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 alwaysretained a love for the land, but its traditions did nothave the usual effect upon him: he attributed to hisseemingly gentle mid-Southern heritage his \arroganceand unhesitating disobedience". He liked to cite religionas an example: "I have never felt inferior to thebelievers, or superior; I simply am not one... Theloyalties formed in my preadolescent years lie elsewherethan to Bible reading and preachers. They are to music,companionship, and hospitality..."After military service came Harvard. A tour ofEurope with the Harvard Glee Club in 1921 altered hislife permanently. He fell in love with Paris, that den ofintellectual ferment packed with native and expatriateartists, poets, musicians, and wealthy hangers-on.
Thomson spent most of two decades there, carefullyavoiding "working" to support himself. A Harvardgrant, commissions, a bit of free-lance journalism, and,above all, contributions of private patrons kept him justabove the poverty line and in Bohemian spiritualsplendour. His circle included James Joyce, Man Ray,Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Darius Milhaud, AaronCopland, and countless others who shaped twentiethcenturyculture with their sense of style and fun. Aboveeveryone sat the celebrated American radical poetGertrude Stein, Thomson's inseparable comrade.
Thomson's two musical focusses were the youngNadia Boulanger, who taught analysis and compositionto the American students, and the irresistible Erik Satie -whom he met once - radiating irreverent wit andsimplicity. He also enjoyed the Dadaists' preachingsthat all artistic conventions were equally valid (orequally invalid). Although not a true Dadaist, Thomsoninvented his own conventions, shedding bombast andborrowing Satie's aesthetic of tender humour. In hisearliest music, he balanced modernity, classicism, andromanticism in a way similar to Milhaud, Poulenc, andSatie, but with a totally individual sound.
Synthetic Waltzes (1925) is a charming legacy ofthose years. A stylized society waltz, it is full of subtlemisbehaviour, such as at the opening and conclusion,where Thomson creates the impression of two waltztempos heard simultaneously. Other works of thisperiod, especially his Gertrude Stein song settings,display a serious whimsy that time has not tarnished.
While friends came and went, Gertrude Stein wasalways there. Their first collaboration, the opera FourSaints in Three Acts, made Thomson's name. Whiletravelling to the United States in the early 1930s insearch of a production for the opera, he kept returning toParis, where he felt liberated from the Germandominatedmusical tradition. Of course that epoch wasdoomed: Depression, labour disruptions, and politicalstrife bordering on civil war assassinated the city's oldjoyousness. Actually, although change was now highdrama, the wild early 1920s had already given way toneo-romanticism, returning to "emotion" from the"objectivity" or the surrealism that had dominated theimmediate post-war years. That neo-romantic spirit iscentral to the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1930), butthis work is neither a common new-romanticism nor acommon sonata. Virtually non-repetitive, its flowingmelodies constantly explore new territory, rarelyreturning to their starting-point.
By the late 1930s most of the old foreigncommunity was leaving Paris, replaced by refugeesfrom Spain, Germany, and Austria. Thomson, Stein, anda few others stuck it out, however, stimulated ratherthan frightened by the dangerous ferment. Besides,where else could one have so much fun with so littlemoney? Then, in July, 1940, the Nazis conqueredFrance and it was time to go. In New York, whenThomson succeeded Lawrence Gilman as music critic ofthe Herald Tribune, his disobedient spirit gained apublic voice, giving him a central position in theAmerican literary scene through the brilliance andoutspokenness of his essays. He found new Americanfriends and fellow rebels, especially Lou Harrison andJohn Cage. Life was fruitful, but when France wasliberated, Thomson was off to Paris to persuadeGertrude Stein to write a libretto for a second opera, TheMother of Us All.
Thomson left the Herald Tribune in 1954,concentrating now on composing. The works of thislater period include the glorious settings of ThomasCampion's poetry (1951), and two contrasting vocalworks of 1963: Praises and Prayers and Two byMarianne Moore. Praises and Prayers was composedfor Betty Allen, who expressed her preference forThomson's religious music; his irreligiousness did notprevent his responding powerfully to sacred texts.
Rather than exploiting the full range of the virtuososinger, Thomson kept the songs in the middle of thevocal range, where, as he has said, clear speech andflowing melody lie in every voice. Within this limitedcompass of an octave and a half, he sought a freedom ofline and delicacy of expression, which is matched by thevery individual piano parts for each song, someromantic, 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, whichprobably stems from the irreligious Thomson's deepidentification with the music of the Baptist communityin which he grew up, and the Midwestern Americanheritage of folk-song and dance.
Thomson had had his first contact with the greatAmerican poet Marianne Moore in 1925, when she, aseditor of The Dial, requested him to write articles aboutParis. Like Gertrude Stein's, Moore's poetry once againappealed to Thomson's love of the pure sound of words,to which he calls the listener's attention by cleverlyimplanting them in simple musical materials.
A third opera, Lord Byron, occupied much of theremaining 1960s. From the later 1970s, Thomson'sproduction tapered off, except in an area that fascinatedhim throughout his career, the musical "Portraits" of hisfriends and acquaintances. Despite increasing healthproblems, he composed sporadically until shortly beforehis death on 30th September, 1989.?® 2005 Continuum