THOMSON, V.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 / Symphony on a Hymn Tune (James Sedares/ New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559022)
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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 thefollowing 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 wasthe other war. Then I was educated some more in Boston and Paris. Incomposition I was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. While I was still young, I taughtmusic at Harvard and played the organ at King's Chapel, Boston. Then I returnedto Paris and lived there for many years, till the Germans came, in fact. Now Ilive 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 byGertrude Stein), The Plow that Broke thePlains and The River (filmsby Pare Lorentz), though there are also symphonies and string quartets and manyother 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 anartist's portrait'.
When Virgil Thomson passed away in New YorkCity on 30 September 1989, the world lamented the death of a musician'smusician Leonard Bernstein remarked in the NewYork Times 'The death of Virgil T. is like the death of an Americancity: it is intolerable. But perhaps it was almost as hard to live with him, aswithout him Virgil was loving and harsh, generous and mordant, simple butcynical, son of the hymnal yet highly sophisticated. We all loved his music andrarely performed it. Most of us preferred his unpredictable, provocative prose.
But he will always remain brightly alive in the history of music, if only forthe extraordinary influence his witty and simplistic music had on hiscolleagues, especially on Aaron Copland, and through them on most of Americanmusic in our century'.
Thomson left a legacy of over 150compositions which skilfully melded American and cosmopolitan influences. Hiswritings on music ranged from aesthetics to new trends in world music. Hechampioned elevating musical standards and taste and wrote some of the mostelegant, urbane and intelligent commentaries on music and musicians. He was aconductor and pianist, and one of the first American composer' to writeextensively for motion pictures. He received numerous honors, including thePulitzer Prize (1948), the Legion d'honneur (1947),twenty honorary doctorates (among them Harvard, Columbia and New YorkUniversities), the gold medal for music from the National Academy and Instituteof Arts and Letters, and in 1983 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor forlifetime achievement.
Symphony on a Hymn Tune
The first three movements of the Symphony on a Hymn Tune were written inParis in 1926. Two years later Virgil Thomson completed and orchestrated thework, returning to it again in 1945 for some slight revision. It received itsfirst concert performance in New York, with the composer conducting thePhilharmonic Symphony Society, on 22 February 1945.
The symphony is based on the old Scottishmelody that is sung in the South to many texts but most commonly to 'How Firm aFoundation'. The property of no one denomination, the hymn has long been usedto close the meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1939 it appearedas 'The Christian's Farewell' in a reprint by the WPA Writers Project ofKentucky (Hastings House, NY) of the 1854 edition of William Walker's 'SouthernHarmony'. Another familiar tune, 'Yes, Jesus Loves Me,' appears as a secondarytheme.
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 itsnaive religious gaiety'. The American music critic Paul Rosenfeld compared itto a Currier and Ives print.
The composer wrote the following terseanalysis of his symphony:
'Introductionand Allegro. The Introduction isa conversational passage for solo instruments and pair, of instruments,followed by a statement of the hymn tune (in half-in and half-out-of-focusharmonization). The Allegro is asuccession (and superposition) of dance-like passages derived from the maintheme. Only the introduction gets recapitulated. The movement ends with acadenza for trombone, piccolo, solo cello and solo violin.
'The Andantecantabile is song-like and contemplative, a series of variations ona melody derived from the hymn tune, ending with the suggestion of a distantrailway train.
'The Allegrettois 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 infull, and ends with a coda that recalls the introduction'. This movement wasused by Virgil Thomson in a slightly altered version as the finale of PareLorentz's film, The River, forwhich he composed the musical score.
The symphony is scored for two flutes (onealso 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.
Thomson's SymphonyNo 2, composed in November 1930, wholly re-orchestrated in 1941, hadits first performance on 14 November 1941 at a concert of the Seattle SymphonyOrchestra, in Seattle. The Philadelphia Orchestra played it in Philadelphia on21-22 November 1941, and on the following 25 November the same organizationgave it its first New York hearing in Carnegie Hall. In each case the conductorwas Sir Thomas Beecham. The composer conducted it himself with the St Louis andthe Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras. Among other early performances the work wasalso given by the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico, under Carlos Chavez, and inParis by the Orchestre Pasdeloup.
Virgil Thomson has furnished the followinginformation about the symphony:
'My SecondSymphony 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 phrasebeing repeated exactly. Its structure is that of an open curve.
'The first and third movements are squarelyin C major, the second in A flat. The tunes are all plainly diatonic, and so isthe harmony. Tonalities are sharply juxtaposed, rather than superposed Instrumentation'by threes' has facilitated the scoring of unrelated chords in contrastingcolors. The score calls for three flutes (two of them doubling piccolo), twooboes, English horn, three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), threebassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, threetrombones, bass tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and the usualbody of strings.
'The expressive character of this symphonyis predominantly lyrical. Dancing and jollity, however, are rarely absent fromits thought; and the military suggestions of horn and trumpet, of marching andof drums, are a constantly recurring presence both as background and asforeground.'