Thomson, Virgil (Garnett)
Thomson, Virgil (Garnett)
Thomson, Virgil (Garnett), many-faceted American composer of great originality and a music critic of singular brilliance; b. Kansas City, Mo., Nov. 25, 1896; d. N.Y., Sept. 30, 1989. He began piano lessons at age 12 with local teachers, and also received instruction in organ (1909-17; 1919) and played in local churches. He took courses at a local junior college (1915-17; 1919), then entered Harvard Univ., where he studied orchestration with E.B. Hill and became assistant and accompanist to A.T. Da vison, conductor of its Glee Club; also studied piano with Heinrich Gebhard and organ with Wallace Goodrich in Boston. In 1921 he went with the Harvard Glee Club to Europe, where he remained on a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship to study organ with Boulanger at the Paris École Normale de Musique; also received private instruction in counterpoint from her. Returning to Harvard in 1922, he was made organist and choirmaster at King’s Coll.; after graduating in 1923, he went to N.Y. to study conducting with Clifton and counterpoint with Scalerò at the Juil-liard Graduate School. In 1925 he returned to Paris, which remained his base until 1940. He established friendly contacts with cosmopolitan groups of musicians, writers, and painters; his association with Gertrude Stein was particularly significant in the development of his aesthetic ideas. In his music, he refused to follow any set of modernistic doctrines; rather, he embraced the notion of popular universality, which allowed him to use the techniques of all ages and all degrees of simplicity or complexity, from simple triadic harmonies to dodecaphonic intricacies; in so doing he achieved an eclectic illumination of astonishing power of direct communication, expressed in his dictum “jamais de banalité, toujours le lieu commun.” Beneath the characteristic Parisian persiflage in some of his music there is a profoundly earnest intent. His most famous composition is the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, to the libretto by Gertrude Stein, in which the deliberate confusion wrought by the author of the play (there are actually 4 acts and more than a dozen saints, some of them in duplicate) and the composer’s almost solemn, hymn-like treatment, create a hilarious modern operabuffa. It was first introduced at Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 8, 1934, characteristically announced as being under the auspices of the “Society of Friends and Enemies of Modern Music/’ of which Thomson was director (1934-37); the work became an American classic, with constant revivals staged in America and Europe. In 1940 Thomson was appointed music critic of the N.Y. Herald-Tribune; he received the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1948 for his score to the film Louisiana Story. Far from being routine journalism, Thomson’s music reviews are minor masterpieces of literary brilliance and critical acumen. He resigned in 1954 to devote himself to composition and conducting. He received the Légion d’honneur in 1947; was elected to membership in the National Inst. of Arts and Letters in 1948 and in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1959. In 1982 he received an honorary degree of D.Mus. from Harvard Univ. In 1983 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement. He received the Medal of Arts in 1988.
