Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson

1896 - 1989

Composer and critic Virgil Thomson was a real musician’s musician. As a composer he created over 150 compositions that skillfully melded indigenous and cosmopolitan influences, while as a writer and lecturer he devoted himself energetically to elevating musical standards and taste, to creating a wider public for classical music, and to creating a legacy of some of the most elegant, urbane, and intelligent prose that modern music journalism has witnessed.


Born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 25, 1896, Virgil Garnett Thomson enjoyed the cultivated, leisurely-paced boyhood of the rural South. Imbued with a strong sense of place--of rootedness in heartland America and its Protestant traditions--Thomson's early connection to music came through the church and through youthful piano lessons and stints accompanying theatricals and silent films. After serving as a military pilot in World War I, he returned home to continue private piano and organ lessons, before setting his sights on Harvard, where he matriculated in 1919. There he worked as an assistant to Archibald Davison, the director of the Harvard Glee Club and choral anthologist, and he studied composition with Edward Burlingame Hill, later Leonard Bernstein's teacher. Both men whetted Thomson's curiosity about things Francophile and helped Thomson secure a fellowship to travel to Paris in 1921, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, sketched his first compositions, associated with the Dadaists, and made friends of the painterly circle patronized by Gertrude and Leonard Stein. It was in Paris, too, that he began his lifelong attachment to painter Maurice Grosser.

Returning to Harvard in 1922, he took his degree in 1923. For the next three years he commuted between New York and Boston, where he served as organist for the King's Chapel, and he began to contribute serious music journalism to publications like Mencken's American Mercury and Vanity Fair. It was not long, however, before Europe would once again exert its siren call, and for the next sixteen years he would cross the Atlantic frequently. In 1927 he journeyed to Spain to collaborate with Gertrude Stein on their opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which they completed in 1928. That same year he also produced Symphony on a Hymn Tune, as well as the first of a genre he can be credited with inventing: the musical portrait.

Four Saints received its premiere in Hartford in 1934, with an all-black cast, in an extraordinary visual production with choreography by Frederick Ashton. A second collaboration with Stein, based on the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony--The Mother of Us All--premiered in 1946, shortly before Stein's death. In the intervening years Thomson created film and ballet scores as well as incidental music for the theatre, and visited Paris until the Nazi occupation forced him to flee. Back in New York in 1940, he settled into his final home, the Chelsea Hotel, and accepted a job as music critic for the Herald Tribune, which he retained until 1951. After his resignation from the paper he devoted himself to a third opera, Lord Byron, and to writing his autobiography in 1966 and his book American Music Since 1910 in 1971.

Embittered by the Metropolitan Opera's cancellation of its promised premiere of Lord Byron, Thomson had to content himself with a pared-down version presented by the Juilliard School in 1972, and it was not until 1991 that the work would be performed in its entirety, at the Monadnock Festival in New Hampshire. Ever feisty and energetic, though troubled by deafness, Thomson continued to compose until a week before his death, in New York City on September 30, 1989 at the age of 93.

Though Thomson's fame as a composer rests primarily with his three operas, the approximately 70 songs he wrote between 1926 and 1980 contain some true jewels, among them his first published song, “Susie Asado,” to a poem of Gertrude Stein, and his two cycles: Five Songs From William Blake (1951) and Mostly About Love, to texts by New York poet Kenneth Koch (1959). “A Prayer to St. Catherine” comes from the latter.

--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

Photo: Vigil Thomson, 1947, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: van 5a52694

Songs & Song Collections BY Thomson (entered to date)

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