Virgil Thomson

Among American composers, Virgil Thomson is one of the most influential.  Often inspired by the music of his Missourian childhood, Thomson incorporated popular American tunes and hymns in much of his music – a style that became emblematic of Roosevelt’s New Deal Era.  A success not only as a composer of both traditional forms and film, from his longtime platform as music critic at the New York Herald Tribune Thomson played an important role in shaping contemporary American classical music and was a powerful voice in the promotion of new music, particularly that of American composers.

Missouri Youth

Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 25, 1896.  His family, of Welsh and Scottish descent, was deeply rooted in America and it counted among its ancestors a Revolutionary War hero and a Civil War-era Southern Baptist prophet.  Neither of his parents seems to have been particularly inclined toward music, but several of the numerous relatives who stayed for extended periods with the Thomsons did bring a great deal of music into the house.  It was from one of these family members that Virgil received his early education.

When he was five, Virgil’s cousin Lela, who lived with the family and had her own piano, gave him lessons.  At an early age he also enjoyed writing music and his first composition was apparently an improvised depiction of the notorious 1871 Chicago fire.  When Lela married and left the Thomson house, she took her piano with her.  However, ten-year-old Virgil was provided with a new one by his sister Ruby, an artist then making a living painting china and teaching.  She also found local piano teachers with whom he could study.

In 1909 he met the most influential mentor of his childhood.  Robert Leigh Murray, a tenor soloist at the family’s Baptist church, took an interest in Virgil’s education, and arranged lessons in piano and organ for him with Kansas City’s top teachers.  Murray also gave Virgil singing lessons, and hired him as an accompanist.  In this way, the young musician became acquainted with both the standard keyboard and vocal repertories.  Additionally, Murray took Virgil to Chicago during several of his school vacations, where he attended the opera, recitals, and other musical events. 

During this period, Virgil received his first professional engagement when he substituted for a local movie-house pianist, accompanying silent films on the piano.  By sixteen, he was playing the organ at his family’s church and at other local churches.  His other activities were equally interesting.  In high school, he developed his writing skills, which eventually led to his career in criticism, and acted in a play with his fellow student William Powell (the future cinematic star). 

In 1915, he enrolled in a junior college, the Kansas City Polytechnic Institute, which had recently opened in the same location as his former high school.  There he gathered a club of young men interested in intellectual pursuits, and produced a club magazine devoted to philosophical matters.  When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Thomson enlisted, but in spite of intensive artillery and aeronautics training, he did not see any action.  After his military training, he returned to Kansas City and made future plans.

Harvard and Studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris
Thomson entered Harvard University in 1919.  He was partially financed by an inheritance from his grandmother and by a scholarship fund from the Mormon Church, of which his friend Alice Smith’s father was the president.  In 1920, Virgil was singing in Harvard’s glee club when the choir went a summer performance tour in France.  Melville Smith, another Harvard composition student and Thomson’s friend, had received a fellowship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.  Since Thomson was going to France with the choir, he applied for and was awarded the same fellowship, which offered him the opportunity to study abroad for the year.  He parted ways with the ensemble in Geneva, Switzerland, traveled about England, and then returned to Paris for his year of study. 

In Paris Thomson studied organ and composition with Boulanger, and became acquainted with many avant-garde artists.  A friend introduced him to the writer and future filmmaker Jean Cocteau, as well as to the members of “Les Six” and to composer Erik Satie.  At this time, Thomson also began a career in music criticism, an opportunity that came about from a Boston connection.  Before leaving Cambridge, Massachusetts, Thomson had met the critic Henry Taylor Parker of the Boston Evening Transcript.  Parker enlisted Thomson to write occasional pieces for the Transcript from overseas, covering musical events in Paris, and Thomson’s writing made a direct impact on at least one other artist.  His enthusiastic 1922 review of Serge Koussevitzky’s concert series in Paris was influential in the Russian conductor’s appointment to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

New York and Return to Paris

Upon his return to Boston, Thomson became organist and choir director at King’s Chapel and continued his studies.  In his final year at Harvard, he focused on composition and conducting, and when he graduated he was given a $1,500 fellowship.  However, rather than returning to France immediately, he went to New York to study conducting with Chalmers Clifton at the American Orchestral Association.  He may also have decided to remain in the country because of his affection for a young man named Briggs Buchanan, an affection that was unfortunately not reciprocated.  When Thomson’s hopes for the relationship went unrealized, he returned to Harvard to work as a teaching assistant.  Shortly thereafter he decided to move to Paris.

