Virgil Thomson

Composer and critic Virgil Thomson was a real musician’s musician. As a composer he created over 150 compositions that skillfully melded indigenous and cosmopolitan influences, while as a writer and lecturer he devoted himself energetically to elevating musical standards and taste, to creating a wider public for classical music, and to creating a legacy of some of the most elegant, urbane, and intelligent prose that modern music journalism has witnessed.

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About

Born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 25, 1896, Virgil Garnett Thomson enjoyed the cultivated, leisurely-paced boyhood of the rural South. Imbued with a strong sense of place–of rootedness in heartland America and its Protestant traditions–Thomson’s early connection to music came through the church and through youthful piano lessons and stints accompanying theatricals and silent films. After serving as a military pilot in World War I, he returned home to continue private piano and organ lessons, before setting his sights on Harvard, where he matriculated in 1919. There he worked as an assistant to Archibald Davison, the director of the Harvard Glee Club and choral anthologist, and he studied composition with Edward Burlingame Hill, later Leonard Bernstein’s teacher. Both men whetted Thomson’s curiosity about things Francophile and helped Thomson secure a fellowship to travel to Paris in 1921, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, sketched his first compositions, associated with the Dadaists, and made friends of the painterly circle patronized by Gertrude and Leonard Stein. It was in Paris, too, that he began his lifelong attachment to painter Maurice Grosser.

Returning to Harvard in 1922, he took his degree in 1923. For the next three years he commuted between New York and Boston, where he served as organist for the King’s Chapel, and he began to contribute serious music journalism to publications like Mencken’s American Mercury and Vanity Fair. It was not long, however, before Europe would once again exert its siren call, and for the next sixteen years he would cross the Atlantic frequently. In 1927 he journeyed to Spain to collaborate with Gertrude Stein on their opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which they completed in 1928. That same year he also produced Symphony on a Hymn Tune, as well as the first of a genre he can be credited with inventing: the musical portrait.

Four Saints received its premiere in Hartford in 1934, with an all-black cast, in an extraordinary visual production with choreography by Frederick Ashton. A second collaboration with Stein, based on the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony–The Mother of Us All–premiered in 1946, shortly before Stein’s death. In the intervening years Thomson created film and ballet scores as well as incidental music for the theatre, and visited Paris until the Nazi occupation forced him to flee. Back in New York in 1940, he settled into his final home, the Chelsea Hotel, and accepted a job as music critic for the Herald Tribune, which he retained until 1951. After his resignation from the paper he devoted himself to a third opera, Lord Byron, and to writing his autobiography in 1966 and his book American Music Since 1910 in 1971.

Embittered by the Metropolitan Opera’s cancellation of its promised premiere of Lord Byron, Thomson had to content himself with a pared-down version presented by the Juilliard School in 1972, and it was not until 1991 that the work would be performed in its entirety, at the Monadnock Festival in New Hampshire. Ever feisty and energetic, though troubled by deafness, Thomson continued to compose until a week before his death, in New York City on September 30, 1989 at the age of 93.

Though Thomson’s fame as a composer rests primarily with his three operas, the approximately 70 songs he wrote between 1926 and 1980 contain some true jewels, among them his first published song, “Susie Asado,” to a poem of Gertrude Stein, and his two cycles: Five Songs From William Blake (1951) and Mostly About Love, to texts by New York poet Kenneth Koch (1959). “A Prayer to St. Catherine” comes from the latter.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

Photo: Vigil Thomson, 1947, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: van 5a52694

Related Information

Recordings

Songs to Fill the Void

(Marion Bauer, Theodore Chanler, Charles Ives, Virgil Thomson and Scott Wheeler)

2016

Thomson: Vocal and Chamber Music

(Virgil Thomson)

2005

Nothing Divine is Mundane

(Virgil Thomson)

1997

Modern American Vocal Works

(Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson)

1954

Sure on This Shining Night

(Samuel Barber, George Whitefield Chadwick, Charles Ives, John Corigliano, Aaron Copland, William Bolcom, Ned Rorem, Richard Hageman, Charles Griffes, Victor Herbert, Horatio Parker, John Musto, Amy Marcy Beach, Theodore Chanler and Virgil Thomson)

1997

Works By Thomson, Bowles, Hoiby, Hundley

(Paul Bowles, Lee Hoiby, Richard Hundley, John Musto, Virgil Thomson and Tennessee Williams)

1988

Videos

Books

Modern Music-Makers: Contemporary American Composers

By Madeleine Goss

Published in 1952, this volume is dated but does contain a thorough biography, chronology, and catalog for many important song composers, including Charles Ives, John Alden Carpenter, Marion Bauer, William Grant Still, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Lousie Talma, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, and Leonard Bernstein.

