Virgil Thomson in His Own Precise Words and Notes

Vivian Perlis, the great pioneer of oral music history, and Libby Van Cleve, expert oboist-turned-musicologist, are coming out with their first volume of oral American music history, Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington (Yale Univ. Press, two compact discs included). I got an advance copy, and it’s fascinating reading; can’t put it down. Here’s an excerpt from some 1977-78 interviews with the great Virgil Thomson:

I came from Europe in the fall of 1940. I didn’t have any money, and wasn’t going to be earning any, so I came home. I took a job as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune and stayed there until I had nothing more to say – fourteen years. I had not any experience at all with newspaper routines, but you learn those overnight. [How true.] I’ve always been a fast writer. I had no trouble meeting deadlines – I like them. If you know how much time you’ve got, then you know what you can do. I think music reviewing should be a serious musical job. You must try not to be a victim of your power or start throwing your weight. Whenever I wrote about music, I was writing about my own profession and speaking from a responsible point of view. I wasn’t teaching music appreciation not knowing anything about it. I was explaining music as I knew it and believed it to be my duty. All living musicians, including critics, are part of one great band or conspiracy for the defense of musical faith and its propagation. They are always treading on each other’s toes, but they all have membership in the professional world of music. Their quarrels are family quarrels.

I can write quite easily, almost without correcting, except what you correct as you go along. Perhaps the only time I made extra drafts of things was on the [auto-]biographical book [Virgil Thomson, 1966], because you don’t know how to write about yourself. You have to find an attitude, and it takes some trial….

I am not a careless writer. As I say, I don’t mind correcting indefinitely and finding a better word or a more courteous way of saying something, but the main draft goes straight through. There is no point in getting angry to colleagues. Those are the people that you are going to live with all your life, whether you like their music or not, and liking it or not is the least interesting thing you can say about it. The most interesting thing you can do is describe it because your attitude will come through automatically in your choice of words. You know as well as I do that in writing it’s a willingness to tamper and correct until you get it acceptable to yourself, and you try it out on people – I have not been the least bit afraid of editorial help. I like it. You find out (I tell this to students all the time) you not only have to say what you mean, you have to be willing to mean what you have said.

And elsewhere:

Anybody can use anything he wants to, but the twelve-tone period is a very strange one in the history of music. Every time I’ve tried serialism, I’ve found it deadening. There is no audience for it anymore. There never was. It was in the composers’ minds that there might be. If Schoenberg and his two pupils, Berg and Webern, had not been such wonderful musicians so that some kind of expressive thing came through from time to time, the serial business would never have got anywhere.

One of my favorite pieces that I got to hear live for the first time on the recent Bard Music Festival was Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune. I knew every note by heart, but I wasn’t prepared for the unsettling live effect of Thomson’s whimsical orchestration. A chorale would suddenly be taken over by the three trombones in the back, or the entire orchestra would sit there silent as a cello played a long simple solo; then the concertmaster would play by himself, and a piccolo would start up behind him. Nor could I have anticipated how hilarious it was to watch an entire orchestra rip along through “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” A recording flattens out these incongruities, and you just don’t notice them. It was absolutely audacious music, radical in its use of the orchestra, which revealed the orchestra not as an illusion of a great blended mass, but as a group of individuals, any one of whom might have his or her own points to make. No wonder so many professional composers didn?t respect his music: it abandoned illusionistic expertise in favor of humorous realism. I admired Copland for accepting that. When a friend mentioned that Thomson’s music was “dumb,” Copland replied, “Yes, I know, but it’s intentionally dumb. He’s the American Satie.”

In fact, I’ve been thinking lately that, despite all our magnificent innovators that my ilk make such a big deal about, the American classical music audience is actually a dull, pedestrian audience, like the British audience. They actively prefer music that is expert, prestige-oriented, conventional, and forgettable to music that is imaginative and audacious. They give complexity a condescending pat on the head, and are affronted by frank simplicity. I’ve always tried to believe that it is due to composer politics that great composers like Thomson are shamefully neglected (why had I never had a chance to hear Symphony on a Hymn Tune live before?). But sitting in that audience, relishing every confrontational asburdity of that nose-thumbing score, I got a feeling that the people around me were uncomfortable, and wished they could get back to something like the bland, sedately “serious” thickness of Copland’s Symphonic Ode, which allowed them to daydream undisturbed.