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8.559198 - THOMSON, V.: Vocal and Chamber Works
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Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)
Vocal and Chamber Music

Virgil Thomson was born in 1896 in Kansas City, Missouri to an old Baptist farming family. He always retained a love for the land, but its traditions did not have the usual effect upon him: he attributed to his seemingly gentle mid-Southern heritage his “arrogance and unhesitating disobedience”. He liked to cite religion as an example: “I have never felt inferior to the believers, or superior; I simply am not one... The loyalties formed in my preadolescent years lie elsewhere than to Bible reading and preachers. They are to music, companionship, and hospitality...”

After military service came Harvard. A tour of Europe with the Harvard Glee Club in 1921 altered his life permanently. He fell in love with Paris, that den of intellectual ferment packed with native and expatriate artists, poets, musicians, and wealthy hangers-on. Thomson spent most of two decades there, carefully avoiding “working” to support himself. A Harvard grant, commissions, a bit of free-lance journalism, and, above all, contributions of private patrons kept him just above the poverty line and in Bohemian spiritual splendour. His circle included James Joyce, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland, and countless others who shaped twentiethcentury culture with their sense of style and fun. Above everyone sat the celebrated American radical poet Gertrude Stein, Thomson’s inseparable comrade.

Thomson’s two musical focusses were the young Nadia Boulanger, who taught analysis and composition to the American students, and the irresistible Erik Satie - whom he met once - radiating irreverent wit and simplicity. He also enjoyed the Dadaists’ preachings that all artistic conventions were equally valid (or equally invalid). Although not a true Dadaist, Thomson invented his own conventions, shedding bombast and borrowing Satie’s aesthetic of tender humour. In his earliest music, he balanced modernity, classicism, and romanticism in a way similar to Milhaud, Poulenc, and Satie, but with a totally individual sound.

Synthetic Waltzes (1925) is a charming legacy of those years. A stylized society waltz, it is full of subtle misbehaviour, such as at the opening and conclusion, where Thomson creates the impression of two waltz tempos heard simultaneously. Other works of this period, especially his Gertrude Stein song settings, display a serious whimsy that time has not tarnished.

While friends came and went, Gertrude Stein was always there. Their first collaboration, the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, made Thomson’s name. While travelling to the United States in the early 1930s in search of a production for the opera, he kept returning to Paris, where he felt liberated from the Germandominated musical tradition. Of course that epoch was doomed: Depression, labour disruptions, and political strife bordering on civil war assassinated the city’s old joyousness. Actually, although change was now high drama, the wild early 1920s had already given way to neo-romanticism, returning to “emotion” from the “objectivity” or the surrealism that had dominated the immediate post-war years. That neo-romantic spirit is central to the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1930), but this work is neither a common new-romanticism nor a common sonata. Virtually non-repetitive, its flowing melodies constantly explore new territory, rarely returning to their starting-point.

By the late 1930s most of the old foreign community was leaving Paris, replaced by refugees from Spain, Germany, and Austria. Thomson, Stein, and a few others stuck it out, however, stimulated rather than frightened by the dangerous ferment. Besides, where else could one have so much fun with so little money? Then, in July, 1940, the Nazis conquered France and it was time to go. In New York, when Thomson succeeded Lawrence Gilman as music critic of the Herald Tribune, his disobedient spirit gained a public voice, giving him a central position in the American literary scene through the brilliance and outspokenness of his essays. He found new American friends and fellow rebels, especially Lou Harrison and John Cage. Life was fruitful, but when France was liberated, Thomson was off to Paris to persuade Gertrude Stein to write a libretto for a second opera, The Mother of Us All.

Thomson left the Herald Tribune in 1954, concentrating now on composing. The works of this later period include the glorious settings of Thomas Campion’s poetry (1951), and two contrasting vocal works of 1963: Praises and Prayers and Two by Marianne Moore. Praises and Prayers was composed for Betty Allen, who expressed her preference for Thomson’s religious music; his irreligiousness did not prevent his responding powerfully to sacred texts. Rather than exploiting the full range of the virtuoso singer, Thomson kept the songs in the middle of the vocal range, where, as he has said, clear speech and flowing melody lie in every voice. Within this limited compass of an octave and a half, he sought a freedom of line and delicacy of expression, which is matched by the very individual piano parts for each song, some romantic, some quasi-medieval, and all fresh in sound. Throughout these works, as in so much of his music, there is an almost indefinably American quality, which probably stems from the irreligious Thomson’s deep identification with the music of the Baptist community in which he grew up, and the Midwestern American heritage of folk-song and dance.

Thomson had had his first contact with the great American poet Marianne Moore in 1925, when she, as editor of The Dial, requested him to write articles about Paris. Like Gertrude Stein’s, Moore’s poetry once again appealed to Thomson’s love of the pure sound of words, to which he calls the listener’s attention by cleverly implanting them in simple musical materials.

A third opera, Lord Byron, occupied much of the remaining 1960s. From the later 1970s, Thomson’s production tapered off, except in an area that fascinated him throughout his career, the musical “Portraits” of his friends and acquaintances. Despite increasing health problems, he composed sporadically until shortly before his death on 30th September, 1989.

© 2005 Continuum

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