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Virgil Thomson (November 25, 1896 - September 30, 1989) was an American composer and critic. He was instrumental in the development of the "American Sound" in classical music. He has been described as a modernist, a neoromantic, a neoclassicist, and a composer of "an Olympian blend of humanity and detachment" whose "expressive voice was always carefully muted" until his late opera Lord Byron which, in contrast to all his previous work, exhibited an emotional content that rises to "moments of real passion".
His most important friend from this period was Gertrude Stein, who was an artistic collaborator and mentor to him. After meeting Stein in Paris in 1926, Thomson invited her to prepare a libretto for an opera which he hoped to compose. Their collaboration resulted in the premier of the groundbreaking composition Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934. At the time, the opera was noted for its form, musical content and the portrayal of European saints by an all-black cast. Years later in 1947, he collaborated once again with Stein on his provocative opera The Mother of Us All which portrays the life of the social reformer Susan B. Anthony. Thomson incorporated musical elements from Baptist hymns, Gregorian chants and popular songs into both scores while demonstrating a restrained use of dissonance.
Thomson's contributions to music were not limited to the operatic stage, however. In 1936, he established a collaboration with the film director Pare Lorentz and composed music for the documentary film The Plow That Broke the Plains for the United States government's Resettlement Administration (RA). Thomson incorporated folk melodies and religious musical themes into the film score and subsequently composed an orchestral suite of the same name which was recorded by Leopold Stokowski and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra in 1946 for RCA Victor (# 11-9522,11-9523). In 1938 he also formed a collaboration with Lorentz and the operatic singer Thomas Hardie Chalmers on the documentary film The River for the United States government's Farm Security Administration. Thomson composed an orchestra suite based on the score; when it was published, the musical journal Notes commented: "Delightful as background music, the piece is an awful bore when you try to give it your full attention".
Following the publication of his book, The State of Music, Thomson established himself in New York City as a rival of Aaron Copland. Thomson's criticisms of Copland were phrased in terms that brought accusations of antisemitism, but Copland remained on good terms with him, and Thomson admitted his envy of Copland's greater success as a composer. Thomson was also a music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1940 to 1954. A fellow critic, Robert Miles, accused him of being "vindictive and of settling scores in print". In a 1997 article in American Music, Suzanne Robinson writes that Thomson, motivated by "a mixture of spite, national pride, and professional jealousy" was consistently "severe and spiteful" to Benjamin Britten. Miles records that Thomson agitated for more performances in New York of new music, including his own.
Thomson's definition of music was "that which musicians do", and his views on music are radical in their insistence on reducing the rarefied aesthetics of music to market activity. He even went so far as to claim that the style a piece was written in could be most effectively understood as a consequence of its income source.
In 1969, Thomson composed Metropolitan Museum Fanfare: Portrait Of An American Artist to accompany the Museum's Centennial exhibition "New York Painting And Sculpture: 1940-1970".
Thomson became a sort of mentor and father figure to a new generation of American tonal composers such as Ned Rorem, Paul Bowles and Leonard Bernstein, a circle united as much by their shared homosexuality as by their similar compositional sensibilities. Women composers were not part of that circle, and one writer has suggested that, as a critic, he selectively omitted mention of their works, or adopted a more passive tone when praising them.
Included among Virgil Thomson's publications are:
Thomson, Virgil. (1940) The State of Music. New York. Morrow.
--. (1945) The Musical Scene. New York. A. A. Knopf.
--. (1948) The Art of Judging Music. New York. A. A. Knopf.
--. (1951) Music, Right and Left. New York. Henry Holt and Co.
--. (1966) Virgil Thomson. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.
--. (1971) American Music Since 1919. New York. Holt Rinehart and Winston.
--. (1981) A Virgil Thomson Reader. Boston. Houghton and Mifflin.
--. (1989) Music With Words: A Composer's View. New Haven. Yale University Press.
^Dickinson, Peter. 1986. "Stein Satie Cummings Thomson Berners Cage: Toward a Context for the Music of Virgil Thomson". The Musical Quarterly 72, no. 3:394-409.[page needed]
^Lerner, Neil William. 1997. "The Classical Documentary Score in American Films of Persuasion: Contexts and Case Studies, 1936-1945". PhD diss. Duke University.
^Kime, Mary W. 1989. "Modernism and Americana: A Study of The Mother of Us All". Ars Musica Denver 2, no. 1 (Fall): pp. 24-29.
^Watson, Steven. 1998. Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism. New York: Random House, 1998; ISBN0-679-44139-5 (cloth); reissued in paperback, University of California Berkeley Press, 2000; ISBN0-520-22353-5[page needed]