Paris was his home base from the autumn of 1925 through 1940, even though he spent some time in the United States during those years.  In Paris he led an active life.  He continued lessons with Boulanger, sent writing to be published in Vanity Fair, and presented his Sonanta da chiesa (for E-flat clarinet, D trumpet, viola, F horn, and trombone) at a concert arranged by Boulanger.  He convinced a wealthy diplomat’s wife to create a regular salon to showcase works by Thomson and his friend, the composer and pianist George Antheil; there Thomson’s works (including the vocal work Five Phrases from the Song of Solomon and the Sonata da chiesa ) were well received.  He also joined a literary-musical circle that put him in contact with luminaries such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, and Ernest Hemingway.  During his first year in Paris, Thomson came across an old acquaintance from Harvard, the painter Maurice Grosser, and began what became perhaps the most significant relationship in his life.

Through Antheil, in 1926, Thomson also met the American writer Gertrude Stein.  He had encountered her writing when he was a student at Harvard, and since his arrival in Paris had harbored hopes of meeting her.  By the beginning of 1927, he had composed his first setting of a Stein poem, “Susie Asado,” from Geography and Plays, to Stein’s great delight.  Influenced by the foundational ideas of Dadaism (though he did not consider himself a participant in the movement), Thomson wrote works connected to memories of his childhood and his religious upbringing, including his Symphony on a Hymn Tune and a work for organ, Variations on Sunday School Tunes (both 1927).  That same year, he set another Stein text in Capital Capitals, for four male voices and piano.  Stein was very pleased with his work, and her friends suggested that she might create an opera libretto for Thomson.  The result was Four Saints in Three Acts, perhaps the best known of Thomson’s compositions.

Four Saints in Three Acts

While Thomson’s friends in America campaigned to raise the funds required to produce the opera, Thomson himself was unable to afford a trip home.  Finally a friend provided him with the money, and he was able to stay in New York with two other Harvard alumni, R. Kirk Askew, Jr. and Philip Johnson.  In Askew’s circle, Thomson attended clubs in Harlem, where at the time white visitors were drawn by the prospect of seeing black performers. 

It was at one of these performances that Thomson decided that his opera would feature an all-black cast of singers.   Four Saints in Three Acts premiered in Hartford in early February1934, notably a year before George Gershwin’s first, famous all-black production of Porgy and Bess.  Even though Stein dissuaded Thomson from his initial ideas of putting the singers on stage in transparent costuming and white face-paint, the opera was nonetheless sufficiently scandalous enough with its black cast and unorthodox, non-narrative structure.  However, news of its invitation-only premiere incited great anticipation among critics and the social elite.  They were not disappointed, and the opera opened on Broadway later that month.  Criticism was mixed, with Stein’s brilliant but cryptic text discussed as thoroughly as Thomson’s music, but much of it was overwhelmingly positive.
New Projects

Thomson decided for the time to remain in the United States and soon became caught up in new projects.  One project teamed Thomson up with his Four Saints director, John Houseman.  Houseman was the co-director of the Negro Theater Project and the company was staging Shakespeare’s Macbeth and needed a composer to provide incidental music.  Thomson worked on other plays as well; including a production of Hamlet directed by Houseman, and from this connection began working in the medium of film. 

Houseman recommended Thomson to Pare Lorentz, who was making a federally funded film documenting the history of the American Great Plains.  The film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, promoted New Deal policy and garnered a mostly enthusiastic critical response.  After a brief return to Paris, Thomson agreed to work with Lorentz again in New York, this time on a film entitled The River.  Both of Thomson’s early film scores drew heavily on popular tunes and hymns, a hallmark not only of much of Thomson’s work, but eventually also a general characteristic of music related to New Deal projects.

