Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)

Virgil Thomson was one of several composers in the U.S.A. who developed a classical form that can be justifiably described as ‘American’ .We have already met four such composers in these postings, namely Aaron Jay Kernis (06/08), Paul Creston(12/08), George Gershwin(24/08) and Charles Ives (28/08), and there will be others. The most notable was Aaron Copland, ‘the dean of American Music’, as he has been called. Both he and Thomson studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, the foremost teacher of her day, and for some years Thomson became part of the ‘twenties’ culture of that city.

Thomson was a no-nonsense person. He once said that the style of a piece could be most effectively understood in terms of how much money the composer could make from it. If not a cynic, he was certainly a realist and earned less from his music than from his writings. He was music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune from 1940 to 1954 and his reviews were shrewd, entertaining, sometimes waspish, often offending the musical establishment.

That may be one of the reasons why his music was less popular than it might have been.

He wrote two operas with libretti by Gertrude Stein: ‘Four Saints in Three Acts’ and ‘The Mother of Us All’, famous for its all-black cast. He wrote incidental music for stage and screen and ‘musical portraits’ of people he knew. He would spend hours in a room with them before rushing off to finish the piece on his own. His subjects later confessed that they could recognise themselves in the finished composition, even if they couldn’t quite explain how.

I have just bought a disc of two of his film scores, ‘The Plow That Broke The Plain’ (1936) and ‘The River’ (1937), the work of the landmark American documentary director, Pare Lorenz. Both films are a response to poverty and the misuse of the land and reflect Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The composer and director worked closely together, the music and the images identifying with each other, neither one dominant over the other. The scores have a vivid and for me moving simplicity, borrowing styles and tunes from the American heritage, and scored for a chamber orchestra that includes a banjo, guitar and harmonium. The works are superbly performed by The Post-Classical Ensemble directed by the Spanish conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez. There is a DVD of the film which I would love to see and which like the CD is published by Naxos.

Another ‘find’ for me.