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Thomson, Virgil


Composer. Nationality: American. Born: Virgil Garnett Thomson in Kansas City, Missouri, 25 November 1896. Education: Attended Central High School, Junior College, Kansas City, and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Career: Childhood prodigy; music critic, Vanity Fair; 1928—moved to Paris, studied under Nadia Boulanger; 1933—wrote opera with the writer Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts; 1936—first music for film, The Plow That Broke the Plains; 1940—returned to US; music critic for New York Herald Tribune. Award: Pulitzer Prize for Louisiana Story, 1948. Died: In New York, 30 September 1989.

Films as Composer:


The Plow That Broke the Plains (Lorentz)


The River (Lorentz); The Spanish Earth (Ivens)


Tuesday in November (Houseman)


Louisiana Story (Flaherty)


The Goddess (Cromwell)


Power among Men (Hackenschmied)


Voyage to America (Jackson—short)


By THOMSON: books—

The State of Music, New York, 1939.

The Musical Scene, New York, 1945.

The Art of Judging Music, New York, 1948.

Music Right and Left, New York, 1951.

Everbest Ever: Virgil Thomson's Correspondence with Bay Area Friends, Lanham, 1996.

On THOMSON: book—

Hoover, Kathleen, and John Cage, Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music, New York, 1959.

Kirkpatrick, John, 20th Century American Masters: Ives, Thomson, Sessions & Cowell, New York, 1997.

Tommasini, Anthony, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, New York, 1998.

Watson, Steven, Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism, New York, 1999.

On THOMSON: articles—

Films and Filming (London), vol. 8, no. 3, December 1961.

New Zealand Film Music Bulletin (Invercargill), no. 36, November 1981.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 11 October 1989.

New Zealand Film Music Bulletin (Invercargill), no. 69, February 1990.

Wide Angle (Baltimore), no. 1, 1995.

Advocate, 8 July 1997.

Commentary, July 1997.

Music & Letters, February 1998.

Opera Quarterly, Spring 1999.

* * *

Virgil Thomson's reputation as a composer of film music is out of all proportion to his output. He wrote scores for only eight movies, six of them documentaries. Yet these scores—and two of them in particular—exerted a lasting influence on the development of 20th-century American music, not only for films but in the concert hall as well.

Born in Missouri, Thomson studied during the 1920s with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, revelling in the musical and artistic ferment of the era. Invited in 1936 to provide a score for Pare Lorentz's documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains, he responded with music that treated indigenous American folk themes with a wit, litheness and affectionate irony learnt from Satie and the composers of Les Six, creating an engaging blend of naivety and sophistication.

Lorentz's film, commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture, dealt with the Dustbowl disaster of the American Midwest, when thousands were driven off the land by economic and ecological breakdown. Working closely with Lorentz—and virtually for nothing, since the director had long since overspent his minuscule budget—Thomson wove further strands of association around the film's evocative images. For the arrival of cattle on the high plains, banjo and guitar pick out the plangent melancholy of cowboy songs like "Streets of Laredo," while scenes of rampant financial speculation are treated to a raunchy, sardonic blues, vibrant with saxophones, that recalls the Weill of Dreigroschenoper.

Thomson's score for The Plow reached wider audiences through the orchestral suite he drew from it, and so did the music for his second collaboration with Lorentz. Backed, like its predecessor, by Roosevelt's New Deal Administration, The River sketched a brooding, elegiac account of the Mississippi valley, culminating in a celebration of Roosevelt's pet scheme, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Once again Thomson's score set off the images—and Lorentz's incantatory script—with a piquant mix of original material and indigenous melodies: hymn-tunes, spirituals and popular songs, including (for scenes of booming industrial expansion) an uproarious handling of "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."

To Aaron Copland, Thomson's score for The River provided "a lesson in how to treat Americana." Its influence can be heard in Copland's own ballet scores—Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring—as well as in the work of associated composers such as Roy Harris and Walter Piston. But in the specific field of film music Thomson's two scores for Lorentz established an alternative mode to the lush Germanic romanticism then prevalent in Hollywood movies. Not only through Copland's own film scores (and via Copland, those of his followers such as Bernard Herrmann and Alex North) but for American film music in general Thomson set out options of concision and spareness, of a clean, sharply-etched idiom rather than an overall impressionistic haze.