dramatic: Opera: Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-28; orchestrated 1933; Hartford, Conn., Feb. 8, 1934); The Mother of Us All, to a libretto by Gertrude Stein on the life of the American suffragist Susan B. Anthony (N.Y., May 7, 1947); Lord Byron (1961-68; N.Y, April 13, 1972). Ballet: Filling Station (1937; N.Y, Feb. 18, 1938); The Harvest According (N.Y, Oct. 1, 1952; based on the Symphony on a Hymn Tune, the Cello Concerto, and the Suite from The Mother of Us All); Parson Weems and the Cherry Tree (Amherst, Mass., Nov. 1, 1975). F i 1 m : The Plow that Broke the Plains (N.Y, May 25, 1936; orch. suite, Philadelphia, Jan. 2, 1943); The River (New Orleans, Oct. 29, 1937; orch. suite, N.Y, Jan. 12, 1943); The Spanish Earth (1937; in collaboration with M. Blitzstein); Tuesday in November (1945); Louisiana Story (Edinburgh, Aug. 22, 1948; orch. suite as Acadian Songs and Dances, Philadelphia, Jan. 11, 1951); The Goddess (1957; Brussels, June 1958); Power among Men (1958; N.Y, March 5, 1959; orch. suite as Fugues and Cantilenas, Ann Arbor, May 2, 1959); Journey to America (N.Y, July 1964; orch. suite as Pilgrims and Pioneers, N.Y, Feb. 27, 1971). ORCH.: 3 syms.: No. 1, Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928; N.Y, Feb. 22, 1945), No. 2 (1931; rev. version, Seattle, Nov. 17, 1941), and No. 3 (1972; N.Y, Dec. 26, 1976); The John Moser Waltzes (1935; orchestrated 1937); The Plow that Broke the Plains, suite from the film score (1936; Philadelphia, Jan. 2, 1943); The River, suite from the film score (1937; N.Y, Jan. 12, 1943); Filling Station, suite from the ballet (1937; WNYC Radio, N.Y, Feb. 2, 1941); Canons for Dorothy Thompson (N.Y, July 23, 1942); The Major LaGuardia Waltzes (Cincinnati, May 14, 1942); Bugles and Birds: Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1940; orchestrated 1944; Philadelphia, Nov. 17, 1944); Cantabile for Strings: Portrait of Nicolas de Châtelain (1940; orchestrated 1944; Philadelphia, Nov. 17, 1944); Fanfare for France: Portrait of Max Kahn (1940; Cincinnati, Jan. 15, 1943); Fugue: Portrait of Alexander Smallens (1940; orchestrated 1944; Philadelphia, Nov. 17, 1944); Meditation: Portrait of ]ere Abbott (1935; orchestrated 1944; Vancouver, Nov. 21, 1948); Aaron Copland: Persistently Pastoral (1942; orchestrated as Pastorale, 1944; N.Y, March 15, 1945); Percussion Piece: Portrait of Jessie K Lasell (1941; orchestrated 1944; Philadelphia, Nov. 17, 1944); Tango Lullaby: Portrait of Mlle Alvarex de Toledo (1940; orchestrated 1944; Philadelphia, Nov. 17, 1944); Fugue and Chorale on Yankee Doodle, suite from the film score Tuesday in November (1945; Atlanta, April 16, 1969); The Seine at Night (1947; Kansas City, Mo., Feb. 24, 1948); Acadian Songs and Dances from the film score Louisiana Story (1948; Philadelphia, Jan. 11, 1951); Louisiana Story, suite from the film score (Philadelphia, Nov. 26, 1948); Wheat Field at Noon (Louisville, Dec. 7, 1948); At the Beach, concert waltz for Trumpet and Band (1949; N.Y, July 21, 1950; based on Le bains-bar for Violin and Piano, 1929); The Mother of Us All, suite from the opera (1949; Knoxville, Term., Jan. 17, 1950); A Solemn Music for Band (N.Y, June 17, 1949; also for orch., 1961; N.Y, Feb. 15, 1962); Cello Concerto (Philadelphia, March 24, 1950); Sea Piece with Birds (Dallas, Dec. 10, 1952); Concerto: Portrait of Roger Baker for Flute, Harp, Strings, and Percussion (Venice, Sept. 14, 1954; also for Flute and Piano); Eleven Chorale Preludes (1956; New Orleans, March 25, 1957; arr. from Brahms’s op. 122); The Lively Arts Fugue (1957); Fugues and Cantilenas from the film score Power among Men (Ann Arbor, May 2, 1959); A Joyful Fugue (1962; N.Y, Feb. 1, 1963; also for Band); Autum, concertino for Harp, Strings, and Percussion (Madrid, Oct. 19, 1964; based on the Homage to Mary a Freund and the Harp and the