Virgil Thomson, who wrote memorable music and wrote about music memorably, was an insightful artist whose opinions on art remain fresh more than 30 years after his death.
The other day a book arrived in my mailbox that I was really looking forward to receiving. It was the Library of America’s edition of the music writing of a critic and composer named Virgil Thomson, an artist who ought to have greater name recognition among the American public.
Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri the year William McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan the first time. He studied piano from an early age and after high school went off to Harvard where he studied music, specifically the piano works of Erik Satie. He also sang with the Harvard Glee Club which took him to Europe for the first time. He loved it and after graduation moved to Paris where he lived from 1925 until 1940. There he fell in with an impressive crowd of artists including
composers like Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc, and the writer and Lost Generation ring-master Gertrude Stein. Thomson and Stein collaborated on an experimental opera called Four Saints in Three Acts which, anticipating Hamilton by 80 years, portrayed European saints with an all-black cast. It was the first of three operas that he wrote. He also wrote solo piano pieces, works for chamber ensembles, three symphonies, and various orchestral pieces. In 1949, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his music for the film Louisiana Story.
In addition to being a composer, he was a prolific writer, and from 1940-1954 was the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. The essays and reviews he wrote during these years make up the bulk of the book I received. Reading Thomson’s review of, say, a Philadelphia orchestra concert from February, 1941 is not an pointless exercise in reminiscing or antique shopping. Though the concerts have long since passed, Thomson’s writing still sparkles with insight. I’ve always said that one of the best ways to learn about art is to find a critic that you like and dig in, and Thomson is a perfect candidate to teach you a lot about listening to music.
If Thomson says the Barber violin concerto is “a bit superficial in its musical structure,” and then explains what he means, you’ve just learned something about musical structure. If he writes something along the lines of “this unwillingness to let an ensemble be an ensemble of contrasting and complementary characters,” well, you’ve learned something about how an ensemble does or doesn’t play together.
He received the National Medal for the Arts from President Reagan in 1988. He died in New York in September of the following year after a lifetime of composition and, even more, being a voice for music for the public.