Virgil Thomson and American Provincialism

In a 1974 interview for Fag Rag, Gore Vidal remembered Massachusetts senator David Walsh being "caught during the war in a boy whorehouse, supposedly frequented by Nazi sympathizers, in Brooklyn, with a man who will be nameless—Virgil Thomson. Not together, but Virgil was also caught."

Virgil Thomson: gotcha

I've never been quite sure what to do about Virgil Thomson. Certainly I have a solid place in my heart (and listening room) for Virgil's contemporaries such as Copland, Barber, Hanson, Harris, Sessions, Piston, and the rest of the mid-century American gang, including lesser lights such as Sowerby or Siegmeister. But Thomson's music leaves me unmoved at best, annoyed at worst, and bored as a rule.

As a composer Thomson lacked Copland's range or Gershwin's vitality. As a journalist he was among the brighter lights of American music criticism.

But even in that regard I have my doubts. He certainly never let the facts get in the way of his ex cathedra pronouncements. His snappy prose could turn arrogantly snotty in a heartbeat, and despite his oft-repeated disdain for musical academics, he could come across as an insufferable, elitist -- even academic -- snob.

Certainly Thomson never took up music criticism intending to be fashionably pleasant or scrupulously fair. His debut notice of 1940 condemned the opening of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony's season: "There was little that could be called festive about the occasion. The menu was routine, the playing ditto."

That same review contained one of his most quoted lines regarding the Sibelius Second Symphony: "I found it vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description."

What an amusing statement, written by a composer whose musical output is indeed provincial beyond all description.

What of Thomson's music has outlasted its WPA-laced, Depression-wracked sincerity? Without a doubt, his Symphony on a Hymn Tune of 1928 is a direct precursor of Copland's folksy populist style. But nobody knows Thomson's piece, while just about everybody has at least some familiarity with Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, etc., even if only via TV commercials promoting American farmers or movies about Lincoln.

Nor is the Symphony on a Hymn Tune some great masterpiece of American music crying out for exhumation. Its faint similarity to far superior Copland works is about all it has going for it. The two remaining symphonies don't have even that much to offer. The 1964 World's Fair composition Pilgrims and Pioneers belongs in a Cinerama travelogue.

For me the bottom line has to do with the use of American (i.e., Anglic) folk tunes. Copland exercised due restraint; in fact, the Shaker tune Gift to be Simple is one of the few bonafide folksongs in the larger works.

But Thomson stuck them in like so many raisins on a plum pudding. I could barely believe my ears when "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" popped up in the finale of The River Suite, or that "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" turns out to be the "hymn tune" of the eponymous symphony.

Think Copland without the Stravinskian sophistication, Ives without the testicles.

Thomson's collaborations with Gertrude Stein produced the oft-mentioned, rarely-performed Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All. I have sat through several performances of Four Saints as well as heard a number of recordings (including Bernstein's) and have never emerged with much to remember. It all just passes through, like an ineffective laxative.

Thomson inadvertently wrote the epitaph to his own music in 1941, by describing it as "both mountainous and mouselike. The volume of it is enormous; its expressive content is minute and not easy to catch...How often has one sat through pieces...that seem to make sense musically but little or no sense emotionally!"

He was sticking it to Paul Hindemith, but the description is just as apt when applied to himself.

Thomson's work is nevertheless worth hearing, as long as you don't have to spend too much in the process. I offer a few recommendations:

You may sample Thomson as critic and man of letters in Virgil Thomson: A Reader: Selected Writings, 1924-1984, available from Amazon.

If you can find it, A Virgil Thomson Reader, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1981, is a dandy one-volume compendium, selected by The Man Himself. Amazon appears to have abundant copies, both hardcover and paperback, via its network of used dealers. Try here; apparently you can pick it up for as little as a single penny, plus $3.99 for shipping.

Finally, here's a bit from The Plow that Broke the Plains, Pare Lorentz's 1936 documentary with Thomson's music: