In the spring of 1938, the publisher William Morrow & Co. approached Virgil Thomson for a book on music and contemporary culture. It was a great idea, though perhaps not quite in the way that Morrow thought.
Objectively, it was a great idea because if anyone knew the subject, it was Thomson. He spent a lot of time in Paris, still a hive of creative activity, where he kept a flat on the quai Voltaire, and was a keen participant in Paris’s frothy musical life. When not in Paris, he patrolled the East Coast between Boston and New York trying to stir up interest in his opera Four Saints in Three Acts, his ballet (the unprepossessingly titled Filling Station), and other music. On top of that, he could write, and write he did with lively pieces on the French musical scene for the Boston Evening Transcript andnew American music for Modern Music, and with sassy articles for Vanity Fair. He was a classically trained musician with a classy prose style who fought in the musical trenches of two continents.
The bad news (for Morrow) was that while The State of Music got sensational reviews when it was published in 1939, it sold only a few thousand copies and was regarded as a commercial dud. The good news (for Thomson) was that one of those copies was read by the cultural editor of The New York Herald Tribune, who met Thomson over a boozy lunch after his evacuation from France in 1939, liked him, and offered him a job as music critic to replace the late Lawrence Gilman. That was the start of fourteen years of uproarious and compulsively readable music criticism republished a few years back by the Library of America in Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940–1954. More good news, this time for us: the Library has continued with a second volume offering us The State of Music, selections from American Music Since 1910 (1971), the posthumously published Music with Words (1989), occasional essays and reviews of books on musicians, and Thomson’s eponymous biography. The works in this volume show Thomson’s characteristic go-straight-at-’em-take-no-prisoners style. It is rich stuff, however, and the longer works are best consumed in several courses rather than at one sitting.
A classically trained musician with a classy prose style who fought in the musical trenches of two continents.
When Thomson retired in 1954, it was ostensibly to concentrate on composing and the performance of his own works. While he composed several songs and a Requiem in the next few years, in that latter aspect he failed; Thomson was not the only person to convince himself that he would be enthusiastically welcomed outside of the bully pulpit and he had gored too many sacred cows. But there was another reason, as he tells us in his autobiography published a dozen years after his retirement. He was tired:
I came to realize, once I had given up reviewing, that I could not bear the stuff [listening to music] in any form. Moreover, observing my [fellow critics who composed], I realized that they too were finding music unattractive. . . . In America, where the very air we breathe is oversaturated with processed auditory stimuli, the composer . . . finds the whole musical hoopla unacceptable.
Five years in the writing, his autobiography Virgil Thomson describes his early life in Missouri, his time at Harvard, life in the Twenties, and his on-again, off-again friendship with Aaron Copland. The autobiography, though lively and engaging, has gaps. It reveals little about the war years or about Thomson’s intimate life—he was from an age and lived in a generation that disapproved of such disclosures. And curious, if only as an example of Thomson’s relaxed (or oblivious) view of what was to come, are the chapters about Paris in 1939 when he tells us how he threw Friday night parties, composed his musical “portraits” of friends, savored the first peaches and fillets of fawn (“tender, pale pink, and no more than an inch across”) of 1939, and played Bach and Mozart just as the Wehrmacht’s tanks were rolling into town with le tout Paris evacuating just below his window. Name-dropping is a common feature of autobiographies but can sometimes lead to surprises: Thomson tells us that when he finally evacuated, he was accompanied by one Suzanne Blum, described as “one of my small handful of French with whom misunderstanding has never occurred.” This would be the same Suzanne Blum who, as the lawyer to the aged and incompetent Duchess of Windsor (widow of the abdicated Edward VIII), stashed her away to die in the royal couple’s house in the Bois de Boulogne and dissipated her estate. Though all this happened long after the autobiography went to press, it suggests that despite Thomson’s critical eminence, as with the rest of us, his people judgment occasionally misfired.
The State of Music was a call to action to the musical world to take control of its commercial affairs, dumping “the amateurs and businessmen who were still trying to administer our properties when they couldn’t even handle their own.” Written in Paris, it is a polemic structured as a series of amusingly titled essays such as “Our Island Home, orWhat it feels like to be a musician,” “How Composers Eat, orWho does what to whom and who gets paid,” and “Why Composers Write How, orThe economic determinism of musical style.” Thomson states that while every profession is a “secret society” and compares music to the other arts, he goes on to claim that the musical world (the “island home”) is “the only purely auditory thing there is. It is comprehensible only to persons who remember sounds . . . [which] gives them access to a secret civilization completely impenetrable by outsiders.” In his preface to the 1961 edition, Thomson admitted that while the work was dated as regards fees and cost of living, that its premise—if musicians do not take care of their affairs, nobody else would—still applied, and that if not careful, “some church, some state, some business combine will be running their lives.” Still true, and not just for musicians.
Have you ever wondered why, listening to broadcast classical music, one hears the same works played time and again? What we are hearing, for the most part, is loosely termed the “standard repertory,” and one could be forgiven for thinking that, apart from the standard repertory, the remaining 99.5 percent of western classical music was somehow unworthy of programming. Thomson alludes to this in The Appreciation-racket, part of the essay “Why Composers Write How,” when he explains that:
Music is neither taught nor defined. It is preached. A certain limited repertory of pieces, ninety per cent of them a hundred years old, is assumed to contain most that the world has to offer of musical beauty and authority . . . ninety per cent of [this repertory] is the same fifty pieces. The other ten is usually devoted to good-will performances by local celebrities. All the rest is standardized.
Thomson blames this on commercial interests and declares that for a musician “to lend the prestige of his name and knowledge to any business so unethical . . . is to accept the decisions of his professional inferiors . . . .” This is, of course, a variant of the timeless lament of the composer-critic who earns his living from musical journalism but who would dearly prefer to retire on his musical royalties. The State of Music is a polemic, depressing at times, for the situation has only deteriorated, but a most entertaining one.
The State of Music is a polemic, depressing at times, but a most entertaining one.
The volume concludes with charming appreciations of old friends and fellow warriors—Lou Harrison, Edwin Denby, Elisabeth Lutyens among them, and his old teacher Nadia Boulanger, as well as reviews for The New York Review of Books including the excellent “ ‘Craft-Igor’ and the Whole Stravinsky,” “How Dead is Arnold Schönberg?,” and “Berlioz, Boulez and Piaf,” each of them an example of Thomson’s deep knowledge, stylishly expressed.
Though shamelessly pursuing his bêtes noires (too many to list) and his personal agendas (primarily Virgil Thomson and his music), Thomson was the greatest of our American music critics. He informed and instructed, but most of all he entertained. His description of Olin Downes, the late music critic of The New York Times, applied equally to him: “[h]e swam in the full musical current of a great epoch, kept his head up, breathed deeply, clung to rocks, waved at the fishes, and had a wonderful time.”
1Virgil Thomson: The State of Music and Other Writings, edited by Tim Page; The Library of America, 1,169 pages, $50.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 2, on page 67
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