Home » Uncategorized » Virgil Thomson and the “Symphony on a Hymn Tune”

Virgil Thomson and the “Symphony on a Hymn Tune”

      Virgil Thomson (November 25, 1896 – September 30, 1989) was an American composer and critic who was born in Kansas City, MO, and displayed an extraordinary intelligence at an early age. After World War I, he entered Harvard University, and his tours of Europe with the Harvard Glee Club helped nurture his desire to return to Europe.  At Harvard, Thomson focused his studies on the piano work of Erik Satie. He studied in Paris on fellowship for a year, and after graduating, lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940, forging relationships with such prominent cultural figures as Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Gertrude Stein.  He eventually studied with Nadia Boulanger and became a fixture of “Paris in the twenties.”

     Following the publication of his book The State of Music, Thomson established himself in New York City as a peer of Aaron Copland and was also a music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1940 through 1954.  His writings on music, and his reviews of performances in particular, are noted for their wit and their independent judgments. His definition of music was famously “that which musicians do,” and his views on music were radical in their insistence on reducing the rarefied aesthetics of music to market activity. He even went so far as to claim that the style a piece was written in could be most effectively understood as a consequence of its income source.

     In the 1930s, Thomson worked as a theater and film composer. His most famous works for theater are two operas with libretti by Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts, especially famous for its use of an all-black cast, and The Mother of Us All, as well as incidental music for Orson Welles’ Depression-era production of Macbeth, set in the Caribbean, known as Voodoo Macbeth. He collaborated closely with “Chick” Austin of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in these early productions. The government of France made him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1947.  His first film commission was The Plow That Broke the Plains, sponsored by the United States Resettlement Administration, which also sponsored the film The River with music by Thomson. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1949 with his film score for Louisiana Story.

     In addition, Thomson was famous for his revival of the rare technique of composing “musical portraits” of living subjects, often spending hours in a room with them before rushing off to finish the piece on his own. Many subjects reported feeling that the pieces did capture something unique about their identities even though nearly all of the portraits were absent of any clearly representational content.  Later in life, Thomson became a sort of mentor and father figure to a new generation of American tonal composers such as Ned Rorem and Leonard Bernstein.  Thomson’s score for The River was used in the 1983 ABC made-for-television movie The Day After.  In 1988, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and died on September 30, 1989, in his suite at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.

     Thomson was instrumental in the development of the “American Sound” in classical music and has been described as a modernist, a neoclassicist, and a neoromantic.  My collection includes the following orchestral works by Thomson.

                Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra (1950).

                Fugue and Chorale on “Yankee Doodle” from Tuesday in November (1967).

                Pilgrims and Pioneers (1964). 

                The Plow that Broke the Plains. 

                The River. 

                Symphony (No. 1) on a Hymn Tune (1928). 

                Symphony No. 2 in CM (1941).

                Symphony No. 3 (1972).

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