP release features orchestral songs and the substantial Three Pictures for Orchestra in which impressionism and elaborate chromaticism magically mesh. Nor should one overlook Sir Neville Marriner’s great 1975 EMI collaboration with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in Thomson’s suites from The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, plus the underrated Autumn: Concertino for Harp, Strings and Percussion. And RCA’s abridged 1947 Four Saints recording conducted by Thomson and featuring most of the original cast is available from Arkivmusic.com as an on-demand reissue. There is more to Thomson’s best music — more than initially meets the ear.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.