Virgil Thomson: An Autobiography

By Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle

By Anthony Tommasini

Songs

A Package of Cookies

Richard Hundley

Virgil Thomson

A Prayer to St. Catherine

Virgil Thomson

Kenneth Koch

Song Collection: Mostly About Love

And Did Those Feet?

Virgil Thomson

William Blake

Song Collection: Five Songs From William Blake

Down at the Docks

Virgil Thomson

Kenneth Koch

Song Collection: Mostly About Love

English Usage

Virgil Thomson

Marianne Moore

Song Collection: Two by Marianne Moore

Five Songs From William Blake

Song Collection

Virgil Thomson

William Blake

From "Sneden's Landing Variations"

Virgil Thomson

Frank O’Hara

Let's Take a Walk

Virgil Thomson

Kenneth Koch

Song Collection: Mostly About Love

Love Song

Virgil Thomson

Kenneth Koch

Song Collection: Mostly About Love

Mostly About Love

Song Collection

Virgil Thomson

Kenneth Koch

My Crow Pluto

Virgil Thomson

Marianne Moore

Song Collection: Two by Marianne Moore

Portrait of F.B.

Virgil Thomson

Gertrude Stein

Praises and Prayers

Song Collection

Virgil Thomson

Anonymous

Preciosilla

Virgil Thomson

Gertrude Stein

Susie Asado

Virgil Thomson

Gertrude Stein

The Courtship of the Yongly Bongly Bo

Virgil Thomson

Edward Lear

The Divine Image

Virgil Thomson

William Blake

Song Collection: Five Songs From William Blake

The Feast of Love

Virgil Thomson

Anonymous

The Land of Dreams

Virgil Thomson

William Blake

Song Collection: Five Songs From William Blake

The Little Black Boy

Virgil Thomson

William Blake

Song Collection: Five Songs From William Blake

Tiger! Tiger!

Virgil Thomson

William Blake

Song Collection: Five Songs From William Blake

Two by Marianne Moore

Song Collection

Virgil Thomson

Marianne Moore

Audio

Track:

    Sheet Music

    28 Songs by American and British Composers

    Composer(s): John Duke

    Song(s): Barber: Must the Winter Come so Soon?
    Bernstein: Two Love Songs (Extinguish My Eyes, When My Soul Touches Yours)
    Bowles: Heavenly Grass
    Carpenter: When I Bring to You Colour'd Toys
    Corigliano: Christmas at the Cloisters, The Unicorn
    Dougherty: Sound the Flute!
    Duke: Peggy Mitchell
    Hoiby: An Immorality
    Moore: The Dove Song (The Wings of the Dove)
    Sargent: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
    Thomson: English Usage, The Tiger
    Vaughan Williams: Hugh's Song of the Road
    Wells: Everyone Sang

    Buy via Sheet Music Plus

    Songs by 22 Americans

    Composer(s): Samuel Barber
    Leonard Bernstein
    Paul Bowles
    John Alden Carpenter
    Celius Dougherty
    John Duke
    Charles Tomlinson Griffes
    Richard Hageman
    Charles Naginski
    William Roy
    Gladys Rich
    Virgil Thomson
    Elinor Remick Warren

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Sheet Music Plus

    English Usage (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    English Usage (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Five Songs From William Blake

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Sheet Music Plus

    From "Sneden's Landing Variations"

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Buy via Lingua Press

    Mostly About Love (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Mostly About Love (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    My Crow Pluto (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    My Crow Pluto (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Portrait of F.B (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Portrait of F.B. (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Praises and Prayers (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Praises and Prayers (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Preciosilla (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Preciosilla (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Susie Asado (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Susie Asado (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    Ten Songs (For High Voice and Piano)

    Composer(s): Richard Hundley

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Boosey & Hawkes

    The Courtship of the Yongly Bongly Bo (High Voice)

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: High

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    The Courtship of the Yongly Bongly Bo (Low Voice)

    Composer(s): Thom

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

    The Feast of Love

    Composer(s): Virgil Thomson

    Voice Type: Low

    Buy via Music Sales Classical

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