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Randall Thompson and “Frostiana”

      (Ira) Randall Thompson (April 21, 1899 – July 9, 1984) was an American composer, particularly noted for his choral works.  He was born in New York City, NY, on April 21, 1899.   The son of an English teacher, Randall never strayed far from the academic environment. His early musical pursuits began at an old reed organ on the family summer farm in Vienna, Maine. His first attempts at composition began around 1915 with a piano sonata and a Christmas partsong. In 1916 he entered Harvard University and auditioned for the chorus but was turned down by its conductor, Archibald T. Davison, who eventually became his mentor.

     His early works, including several songs, varied considerably in style. But in 1922 he began studies at the American Academy in Rome where, inspired by the master composers of the Renaissance, he developed the musical style which led him to the forefront of American choral composers.  During his career he intermingled both teaching and composing.  He became assistant professor of music and choir director at Wellesley College, and received a doctorate in music from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He went on to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, PA, where he also served as director, at the University of Virginia, and at his alma mater Harvard University.   His notable students include Samuel Adler and Leonard Bernstein.

      Thompson composed three symphonies, the opera Solomon and Balkis, songs, and various instrumental works, but he is best known for his choral compositions.   Americana, a song cycle, is written in a twentieth Century musical art style known as “News Items,” which are compositions that parody newspaper layout and content, or whose lyrics are lifted from media of the day.  The lyrics are lifted from the “Americana” section of H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury magazine, which would reprint quotes and stories from such U.S. publications as the Seattle, WA, Post-Intelligencer, the Little Rock, AR, Gazette, and a leaflet issued by the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  Other vocal works include The Testament of Freedom; Frostiana; The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by Edward Hicks’s painting; perhaps his best-known, the anthem Alleluia commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood; and The Nativity According to St. Luke.

     In honor of Thompson’s vast influence on male choral music, on May 2, 1964 he became the first recipient of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit which seeks “to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression.” He was also a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal.   In addition, he was an honorary member of the Rho Tau chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity at Appalachian State University.   He died in Boston,  MA, on July 9, 1984 at the age of 85.

     I have two works by Thompson in my collection.

                Frostiana: Texts by Robert Frost (1959). 

                The Testament of Freedom: A Setting of Four Passages from the Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1943).


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