Virgil Thomson (November 25, 1896 – September 30, 1989) was an American composer and critic. He was instrumental in the development of the ”American Sound” in classical music. He has been described as a modernist, a neoclassicist, a composer of ”an Olympian blend of humanity and detachment”whose ”expressive voice was always carefully muted” until his late opera Lord Byron which, in contrast to all his previous work, exhibited an emotional content that rises to ”moments of real passion”, and a neoromantic.
Virgil Thomson American composer 1896-1989
Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, he befriended Alice Smith, great-granddaughter of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saint movement. After World War I, he entered Harvard University thanks to a loan from Dr. Fred M. Smith, the president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and father of Alice Smith.
Virgil Thomson tours of Europe with the Harvard Glee Club helped nurture his desire to return there. At Harvard, Virgil Thomson focused his studies on the piano work of Erik Satie. He studied in Paris on fellowship for a year, and after graduating, lived in Paris from 1925-40. He eventually studied with Nadia Boulanger and became a fixture of ”Paris in the twenties.”
Virgil Thomson most important friend from this period was Gertrude Stein, who was an artistic collaborator and mentor to him. Following the publication of his book, The State of Music, he established himself in New York City as a peer of Aaron Copland, and was also a music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1940-54.
Virgil Thomson writings on music, and his reviews of performances in particular, are noted for their wit and their independent judgments. His definition of music was famously ”that which musicians do,”and his views on music are radical in their insistence on reducing the rarefied aesthetics of music to market activity. He even went so far as to claim that the style a piece was written in could be most effectively understood as a consequence of its income source.
In 1969, Virgil Thomson composed Metropolitan Museum Fanfare: Portrait Of An American Artist to accompany the Museum’s Centennial exhibition ”New York Painting And Sculpture: 1940-1970.”
Virgil Thomson became a sort of mentor and father figure to a new generation of American tonal composers such as Ned Rorem, Paul Bowles and Leonard Bernstein, a circle united as much by their shared homosexuality as by their similar compositional sensibilities. Women composers were not part of that circle, and some have suggested that, as a critic, he pointedly ignored their works, or adopted a patronizing tone.
Virgil Thomson’s score for The River was used in the 1983 ABC made-for-television movie The Day After. Thomson’s personal papers are in a repository at the Archival Papers in the Music Library of Yale University and also additional effects regarding Virgil Thomson are included in the Ian Hornak repository at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art in Washington D.C.
Awards and honors
Virgil Thomson was a recipient of Yale University’s Sanford Medal. In 1988, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.
Virgil Thomson died on September 30, 1989, in his suite at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, aged 92.