About this Recording
8.559022 - THOMSON, V.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 / Symphony on a Hymn Tune
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Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)
Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928)
Symphony No.2 in C major (1931/41)
Symphony No.3 (1972)
Pilgrims and Pioneers (1964)


In the 1940s Virgil Thomson provided the following short biographical sketch of himself: '1 was born in Kansas City, Missouri (25 November 1896); grew up there and went to war from there That was the other war. Then I was educated some more in Boston and Paris. In composition I was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. While I was still young, I taught music at Harvard and played the organ at King's Chapel, Boston. Then I returned to Paris and lived there for many years, till the Germans came, in fact. Now I live in New York, where I am Music Critic of the New York Herald-Tribune.

'My best-known works are the opera Four Saint, in Three Acts (libretto by Gertrude Stein), The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River (films by Pare Lorentz), though there are also symphonies and string quartets and many other works in many forms. I have made over a hundred musical portraits, 100, al! of them drawn from life, the sitter posing for me as he would for an artist's portrait'.

When Virgil Thomson passed away in New York City on 30 September 1989, the world lamented the death of a musician's musician Leonard Bernstein remarked in the New York Times 'The death of Virgil T. is like the death of an American city: it is intolerable. But perhaps it was almost as hard to live with him, as without him Virgil was loving and harsh, generous and mordant, simple but cynical, son of the hymnal yet highly sophisticated. We all loved his music and rarely performed it. Most of us preferred his unpredictable, provocative prose. But he will always remain brightly alive in the history of music, if only for the extraordinary influence his witty and simplistic music had on his colleagues, especially on Aaron Copland, and through them on most of American music in our century'.

Thomson left a legacy of over 150 compositions which skilfully melded American and cosmopolitan influences. His writings on music ranged from aesthetics to new trends in world music. He championed elevating musical standards and taste and wrote some of the most elegant, urbane and intelligent commentaries on music and musicians. He was a conductor and pianist, and one of the first American composer' to write extensively for motion pictures. He received numerous honors, including the Pulitzer Prize (1948), the Légion d'honneur (1947), twenty honorary doctorates (among them Harvard, Columbia and New York Universities), the gold medal for music from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1983 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement.

Symphony on a Hymn Tune

The first three movements of the Symphony on a Hymn Tune were written in Paris in 1926. Two years later Virgil Thomson completed and orchestrated the work, returning to it again in 1945 for some slight revision. It received its first concert performance in New York, with the composer conducting the Philharmonic Symphony Society, on 22 February 1945.

The symphony is based on the old Scottish melody that is sung in the South to many texts but most commonly to 'How Firm a Foundation'. The property of no one denomination, the hymn has long been used to close the meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1939 it appeared as 'The Christian's Farewell' in a reprint by the WPA Writers Project of Kentucky (Hastings House, NY) of the 1854 edition of William Walker's 'Southern Harmony'. Another familiar tune, 'Yes, Jesus Loves Me,' appears as a secondary theme.

Virgil Thomson's work is in four movements, each a variation or development of the pentatonic melody used as a chief theme. It has been described as 'simple, straightforward and folklorish in style, evoking nineteenth-century rural America by its dignity, its sweetness and its naive religious gaiety'. The American music critic Paul Rosenfeld compared it to a Currier and Ives print.

The composer wrote the following terse analysis of his symphony:
Introduction and Allegro. The Introduction is a conversational passage for solo instruments and pair, of instruments, followed by a statement of the hymn tune (in half-in and half-out-of-focus harmonization). The Allegro is a succession (and superposition) of dance-like passages derived from the main theme. Only the introduction gets recapitulated. The movement ends with a cadenza for trombone, piccolo, solo cello and solo violin.

‘The Andante cantabile is song-like and contemplative, a series of variations on a melody derived from the hymn tune, ending with the suggestion of a distant railway train.

‘The Allegretto is a passacaglia of marked rhythmic character on the hymn-tune bass.

‘The finale (Alla breve), a canzona on a part of the main theme, reintroduces all the chief material of the symphony, including the hymn in full, and ends with a coda that recalls the introduction'. This movement was used by Virgil Thomson in a slightly altered version as the finale of Pare Lorentz's film, The River, for which he composed the musical score.

The symphony is scored for two flutes (one also playing piccolo), two oboes, two clarinet, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, kettledrums, snare drums, rattle, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, tamtam, bass drum and the usual strings.

