In his first symphony, composer Virgil Thomson build a bridge to carry his listeners into the past, but to bring them back to the present as well
Most of the time when someone mentions modernism in music, our minds jump to some pretty strange things. We tend to imagine something with no tonality, plenty of dissonance, weird unpredictable rhythms, and the lack of anything approaching a melody.
But if you listen to the work of, say, Igor Stravinsky--without question a modernist master—you’ll hear melodic touches that have their roots in anything but the modern world. Much of what he did was pull folk melodies from the past and work them through his musical vision—into something new, often revolutionary.
Other composers in the 20th century, and some American ones, experimented with the same thing. One evening a couple of weeks ago I sat down and listened to Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune which he composed while he was in Paris from 1926-1928. It’s his first symphony, a four-movement piece
whose content is rooted in two beloved American Protestant hymns, both of which many people could probably whistle in their sleep.
In this work, Thompson does much the same thing as Stravinsky—he’s building a bridge that connects the old and the new, the past and the present.
The “Hymn Symphony” as it’s sometimes called, begins with a soft and distant melody whose effectiveness comes from its oddly familiar feeling. It’s being passed back and forth between sections and not until a minute and 20 seconds in do you realize and it’s the old hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” Then an oboe picks up what sounds like a variation on the melody. And then the strings ease in with the next song— “Jesus Loves Me.” Flutes warble like birds. Percussion gently punctuates. Swells give way to little burbling patches that evoke human conversation. Horn lines that sound almost like Aaron Copland’s western vistas sweep by. It’s a delight of the familiar and the unexpected somehow coexisting in the same moment.
It’s a creative and enjoyable piece and simply fun to listen to familiar melodies wind their way in and out of the symphonic form. If you’re familiar with Charles Ives’s Second Symphony that he composed between 1897 and 1902—and I hope you are--this will remind you of that although it’s not nearly as complex and it far less varied in its sources. Like in that great work, stripping familiar songs of their words and putting them into an unexpected setting does something to them, and to us. It lets us see, or in this case hear, something familiar in a fresh new way and in so doing gives us insights into ourselves and into what art can accomplish.