"The movie," Thomson once wrote, "is a true musical form, as truly a musical form as the opera, though without the opera's inseparable marriage of music to words." Nowhere was his theory better demonstrated than in his score for Flaherty's Louisiana Story. The film, financed by Standard Oil, showed the coming of oil prospectors to the swamp wilderness of the bayous, seen through the eyes of a native Cajun boy. Drawing this time on an anthology of Cajun folk song, Thomson clothed the haunting melodic lines in a rich variety of instrumental texture, combining them as before with original passages of his own. Though employing complex formal devices—a twelve-tone chorale, a passacaglia, a chromatic double fugue—the music never seems academic, nor loses the simplicity and rhythmic freedom appropriate to its basic material and to Flaherty's lyrical images.

Thomson's score for Louisiana Story won him a Pulitzer Prize, the first Pulitzer award ever granted to a film score. Once again he adapted the music for concert use, deriving from it two separate orchestral suites and a ballet, The Bayou.

The only feature film Thomson scored was The Goddess, the rise to fame of a Monroesque Hollywood star directed by John Cromwell from a script by Paddy Chayefsky. Less distinctive than his documentary work, the music suggests that Thomson felt hampered by composing for fiction film, with its limited scope for elongated lines and symphonic development. Even so, The Goddess allowed him to exercise his talent for spot-on pastiche. At various points in the film (which covers the years 1928–58) a radio is turned on and jazz emerges, each time perfectly in period in its style and instrumentation. Yet all of it is Thomson's original work—further evidence of his exact and appreciative ear for indigenous American music of every kind.

—Philip Kemp

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"Thomson, Virgil." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Thomson, Virgil." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . (December 15, 2017).

"Thomson, Virgil." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson

American composer, critic, and conductor Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) combined literary and musical erudition with simplicity, wit, and skill.

Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, MO, on Nov. 25, 1896. He studied music theory, piano, and organ, and at the age of 12 he officiated as organist of the local Baptist church. His youthful acquaintance with American folk songs and Baptist hymns later gave him important material in his compositions. After serving in the Army during World War I, Thomson studied at Harvard University. A fellowship enabled him to study in Paris for a year with the distinguished pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Returning to the United States, he received a bachelor of arts degree from Harvard in 1923.

Thomson lived in Paris from 1925 until World War II, visiting the United States periodically. In Paris he formed close associations with musicians, painters, and writers, many of whom were depicted in his compositions for piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra. Among those described in his numerous musical portraits were Gertrude Stein (1928) and Pablo Picasso (1940).

Another important influence on Thomson was that of composer Erik Satie, who advocated a return to simple, unpretentious music. Thomson's first opera was just that. Four Saints in Three Acts, based on Gertrude Stein's free-association prose, received its premiere in Hartford, CT in 1934. An all-black cast dressed in cellophane costumes sang a virtually unintelligible libretto, and Thomson's music, derived from church hymns and folk sources, utilized only the most rudimentary harmonies. Following the marked success of his first opera, Thomson composed music for two documentary films, The Plough That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). The latter work utilizes many American folk melodies, including "Aunt Rhody" and "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."

Thomson's first book, The State of Music (1939), described the place of music in Western society. In 1940 he became a critic with the New York Herald Tribune, a post he occupied with great distinction until his retirement in 1954. During those years his articles were collected and published in The Musical Scene (1945), The Art of Judging Music (1948), and Music Right and Left (1951).

Meanwhile, Thomson continued to compose. His second opera, The Mother of Us All, was first performed in 1947. The libretto by Gertrude Stein dealt with the career of Susan B. Anthony. A Solemn Music (1949), written for band and later orchestrated, was composed in a rather conservative atonal idiom. Written in memory of Stein and the painter Christian Bérard, it is one of Thomson's most powerful works. During the 1960s he composed several sacred works, among them Missa pro defunctis for double chorus and orchestra and Pange lingua for organ. In 1967 his book Music Reviewed, 1940-1954 appeared.

In the course of his long career, Thomson wrote many songs and piano music. He received international recognition for his multifaceted achievements: a Pulitzer Prize (1948), several honorary academic degrees, and France's Legion of Honor award.

