Thompson, Randall

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Thompson, Randall

Thompson, Randall, eminent American composer and pedagogue; b. N.Y, April 21, 1899; d. Boston, July 9, 1984. He was a member of an intellectual New England family. He studied at Lawrenceville School in N.J., where his father was an English teacher, and began taking singing lessons and received his rudimentary music training from the organist Francis Cuyler Van Dyck. When he died, Thompson took over his organ duties in the school. Upon graduation, he went to Harvard Univ., where he studied with Walter Spalding, Edward Burlingame Hill, and Archibald T. Davison (B.A., 1920; M.A., 1922). In 1920-21 he had some private lessons in N.Y. with Bloch. In 1922 he submitted his orch. prelude Pierrot and Cothurnus, inspired by the poetical drama Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay, for the American Prix de Rome, and received a grant for residence in Rome; he conducted it there at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia on May 17, 1923. Encouraged by its reception, he proceeded to compose industriously, for piano, for voices, and for orch. He returned to the U.S. in 1925. From 1927 to 1929 he taught at Wellesley Coll., and again from 1936 to 1937; in 1929 he was appointed a lecturer in music at Harvard Univ.; in 1929-30 he held a Guggenheim fellowship. On Feb. 20, 1930, his 1st Sym. had its premiere in Rochester, N.Y, with Howard Hanson conducting, and on March 24, 1932, Hanson conducted in Rochester the first performance of Thompson’s 2nd Sym., which was destined to become one of the most successful symphonic works by an American composer; it enjoyed repeated performances in the U.S. and also in Europe. Audiences found the work distinctly American in substance; the unusual element was the inclusion of jazz rhythms in the score. Equally American and equally appealing, although for entirely different reasons, was his choral work Americana, to texts from Mencken’s satirical column in his journal, the American Mercury. There followed another piece of Americana, the nostalgic choral work The Peaceable Kingdom, written in 1936, and inspired by the painting of that name by the naturalistic fantasist Edward Hicks; for it, Thompson used biblical texts from the Prophets. Another piece for chorus, deeply religious in its nature, was Alleluia (1940), which became a perennial favorite in the choral literature; it was first performed at Tanglewood, Mass., at the inaugural session of the Berkshire Music Center, on July 8, 1940. In 1942 Thompson composed his most celebrated piece of choral writing, The Testament of Freedom, to words of Thomas Jefferson; it was first performed with piano accompaniment at the Univ. of Va. on April 13, 1943. A version with orch. was presented by the Boston Sym. Orch. on April 6, 1945. With this work Thompson firmly established his reputation as one of the finest composers of choral music in America. But he did not limit himself to choral music. His 1st String Quartet in D minor (1941) was praised, as was his opera, Solomon and Balkis, after Kipling’s The Butterfly That Stamped, a parody on Baroque usages, broadcast over CBS on March 29, 1942. In 1949 Thompson wrote his 3rd Sym., which was presented at the Festival of Contemporary American Music at Columbia Univ. in N.Y. on May 15, 1949. Thompson’s subsequent works were an orch. piece, A Trip to Nahant (1954), a Requiem (1958), an opera, The Nativity According to St. Luke (1961), The Passion According to St. Luke (1965), the cantata The Place of the Blest (1969), and A Concord Cantata (1975). During all this time, he did not neglect his educational activities; he taught at the Univ. of Calif, at Berkeley (1937-39); the Curtis Inst. of Music in Philadelphia, where he served as director from 1939 to 1941; the School of Fine Arts at the Univ. of Va. (1941-46); Princeton Univ. (1946-48); and Harvard Univ. (1948-65), where he retired as prof, emeritus in 1965. He also publ. a book, College Music (N.Y., 1935). In 1938 he was elected a member of the National Inst. of Arts and Letters; in 1959 he was named “Cavaliere ufficiale al merito della Repubblica Italiana/’ In his compositions, Thompson preserved and cultivated the melodious poetry of American speech, set in crystalline tonal harmonies judiciously seasoned with euphonious discords, while keeping resolutely clear of any modernistic abstractions.


