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Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson

(1896 - 1989)

Virgil Thomson (November 25, 1896 - September 30, 1989), born in Kansas City and long resident in Paris and New York, is one of the few true modernists in America, since most of our moderns turn out Romantics in Disguise. Over and over, he demonstrates that nobody knows more about modern Europe, in pieces that taught Europe a lot about the U.S. and the U.S. a lot about Europe.

He's an adept in two arts, for he also happens to be a major American prose writer, specializing in music criticism. For sheer pleasure, check out the Virgil Thomson Reader.

Thomson's music is almost disconcertingly spare and direct. In the consciously American pieces especially, there is a kind of aural equivalent to Cubist collage, as ragtime, waltzes, tangos, two-steps, fiddle tunes, and hymns get pasted into the texture. Unlike Charles Ives, there's an unsentimental distance and clarity to it all, like someone without illusions able to state exactly what's on his mind. Thomson gets this effect in his prose, too.

Although overshadowed by Aaron Copland (who, by the way, always acknowledged his debts to Thomson), Thomson achieved far more in the realm of opera and vocal music, in which almost everyone acknowledges him a master. Try the powerful (and, to my ear, deeply American) 5 Songs from William Blake, the incredibly beautiful Feast of Love for baritone and chamber ensemble (a real lesson in how to vary orchestral texture and how to continue a musical line), 4 Southern Hymns (a choral classic), the sinewy cello concerto, the Symphony on a Hymn Tune, Acadian Songs and Dances, Louisiana Story, Praises and Prayers, the delicate 4 Songs to Poems of Thomas Campion for voice and chamber group, and the heartbreaking Stabat Mater for mezzo and string quartet.

Thomson considered his great achievement to be opera. His operas belong to those rare and successful attempts to re-create the genre. My favorite is The Mother of Us All, about Susan B. Anthony and Women's Suffrage. With a major work of world literature by Gertrude Stein as its text, the music by turns plays with you and moves you, and, as in Mozart, every note tells. ~ Steve Schwartz

Virgil Thomson's signature

Recommended Recordings

Plow That Broke The Plains

Suite "The Plow That Broke The Plains"/ESS.A.Y Recordings CD1005
Richard Kapp/Philharmonia Virtuosi
Suite "The Plow That Broke The Plains"/Vanguard OVC8013
Leopold Stokowski/Symphony of the Air