Piano Sonata No. 2); Pilgrims and Pioneers from the film score Journey to America (1964; N.Y, Feb. 27, 1971; also for Band); Ode to the Wonders of Nature for Brass and Percussion (Washington, D.C., Sept. 16, 1965); Fantasy in Homage to an Earlier England (Kansas City, Mo., May 27, 1966); Edges: Portrait of Robert Indiana (1966; also for Band, 1969); Study Piece: Portrait of a Lady for Band (1969; originally Insistences: Portrait of Louise Crane, 1941); Metropolitan Museum Fanfare: Portrait of an American Artist for Brass and Percussion (N.Y, Oct. 16, 1969; originally Parades: Portrait of Florine Stettheimer, 1941); Thoughts for Strings for Strings (1981); A Love Scene (1982; originally Dead Pan: Mrs. Betty Freeman); Intensely Two: Karen Brown Waltuck (1981; orchestrated 1982); Loyal Steady, and Persistent: Noah Creshevsky (1981; orchestrated 1982); Something of a Beauty: Ann-Marie Soullière (1981; orchestrated 1982); David Dubai in Flight (1982). CHAMBER: Sonata da chiesa for Clarinet, Trumpet, Horn, Trombone, and Viola (Paris, May 5, 1926; rev. 1973); (8) Portraits for Violin Alone (1928-0); Five Portraits for Four Clarinets for 2 Clarinets, Alto Clarinet, and Bass Clarinet (1929); Le bains-bar for Violin and Piano (1929; arr. as At the Beach, concert waltz for Trumpet and Band, 1949; N.Y, July 21, 1950); Portraits for Violin and Piano (1930-0); Violin Sonata (1930; Paris, Jan. 24, 1931); Serenade for Flute and Violin (1931); 2 string quartets: No. 1 (Paris, June 15, 1931; rev. 1957) and No. 2 (1932; Hartford, Conn., April 14, 1933; rev. 1957); Sonata for Flute Alone (1943); Barcarolle for Woodwinds: A Portrait of Georges Hugnet for Flute, Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, and Bassoon (1944; Pittsburgh, Nov. 29, 1946; based on a piano piece); Lamentations: Étude for Accordion (1959); Variations for Koto (1961); Étude for Cello and Piano: Portrait of Frederic James (1966); Family Portrait for 2 Trumpets, Horn, and 2 Trombones (1974; N.Y., March 24, 1975); For Lou Harrison and his Jolly Games of 16 Measures (count ’em), theme without instrumentation (1981); A Short Fanfare for 2 Trumpets or 3 Trumpets or 3 Trumpets and 2 Drums (1981); Bell Piece for 2 or 4 Players (1983); Cynthia Kemper: A Fanfare (1983); Lili Hasings for Violin and Piano (1983); A Portrait of Two (1984); Jay Rosen: Portrait and Fugue for Bass Tuba and Piano (1984-85); Stockton Fanfare for 3 Trumpets and 2 Drums (1985); also numerous solo piano pieces. VOCAL: Choral pieces; solo vocal works.
(all publ. in N.Y.): The State Of Music (1939; 2nded., rev., 1961); The Musical Scene (1945); The Art of Judging Music (1948); Music Right and Left (1951); Virgil Thomson (1966); Music Reviewed, 1940-1954 (1967); American Music Since 1910 (1971); A Virgil Thomson Reader (1981); Music with Words: A Composer’s View (1989).
K. Hoover and J. Cage, V T: His Life and Music (N.Y., 1959); K. Ward, An Analysis of the Relationship between Text and Musical Shape and an Investigation of the Relationship between Text and Surface Rhythmic Detail in “Four Saints in Three Acts” by V. T.(diss., Univ. of Tex., Austin, 1978); M. Meckna, The Rise of the American Composer-critic: Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, V. T, and Elliott Carter in the Periodical Modern Music, 1924-1946 (diss., Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara, 1984); A. Tommasini, The Musical Portraits of V T (N.Y., 1985); M. Meckna, V T: A Biography (Westport, Conn., 1986); T. and V. Page, eds., Selected Letters ofV T.(N.Y., 1988); A. Tommasini, V T: Composer on the Aisle (N.Y., 1997).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
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—
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.
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.
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. □