When Thomson moved back to the U.S. in 1940, he took up residence at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. He would live in that apartment for the rest of his life. It became almost a museum of paintings, pictures, books and furniture from well-known artists who were his friends. Thomson spent much of his time composing music while resting on his walnut bed, where he was often photographed at work. His memoir was published in 1966, simply entitled Virgil Thomson. In 1972, Thomson composed a new opera, entitled Lord Byron, which premiered at the Julliard, yet did not receive the acclaim of his previous two operas.

Each time Thomson reached a milestone birthday, it was marked with a celebration. On his 80th birthday, a special production of his best-known opera, Mother of Us All, was performed. On his 85th birthday, Four Saints in Three Acts was presented at Carnegie Hall. On his 90th birthday, Four Saints was once again performed by the Opera Ensemble of New York. In addition, a radio station in New York broadcast the three operas (Mother of Us All, Four Saints, and Lord Byron), as well as three film scores and numerous chamber compositions and piano sonatas. By this time, Thomson had composed more than 140 Portaits for Piano, which were carefully catalogued and published as Virgil Thomson's Musical Portraits, by Anthony Tommasini.

At the age of 92, Thomson published his last book, Music with Words: A Composer's View (1989). He died in New York City on Sept. 30, 1989. Following his death, his many artifacts were auctioned off for the benefit of the Virgil Thomson Foundation. News reports said the art work went far in excess of its estimated value due to the sentimental nature of the items.

Further Reading

The composer's autobiography, Virgil Thomson (1966), is an invaluable and delightful source. The best study of Thomson's life and music is Kathleen O'Donnell Hoover and John Cage, Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music (1959). Joseph Machlis, American Composers of Our Time (1963), devotes a chapter to Thomson and is recommended for general background. □

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Thomson, Virgil (Garnett)

Thomson, Virgil (Garnett) (b Kansas City, 1896; d NY, 1989). Amer. composer, critic, and organist. Mus. child prodigy. Wrote criticism for Vanity Fair. Lived in Paris 1925–32, associating with Les Six and Gertrude Stein. Returned to NY permanently 1940, becoming mus. critic of Herald-Tribune until 1954. Had considerable success with comic opera Four Saints in Three Acts, lib. by Stein, prod. 1934, followed in 1947 by The Mother of Us All, also to a Stein lib. Wrote several successful film scores (incl. Louisiana Story, 1948) and much incidental mus., esp. for Shakespeare plays. Influenced by Debussy and Satie. Inveterate champion of 20th-cent. mus. A waspish, occasionally percipient, critic. Works incl.:OPERAS: Four Saints in Three Acts (1927–8, orch. 1933); The Mother of Us All (1947); Lord Byron (1961–8).ORCH.: 3 syms. (1928, 1931 rev. 1941, 1972, 3rd being transcr. of 2nd str. qt., 1932); Suite (Portraits) Nos. 1 and 2 (1944); vc. conc. (1949); Ode to the Wonders of Nature, brass, perc. (1965); A Love Scene (1982).CHAMBER MUSIC: 2 str. qts. (1931, rev. 1957, 1932, rev. 1957); 5 Portraits, 4 cl. (1929); 4 Portraits, vn., pf. (1931); 7 Portraits, vn. (1928).VOCAL: Capital, Capitals, 4 male vv., pf. (1927). Also 4 pf. sonatas and other works, songs, etc.

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Thomson, Virgil

Virgil Thomson, 1896–1989, American composer, critic, and organist, b. Kansas City, Mo. Thomson studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Until about 1926 he wrote in a dissonant, neoclassic style, but after his 16-minute quintet Sonata da chiesa (1926) he began to employ a highly simplified style that shows the influence of Erik Satie. He wrote two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) and The Mother of Us All (1947), for librettos by Gertrude Stein; music for films including The River (1937) and Louisiana Story (1948); the ballet Filling Station (1937); an opera, Lord Byron (1972); and numerous works for voice, organ, piano, and chamber ensembles. Thomson was music critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 until 1954. His books include The State of Music (1939), The Musical Scene (1945), The Art of Judging Music (1948), and American Music since 1910 (1971).

See his autobiography (1966); biography by A. Tommasini (1997).

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"Thomson, Virgil." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"Thomson, Virgil." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Thomson, Virgil

Thomson, Virgil (1896–1989) US critic and composer. He was music critic for the New York Herald Tribune (1940–54). Much influenced by Erik Satie, his works include the operas Four Saints in Three Acts (1928, first production 1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947).

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