Virgil: The Composer as Writer - An Essay by Bill Morelock
February 21, 2012
St. Paul, Minn. —
You'd think that an individual who could trace one side of his family back to Henry V of England would display at last a little fascination, if not pride, in that direction. But in the case of Virgil Thomson, composer and contrarian, you'd be dead wrong. He preferred his Mississippi farmer forebears. They were cantankerous, intolerant, colorful. This son of Kansas City, Harvard grad and eventually Parisian insider, delighted in shocking his friends with the most reactionary rhetoric he could pull up out of the less royal and more roistering side of his family.
As a composer he collaborated with Gertrude Stein on two operas, not projects for a recessive personality. He produced small delicately wrought "portraits" of friends as if he were a painter and his palette was a piano. He maintained that he was employing hymn tunes and folk material in his concert works years before his younger colleague Aaron Copland, though Copland received most of the credit for an innovation. And Thomson was right. His Symphony on a Hymn Tune, for instance, was loaded with American bric-a-brac, though wrote it in Paris in 1928, he said, to show what life was like growing up on the Missouri and the Kaw Rivers.
Throughout his career, Virgil Thomson also wrote about music. And he did so with a freshness and directness we almost marvel at today. No one had, or has, a voice like Thomson's. He returned to the U.S. to live in 1940, the war having come to France. And at the New York Herald Tribune he had a regular, formal forum for his insights, enthusiasms and head shakings.
His reviews and essays tended to champion small haphazard musical efforts over large and influential productions — French light-heartedness over the large musical Franchise. And you'll be shocked, shocked, by the ease with which he takes down some of our irreproachable musical giants. Satie better than Sibelius. Beethoven as humbug. The assumption that the New York Philharmonic was not a part of the intellectual life of the city.
From a review of a recital by violinist Jascha Heifetz entitled, "Silk Underwear Music".
October 31, 1940
"Jascha Heifetz's whole concert reminded one of large sums of money... If ever I heard luxury expressed in music it was there. His famous silken tone, his equally famous double-stops, his well-known way of hitting the true pitch squarely in the middle, his justly remunerated mastery of the musical marshmallow were like so many cushions of damask and down to the musical ear."
From an article entitled "Mozart's Leftism"
December 15, 1940
"Mozart was not, like Wagner, a political revolutionary. Nor was he, like Beethoven, an old fraud who just talked about human rights and dignity but who was really an irascible, intolerant, and scheming careerist, who allowed himself the liberty, when he felt like it, of being unjust toward the poor, lickspittle toward the rich, dishonest in business, unjust and unforgiving toward the members of his family...
"Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is one of the funniest shows in the world and one of the most terrifying. It is all about love, and it kids love to a fare-ye-well. It is the world's greatest opera and the world's greatest parody of opera. It is a moral entertainment so movingly human that the morality gets lost before the play is scarcely started.
"Why do I call it leftist? I don't. I say the nearest thing we know to eighteenth-century Enlightenment is called today liberalism or leftist. But there is not a liberal or leftist alive who could have conceived, much less written, that opera. It is the work of a Christian man who knew all about the new doctrinaire ideas and respected them... He saw life clearly, profoundly, amusingly, and partook of it kindly. He expressed no bitterness, offered no panacea to its ills. He was not a liberal; he was liberated. And his acquaintance... with all the most advanced ideas of his day in politics, in ethics, in music, was not for nothing in the achievement of that liberation."
From Thomson's review of the opening concert of the New York Philharmonic's 99th season.
October 11, 1940,
"Twenty years' residence on the European continent has largely spared me Sibelius. Last night's Second Symphony was my first in quite some years. I found it vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description. I realize that this work has a kind of popular power unusual in symphonic literature. Even Wagner scarcely goes over so big on the radio. That populace-pleasing power is not unlike the power of a Hollywood class-A picture... Perhaps, if I have to hear more of him, I'll sit down one day with the scores and find out what is in them. Last night's experience of one was not much of a temptation, however, to read or sit through many more."
One telling feature of Thomson's review was that he didn't so much as mention the name of the conductor. John Barbirolli was Music Director at the time.
For more Virgil, and there's much more, look for "A Virgil Thomson Reader," published in 1981 by Houghton Mifflin.