In 1937, he worked on a breakthrough ballet designed by Lincoln Kirstein, who oversaw the then unprecedented combination of American subject, American choreographer, American composer, and American dancers.  Throughout the 1930s, Thomson also produced a number of instrumental works, including a Violin Sonata (1930), two string quartets (1931 and 1932, both revised in 1957), and the Symphony No. 2.  In addition, he continued to add to a long series of instrumental pieces that he called “Portraits,” which began with Five Portraits for Four Clarinets in 1929, and which continued throughout Thomson’s life.

Thomson left for Paris again in June 1938.  There, his efforts in the field of critical writing intensified, culminating in a book titled The State of Music.  The book was published by William Morrow and Company in the fall of 1939, and attracted the attention of Geoffrey Parsons at the New York Herald Tribune.   Through Parsons, Thomson was hired as music critic at the Tribune, and moved back to New York.  His fourteen-year tenure at the Tribune made him one of the nation’s premier music critics.  From this position, he was able to champion and even mentor young composers of the avant-garde, such as John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Ned Rorem. 

After the end of World War II, Thomson spent several months in Paris, where he met with Gertrude Stein to discuss the possibility of another collaborative effort.  The Brander Matthews Theater at Columbia University had received funding for new opera commissions, to be distributed by a committee including Columbia composer Douglas Moore (best known for his opera The Ballad of Baby Doe) and his assistant Jack Beeson (who later composed the opera Lizzie Borden).  The commissions began with Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Menotti’s The Medium, and the renewed pairing of Thomson and Stein was the next suggestion.

Thomson approached Stein with the general idea of a nineteenth-century political topic, and Stein chose Susan B. Anthony for her subject.  The premiere of The Mother of Us All in May 1947 was also broadcast live on the radio station WNYC, and met with great critical approval.  It was given a Music Critics Circle award, and has been frequently performed in the years since its debut.  Its modest production requirements and numerous small-but-integral roles have made it a staple work particularly for small companies and student opera productions. 

The same year The Mother of Us All opened, a new film project was presented to Thomson.   This was Louisiana Story, directed by Robert Flaherty (best known for his 1922 documentary Nanook of the North).  The film was released in September 1948, and Thomson’s score was praised as much as Flaherty’s work.  It went on to earn Thomson a Pulitzer Prize.

Later Years, Revivals, and the End

After Thomson left the Herald Tribune in 1954, his compositional output slowed.  The Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp, and Percussion had its premiere in Venice in September 1954.  However, with his name and his column no longer a daily presence in the arts world, requests for new compositions dropped off.  He made a lecture tour of South America in 1955, and in the late 1950s further collaborated with John Houseman on theatrical work.   A writer named Kathleen Hoover, who wished to write a biography of Thomson, approached him.  In part to regain some of the public attention he had lost, he agreed, and enlisted John Cage (who was familiar with his music) as a co-author.  Sagamore Press released the book in 1959.  An autobiography was later published in 1966.

For his third opera, Thomson chose as his librettist Jack Larson, a playwright and actor famous in the 1950s for his television appearances in The Adventures of Superman.  The opera, Lord Byron, took seven years of collaborative work.  It was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, but either for financial reasons or because the opera company’s administration ultimately lacked enthusiasm for Thomson’s opera, it premiered at Juilliard.  The first performance, on April 20, 1972, was met with much interest, but earned mixed reviews.  Thomson revised it in 1977, and it had a revival in 1985 at Alice Tullly Hall.

In 1983, Thomson was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor.  A small production of Four Saints in Three Acts was staged in 1986, at a tiny venue, but which attracted noteworthy New York critics and composers.  Maurice Grosser, who by then was very ill with numerous ailments including complications from AIDS, also attended.  Grosser died toward the end of 1986, and John Houseman died of spinal cancer in 1988.  As Thomson’s longtime friends slipped away, the composer also increasingly suffered from the ailments of old age.   He died on September 30, 1989, in his sleep, two months before his ninety-third birthday.

Jackson, Richard: ‘Virgil Thomson,’ Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed    16 January 2006), <>

Tommasini, Anthony.  Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle.  New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.