dramatic: Opera: Solomon and Balkis, after Kipling’s The Butterfly That Stamped (CBS, N.Y, March 29, 1942; 1st stage perf., Cambridge, Mass., April 14, 1942); The Nativity According to St. Luke (Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 13, 1961). Ballet: Jabberwocky (1951). Incidental Music T o : Torches (1920); Grand Street Follies (N.Y, June 25, 1926; not extant); The Straw Hat (N.Y, Oct. 14, 1926); The Battle of Dunster Street (1953). ORCH.: Pierrot and Cothurnus (1922; Rome, May 17, 1923); The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, symphonic prelude (Rome, May 27, 1924); Jazz Poem for Piano and Orch. (Rochester, N.Y, Nov. 27, 1928); 3 syms.: No. 1 (1929; Rochester, N.Y, Feb. 20, 1930), No. 2 (1931; Rochester, N.Y, March 24, 1932), and No. 3 (1947-49; N.Y, May 15, 1949); A Trip to Nahant, symphonic fantasy (1953-54; Philadelphia, March 18, 1955). CHAMBER: All on a Summer’s Eve: Song for Violin or Cello and Piano (1917); Septet for Flute, Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano (1917); Quintet for Flute, Clarinet, Viola, Cello, and Piano (1920); Scherzino for Piccolo, Violin, and Viola (1920); The Wind in the Willows for String Quartet (1924); Suite for Oboe, Violin, and Viola (1940); 2 string quartets (1941, 1967); Trio for 3 Double Basses, a dinner-piece in honor of Koussevitzky (1949); Katie’s Dance for Instrument (1969); Wedding Music: A Wedding in Rome for String Quartet and Double Bass ad libitum (1971); Fuga a tre for Instrument (1977). Piano : Allegro (1918); Indianola Variations, 7 variations for 2 Pianos (1918; Nos. 2, 4, and 5 by L. Mannes). 2 scherzos (1921, 1921); Varied Air (1921-22); 2 sonatas (1922; 1922-23); Suite (1924); The Boats were Talking (1925); Mazurka (1926); Song after Sundown (1935); Little Prelude (1935); also 20 Chorale Preludes, 4 Inventions, and a Fugue for Keyboard Instrument (1947-59). VOCAL : The Last Invocation for Chorus (1922); 5 Odes of Horace for Chorus and Piano or Orch. (1924; Lauro, Italy, May 16, 1925); 2 Amens for Chorus (Montclair, N.J., Feb. 26, 1927); Pueri hebraeorum for Women’s Chorus (Wellesley, Mass., Feb. 5, 1928); Rosemary for Women’s Chorus (1929; N.Y, Dec. 18, 1930); Americana for Chorus and Piano or Orch., after Mencken’s journal, the American Mercury (N.Y, April 3, 1932); The Peaceable Kingdom for Chorus, inspired by a painting of Edmund Hicks (Cambridge, Mass., March 3, 1936); Tarantella: Do you Remember an Inn, Miranda? for Men’s Chorus (New Haven, Conn., Nov. 12, 1937); The Lark in the Morn for Chorus (Berkeley, Calif., Dec. 2, 1938); Alleluia for Chorus (Lenox, Mass., July 8, 1940); The Testament of Freedom for Men’s Chorus and Piano or Orch., after Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, Va., April 13, 1943; with orch., Boston, April 6, 1945); Noel for Chorus (1947); Now I Lay me down to Sleep for Women’s Chorus (1947); The Last Words of David for Chorus and Piano or Orch. (with orch., Lenox, Mass., Aug. 12, 1949); Felices ter: Horace Ode for A.T. Davison for Chorus (1953); Mass of the Holy Spirit for Chorus (1955-56; Cambridge, Mass., March 22, 1957); Ode to the Virginian Voyage for Chorus and Piano or Orch. (1956-57; Williamsburg, Va., April 1, 1957); Requiem for Double Chorus (1957-58; Berkeley, Calif., May 22, 1958); Glory to God in the Highest for Chorus (1958); The Gate of Heaven for Women’s Chorus (Hollins Coll., Va., Feb. 22, 1959; also for Mixed Chorus and for Men’s Chorus); Frostiana for Chorus and Piano, after Robert Frost (Amherst, Mass., Oct. 18, 1959; also with orch., Cambridge, Mass., April 23, 1965); The Lord is my Shepherd for Women’s Chorus and Piano, Organ, or Harp (1962; N.Y, May 1964); The Best of Rooms for Chorus (Evanston, III, April 7, 1963); A Feast of Praise, cantata for Chorus, Brass Choir, and Harp or Piano (Stanford, Calif., Aug. 11, 1963); Hymn: Thy Book Falls Open for Chorus and Organ or Band (1964); The Passion According to St. Luke, oratorio for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (1964-65; Boston, March 28, 1965); A Psalm of Thanksgiving, cantata for Chorus, Children’s Chorus, and Orch., Piano, or Organ (Boston, Nov. 15, 1967); The Eternal Dove for Chorus (1968; Cambridge, Mass., May 18, 1970); The Place of the Blest, cantata for Women’s Chorus and Piano or Chamber Orch. (N.Y, March 2, 1969); 2 Herbert Songs for Chorus (N.Y, Oct. 25, 1970); The Mirror of St. Anne for Chorus (1972); Farewell for Chorus (Merrick, N.Y, March 4, 1973); A Hymn for Scholars and Pupils for Women’s Chorus, Chamber Orch., and Organ (Washington, Conn., June 8, 1973; also for Chorus, Flute, 2 Trumpets, Trombone, Tuba, Organ, and Strings, Raleigh, N.C., Nov. 11, 1973); A Concord Cantata for Chorus and Orch., for the bicentennial of Concord, Mass. (Concord, Mass., May 2, 1975); various songs.


B. McGilvray, The Choral Music ofR. T, an American Eclectic (diss., Univ. of Mo., Kansas City, 1979); C. Benser and D. Urrows, R. T.: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1986).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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