Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson

:"For the American author with a similar name, see" Virgil Thompson (author)Virgil Thomson (November 25, 1896 - September 30, 1989) was an American composer and critic from Kansas City, Missouri. He was instrumental in the development of the "American Sound" in classical music.


Thomson displayed an extraordinary intelligence at an early age. As a child, he befriended Alice Smith, granddaughter of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith. He attended Harvard University, and his tours of Europe with the Harvard Glee Club helped nurture his desire to return there. He eventually studied with Nadia Boulanger and became a fixture of "Paris in the twenties." His most important friend from this period was Gertrude Stein, who was an artistic collaborator and mentor to him. Following the publication of his book "The State of Music" he established himself in New York City as a peer of Aaron Copland and was also a music critic for the "New York Herald-Tribune" from 1940 through 1954. His writings on music, and his reviews of performances in particular, are noted for their wit and their independent judgments. His definition of music was famously "that which musicians do," [Rorem, Ned "A Ned Rorem Reader" (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001) pp.223] 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. [Thomson, Virgil "The State of Music" (New York: Vintage Books, 1962) p. 81]

In the 1930s, he worked as a theater and film composer. His most famous works for theater are two operas with libretti by Gertrude Stein, "Four Saints in Three Acts", especially famous for its use of an all-black cast, and "The Mother of Us All", as well as incidental music for Orson Welles' Depression-era production of Macbeth, set in the Caribbean. He collaborated closely with "Chick" Austin of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum in these early productions. His first film commission was "The Plow That Broke the Plains", sponsored by the United States Resettlement Administration, which also sponsored the film "The River" with music by Thomson. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1949 with his film score for "Louisiana Story". In addition, Thomson was famous for his revival of the rare technique of composing "musical portraits" of living subjects, often spending hours in a room with them before rushing off to finish the piece on his own. Many subjects reported feeling that the pieces did capture something unique about their identities even though nearly all of the portraits were absent any clearly representational content. [Tommasini, Anthony "Virgil Thomson’s Musical Portraits" (New York: Pendragon Press, 1986) pp. 19]

Later in life, 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. [Hubbs, Nadine. "The Queer Composition of America’s Sound; Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity." (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2004)]

Thomson's score for "The River" was used in the 1983 ABC made-for-television movie "The Day After".

Virgil Thomson's personal papers are in a repository at the Archival Papers in the Music Library of Yale University and also additional effects regarding Thomson are included in the Ian Hornak respository at the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art in Washington D.C.


External links

* [ Virgil Thomson interview by Bruce Duffie]
* [ Art of the States: Virgil Thomson]

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