American Record Guide
, December 2000
"'We all loved his music but rarely performed it', Leonard Bernstein wrote of Virgil Thomson. How odd, because Thomson's music is mainstream and approachable, and he was a strong influence on composers like Aaron Copland.
"Thomson's most prominent works are his operas and movie scores, but he wrote three fine symphonies. Symphony on a Hymn Tune (No.1) was written in Paris, but it sounds as American as a rural church and has been described as a musical Currier and Ives print. (Thomson wrote it so Paris would "know Kansas City".) It is a tuneful work and his riches symphony. The music begins with the hymn in parallel, open chords. Much of what follows treats the hymn with transparently scored dance-like passages. There are also extended solos for trombone (perhaps because of the instrument's association with religious music) and a bizarre 'cadenza' for trombone, piccolo, violin and cello. Sometimes Thomson's bitonality sounds like out-of-key singing. A more important implementation of his bitonaliy establishes the relationship of a tritone, the musical symbol of the Devil, creating a conflict between good and evil that underlies much of the symphony. The first part of II, a group of variation on the hymn tune, is gentle and solemn, leading to a bitonal duet between clarinet and bassoon that mimics an out-of-tune church organ. The movements ends with a passage for horns and trombones that depicts a fading train. The Allegretto is a vigorous passacaglia on the bass of the hymn tune. IV looks back on the symphony, polyphonically repeating many of its effects. Thomson used a close variant of it as the finale of his movie score to The River.
"If Symphony 1 is rural religion, the Second (an orchestrated version of the First Piano Sonata) is a combination of jollity and the military. The themes are simple and diatonic, both the harmony and the frequent use of major scales. Most of the material is short and contrasting in mood, often changing quickly from snappier melodies to hymns. The mood is sprightly and upbeat-often evoking barn dances and quiet nights on a rural porch-but frequent fanfare-like passages keep the martial spirit close by.
"The Third Symphony (1972) is an orchestration of the Second Quartet, 'the kind of quartet that Mendelssohn or Schubert wrote', as the composer put it. He was going to use it as a ballet for Lord Byron before he turned it into a symphony. Though in Thomson's pungent style, it is also his most conservative and nostalgic symphony. (As a quartet, it does sound Schubertian. It's the orchestration that makes it tangy and modern.) Just as the First was cyclically based on a hymn tune, the Third grows out of the opening motif of successive leaps-a broken arpeggio-that reach the octave. I is exuberant and surging, with its Schubertian style in a dramatic 20th century guise. As it opens II , the motif is more relaxed, leading to a wistful and sparkling waltz. III stresses the octave leap of the motif as it passes hypnotically by with a hint of menace, like a slow pas de deux. IV opens like a Haydnesque Allegretto and turns gradually calmer and more inward toward the end.
"Thomson wrote Pilgrims and Pioneers for a documentary about the Depression. He uses a lot of hymn and folk music, many "nostalgically dissonant". Much of the music is desolate and eerie, fitting the subject, and accented by sharp contrasts of ranges played together. Often we hear a tune in one key and accompaniment in another, creating a wistful or bitter effect. I hear Ives, too. The music is touching and affecting, as well as powerful in places, and is an important discovery.
"Sederes's greater energy and conviction is audible from the first notes. At the same time, he is warmer and produces more breadth without sacrificing wit. His orchestra sounds fuller, too. Howard Hanson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune on Mercury is more powerful, punchier, and four-square than Sedares, and just as good.
"Every lover of 20th century American orchestral music should have this. Naxos's full sound is immediate and rich."