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 on Virgil Thomson

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.