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American Composers from A to Z: T (Part 1 – Thomson, Virgil)

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In today’s blog we celebrate a very important American composer and critic, Virgil Thomson. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 25, 1896, he often played the organ at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, and took piano lessons with the church’s organist. After World War I he attended Harvard University, thanks to a loan from Fred Madison Smith, president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After Harvard he studied in Europe for a year, then lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940. He was influenced by members of Les Six, and also took lessons with the great Nadia Boulanger.

Moving into the Hotel Chelsea, he established a salon that attracted many young artists, including Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Ned Rorem, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Frank O’Hara, and Paul Bowles. In 1926 Thomson met Gertrude Stein, and they created an opera, Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934. The opera was revolutionary in that European saints were portrayed by black singers. In 1947, Thomson and Stein created another opera, The Mother of Us All, about the life of Susan B. Anthony. Thomson’s score includes Baptist hymns, Gregorian chant, and popular songs. Thomson also used religious themes and folk songs in the film score for The Plow that Broke the Plains (1946). In 1949 he received the Pulitzer Prize for another film score, Louisiana Story.

In addition to composing music, Thomson worked as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954 (his definition of music was “That which musicians do.”) He died in New York City on September 30, 1989.

The NLS Music Section has a number of items by or about Virgil Thomson:

Books about Virgil Thomson and His Works

Virgil Thomson Reader, with an Introduction by John Rockwell, 2016 (DB 17852).

Thomson, Virgil. Virgil Thomson, Biography, 1970 (BRA07283).

Thomson, Virgil. State of Music, by Virgil Thomson (BRA01736).

Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson, Edited by Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page, 2016 (DB 30251).

The New Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book, by Gustav Kobbe. Includes references to Virgil Thomson operas (DB 21711).

Tommasini, Anthony. Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, 2017 (DB 46247).

Music by Virgil Thomson Available in Braille

Day Dream, Portrait of Herbert Whiting, Piano, 1976, (BRM24351).

Pastorale on a Christmas Plainsong, 1977, (BRM24624).

Praises and Prayers: 2. My Master Hath a Garden, for Violin and Piano, 1986, (BRM29147).

20th Century Art Songs, by various composers, including Virgil Thomson. In three volumes, 1979, (BRM25685)

Songs by 22 Americans, including Virgil Thomson. Edited by Bernard Taylor, in four volumes, (BRM25697)

To borrow any materials, you can download them from BARD, call us at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2, or email us at [email protected]. You can visit our website at any time to learn more about the services that NLS provides.

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