Symphony No.2

Thomson's Symphony No 2, composed in November 1930, wholly re-orchestrated in 1941, had its first performance on 14 November 1941 at a concert of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, in Seattle. The Philadelphia Orchestra played it in Philadelphia on 21-22 November 1941, and on the following 25 November the same organization gave it its first New York hearing in Carnegie Hall. In each case the conductor was Sir Thomas Beecham. The composer conducted it himself with the St Louis and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras. Among other early performances the work was also given by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, under Carlos Chavez, and in Paris by the Orchestre Pasdeloup.

Virgil Thomson has furnished the following information about the symphony:

‘My Second Symphony is cyclical in thematic content and asymmetrical in form. Its opening measures are the motif, the germ from which the whole is developed. Its forward progress is continuous, moreover, no section and almost no phrase being repeated exactly. Its structure is that of an open curve.

‘The first and third movements are squarely in C major, the second in A flat. The tunes are all plainly diatonic, and so is the harmony. Tonalities are sharply juxtaposed, rather than superposed Instrumentation 'by threes' has facilitated the scoring of unrelated chords in contrasting colors. The score calls for three flutes (two of them doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and the usual body of strings.

‘The expressive character of this symphony is predominantly lyrical. Dancing and jollity, however, are rarely absent from its thought; and the military suggestions of horn and trumpet, of marching and of drums, are a constantly recurring presence both as background and as foreground.’

Symphony No.3

The music of Virgil Thomson's Symphony No. 3 dates back to 1932, when it emerged from Paris as his String Quartet No. 2. Four members of the New York Philharmonic gave the world première of the work a few years later. Some time passed and the composer decided that the work would flourish as well in orchestral form. A projected performance of the expanded version by the New Orleans Symphony never carne to pass, and the orchestration lay unused until 1972

‘At that point,’ the composer pointed out in an interview with Robert Sherman, 'my opera, Lord Byron, was being prepared by the Juilliard School and I was supposed to write a ballet for it. Well, we encountered all sorts of production delays, and we didn't even have a choreographer until the last moment, so nothing was getting composed. Finally I took the easy way out and decided to use something ready-made. That's how the orchestrated Quartet (with a couple of cuts in the first and last movements) found its way into the dream sequence of the opera.’

There were problems, though. The dance segment seemed out of place in the operatic context, and the stylistic generation gap between the Quartet writing of the 1930s and the 1970s idiom of Lord Byron itself was somewhat disconcerting. Virgil Thomson set it all down to 'a mistake in judgement on my part'. But, ever the pragmatist, he withdrew the Quartet orchestration from the printed edition of the opera and persuaded Boosey & Hawkes to publish it as his Third Symphony.

'It is composed in what I think of as classical architecture,' stated Thomson of his basically cheerful piece. 'In other words, it's the same kind of quartet that Mendelssohn or Schubert wrote. Indeed, the score has a firm tonal base, cyclical themes and even a first movement in Sonata form'. Instead of the Scherzo, there comes what the composer calls 'a nice big waltz'; the Adagio is serene and there is also a feeling of reflective calm in the finale, which the composer described as 'a sort of rondo'. Thomson's Symphony No 3 was first performed by the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama on 26 December 1976.

Pilgrims and Pioneers

The composer writes 'In 1964, for the New York World's Fair I worked with John Houseman on a one-reel picture called Journey to America, to be shown four times an hour in the United States Pavilion. Telling the history of immigration almost entirely through prints and still photographs, it is humane, grandiose, and touching. The scoring uses old hymns, folklore, the music of our peoples, much of it nostalgically dissonant. And as always happens when I work with Houseman, we experimented, this time with the timing of commentary. By knowing exactly where it would appear and vanish, I was able to score first softer and then louder and thus to avoid dial-twiddling by engineers. Unfortunately, as also can happen with Houseman, his co-workers did not realize that my scoring was exact, for by slightly misplacing the music track in certain spots they threw some of my results just that much off. My method here, I still think was a good one; it should be of use in documentaries of which the text is poetry or compact prose. Applying it to jabber would not be worthwhile.' For concert performance, Thomson arranged the score as Pilgrims and Pioneers. It was first performed by the Mozart Festival Orchestra in New York, conducted by Baird Hastings on 27 February 1971. This is the first recording of the work.

Notes: Marina and Victor Ledin
(including Virgil Thomson's own programme notes from the first performances of his works)

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