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Thomson, Virgil

Thomson, Virgil

Born in 1896


Inducted in 2001

Virgil Thomson, in a career spanning 55 years, was a major figure in American music in the 20th century. He composed two of the significant American operas of the 20th century, and served for 14 years as music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune, demonstrating “a mastery of American prose style and a spunkily opinionated expertise that set Thomson apart from his critical peers.”1 It was that same mastery of language that contributed to the success of his operas, the compositions for which he is best known. Kansas City, his birthplace, where he remained until he joined the army in 1917, would always be an important influence on his compositions. According to his biography, the music he heard growing up in Kansas City “was part and parcel of the wide-open world around him ­ Civil War songs, country songs, the blues, barn-dance music, Baptist hymns, folk songs, sentimental popular songs…were indelibly embedded in him, and he undertook to reconstruct this atmosphere.”2 Thomson studied piano from the age of five, and at 12 began to learn the organ. At the same time he became the paid organist at the family’s church and at other churches in Kansas City. He also learned to host a regular salon at which friends discussed intellectual and artistic subjects at length, another talent for which he would become famous in the future, living in New York City. He published a literary magazine while attending Kansas City Polytechnic Institute and Junior College. During World War I Thomson joined the army. Stationed in New York City, Thomson broadened his cultural horizon, finding Gregorian Chant at Anglican and Catholic churches of particular interest. By the end of the War, Thomson was a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Military Aviation Corps and had decided to make music his career. Thomson entered Harvard College in 1919 where he studied orchestration and musical history with Edward Burlingame Hill and counterpoint with Archibald T. Davison, the conductor of the Harvard Glee Club. He served as assistant to Davison and as accompanist to the Glee Club. Through his studies with S. Foster Damon, Thomson became acquainted with the works of two of the most powerful influences on his life and his career: writer Gertrude Stein and French composer Erik Satie. In 1921 Thomson toured Europe with the Harvard Glee Club. He had just received the John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship, and stayed in Paris for a year. There he studied organ with Nadia Boulanger, and became acquainted with French contemporary composers, including Satie. He also furthered the other side of his career, serving as Paris correspondent for the Boston Evening Transcript. When he returned to complete his studies at Harvard, he was appointed assistant professor to Hill and Davison, and became organist at King’s Chapel in Boston. Upon graduation from Harvard in 1923, Thomson was granted a fellowship at the Juilliard School, where he studied with Rosario Scalero, teacher of Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Intellectual and artistic ferment in Paris in the 1920s drew Thomson back in 1925. He lived in Paris until 1940. In 1926 he met Gertrude Stein and the pair began to plan the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Stein’s text was completed in 1927, and Thomson was responsible for the music and the structure of the work. The premiere took place in Hartford, Connecticut in 1934. The opera was a sensation ­ without a plot and with the first all black cast in an opera ­ and subsequently played in Chicago, and on Broadway for eight weeks. During the rest of his years in Paris Thomson composed instrumental works, including many of the 150 Portraits (mainly for piano) he completed during his lifetime; scores for two documentary films by Pare Lorentz, for which his palette returned to his roots in the American Midwest, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937); and Filling Station, the first classical ballet with an all-American (preceding Copland’s Billy the Kid by a year), commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for performance by the Ballet Caravan in 1937. Thomson returned to New York in 1940 to become music critic of The New York Herald-Tribune, a position he would hold for 14 years. During his tenure at the Tribune, Thomson composed two more of his major works: his second opera, The Mother of Us All, another collaboration with Stein, commissioned by the Alice M. Ditson Fund, which concerns Susan B. Anthony and the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century; and the score for another Lorentz film Louisiana Story, for which he received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for music. Mother of Us All had its premiere in New York in 1947, and Thomson conducted the Paris premiere of Four Saints in 1952. In 1968 Thomson completed his last opera, Lord Byron, with a libretto by Jack Larson, in 1970. The work had its premiere in New York in 1972. Thomson’s writings in the Tribune were collected in four books. He intended to devote himself to composition after leaving the Tribune, but did publish more books, including his autobiography in 1966, and in the 1970s, Thomson began to write for the New York Review of Books. American Music Since 1910 was published in 1971, and The Virgil Thomson Reader received the National Book Critics Circle award in 1981. Thomson received the gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the David Bispham medal for American Opera, and a special citation by the New York Music Critics Circle, an organization of which he was founder and first chairman. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, and an officer in the Legion d’Honneur. Thomson continued to compose until his death. He also continued to write criticism, hold famous “salons” at his home in the Hotel Chelsea in New York, and conducted, lectured, and served as a visiting professor at many universities in the U.S. Thomson’s contribution to American music has been summarized many ways: according to John Rockwell, the principal characteristics of his music for which he is remembered are “open intervals, Baptist hymns, clear and sensitive text-setting, cheerful fanfares, almost proto-Minimalist repetition.”3 Victor Yellin, in an essay in one of Thomson’s own books, writes “in the three operas…he has established a new kind of opera in English which transcends nationalism, nineteenth-century dramaturgy, and twentieth-century stylistic dogmas.”