In today’ s Wall Street Journal I review the new Library of America Virgil Thomson compendium. Here’s what I had to say:
The heyday of American classical music occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when most everyone involved assumed that American composers would create a native canon and that American orchestras in 2016 would play mainly American music. This vibrant fin de siècle moment also marked the apex of classical-music journalism in the United States. In New York, the most estimable critics were W.J. Henderson of the Times, Henry Edward Krehbiel of the Tribune, and the ubiquitous James Gibbons Huneker. All were active participants, not sideline observers.
One reason that music journalism declined after World War I was the criterion of “objectivity,” which removed critics from a world of composers, performers and institutional leaders that Henderson, Krehbiel and Huneker had knowingly inhabited. The grand exception, proving the rule, was Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune, who was a composer of consequence and an active conductor and who maintained close and significant working relationships with artists in other fields. Thomson’s 1967 autobiography, “Virgil Thomson,” reprinted in the Library of America’s new Thomson anthology, records theatrical enterprises alongside Orson Welles and John Houseman and interactions with a Parisian cohort that included James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Edited by Tim Page, the new Thomson collection incorporates two additional books—“The State of Music” (1939) and “American Music Since 1910” (1971)—as well as an assortment of essays for the New York Review of Books and other periodicals.
Not included, because they were republished in a previous Library of America volume, are the hit-and-run Tribune reviews that made Thomson a notorious and influential guerrilla warrior from 1940 to 1954. These brilliantly informal inside jobs bore witness to the commercialized celebrity culture that classical music had become. It was Thomson who fingered Arthur Judson, a national musical power broker (running two orchestras and the leading New York concert bureau) who put business first and art second, and it was Thomson again who reduced the “educational” efforts of David Sarnoff’s NBC and RCA to “the music appreciation racket.” He called the violinist Jascha Heifetz “essentially frivolous” and considered the Philharmonic “not part of New York’s intellectual life.”
In his autobiography, Thomson explains: “The New York Herald Tribune was a gentleman’s paper, more like a chancellery than a business. During the fourteen years I worked there I was never told to do or not to do anything.” Notably, Thomson was not told not to continue composing and conducting. His favorable reviews of Eugene Ormandy, who programmed lots of Thomson’s music with the Philadelphia Orchestra, were part of the package. And he pursued an insouciant personal style that would never have been tolerated at the Times. His principles, he wrote, “engaged me to expose the philanthropic persons in control of our musical institutions for the amateurs they are [and] to reveal the manipulators of our musical distribution for the culturally retarded profit makers that indeed they are.” Another sally in his autobiography records that the Times’s “chronic fear of any take-off toward style came back to mind only the other day, when Howard Taubman, its drama critic, dismissed a play by the poet Robert Lowell as ‘a pretentious, arty trifle.’ ”
If re-reading Thomson’s feuilletons today remains a bracing experience, it must be emphasized that his larger efforts are compromised by know-it-all slapdash judgments and contentious aesthetic biases that are more forgivable and delectable in a daily newspaper, where they may be balanced by others’ accounts. The longer pieces collected here are studded with howlers, of which I will cite two bearing on a Thomson specialty: American opera.
Recalling the inception of the Metropolitan Opera on page one of “American Music Since 1910,” Thomson records that “for its first seven years, from 1882 to ’89, [it] gave everything, including Bizet’s Carmen, in German.” In fact, the Met began in 1883 as an Italian house and was ambushed by Germans from 1884 to 1891 before the box holders took it back. This issue of opera and language, as Henry Krehbiel (miscalled “Edward” by Thomson in a paragraph extolling fact-checking at the Herald Tribune) acutely appreciated, would prove crucial to the failure of American opera in the decades to come.
A second example: Writing in 1962, Thomson called George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” an “opéra comique, like Carmen, consisting of musical numbers separated by spoken dialogue.” But Gershwin wrote sung recitatives. The dialogue one sometimes encounters in “Porgy” was added after Gershwin’s death. Thomson himself loudly reviewed “Porgy” at its 1935 premiere. He denigrated Gershwin as a gifted dilettante—the same judgment he had applied to Charles Ives. A chronic Francophile, Thomson keyed on the professionalism instilled by his Paris-based teacher Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Aaron Copland and countless other Americans whose music was more kindred to Thomson than “Porgy” or Ives’s “Concord” Sonata. A 1962 encomium to Boulanger is the warmest and tenderest thing in the Library of America collection; the usual temperature of Thomson’s prose approximates that of an ice-cold shower.
Thomson’s assessment of Ives, in a chapter from “American Music Since 1910” called “The Ives Case,” makes strange reading today. A breathtaking Thomsonian generalization—“an artist’s life is never accidental, least of all its tragic aspects”—predicates a breathtakingly severe verdict: that all of Ives is compromised by “a divided allegiance.” By dividing himself between composition and the life-insurance work he pursued to earn a living, Thomson argues, Ives never mastered a musical calling. From Thomson’s essay one would never glean that, even as a student, Ives could craft an exemplary German Lied (“Feldeinsamkeit”). Rather, a “homespun Yankee tinkerer,” Ives wrote songs that “will not, as we say, come off.” His exemplification of “ethical principles and transcendental concepts,” Thomson opines, seems “self-conscious,” “not quite first-class.”
Whatever one may make of such judgments, what seemed Germanic hot air to Thomson is what for many today most gauges Ives’s greatness. Those “ethical principles” and “transcendental concepts” are what convey a moral afflatus equally found in Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich—also on Thomson’s list of windbag composers. With Germanic “Innerlichkeit” (or inwardness) he will have nothing to do: Only Thomson could have likened its most famous podium practitioner, Wilhelm Furtwängler, to Arturo Toscanini, who “streamlined” music in favor of surface affect.
Thomson believed that the German influence on such American composers as Ives, Edward MacDowell and George Chadwick was toxic. Are Chadwick’s symphonic works merely “a pale copy of . . . continental models”? I would not say that of Chadwick’s effervescent “Jubilee” (1897), with its whiff of “Camptown Races.” Did Thomson even know much of Chadwick’s music? It is doubtful. But his assumptions were echoed in the American-music narratives popularized by Copland and Leonard Bernstein, both of whom also dismissed Chadwick and questioned the professionalism of Ives and Gershwin.
Among the most substantial occasional pieces in the present collection is a 1965 assessment of books about Debussy, Bizet, Berg and Webern for the New York Review; it provides a concise exegesis of Thomson’s aesthetic predilections. Debussy was, he wrote, the “most original” 20th-century composer, and French literature was his inspirational fount. His “most vibrant pages are those in which a literary transcript of some visual or other sensuous experience has released in him a need to inundate the whole with music. This music, though wrought from a vast vocabulary of existing idiom, is profoundly independent and original. . . . None of it really sounds like anything else. It had its musical origins, of course; but it never got stuck with them; it took off.”
Debussy’s highest flight is the opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” (1898), in which “for the first time in over a century (or maybe ever) a composer gave full rights to subtleties below the surface of a play. . . . The sensitivity with which the whole is knit . . . never again produced so fine a fabric.” The only “runners-up” to “Pelléas” among 20th-century operas are Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu.” Berg depended on his German musical forebears “to guide him through the dark forests of abnormal psychology.” Owing, Thomson confides, to a “perverse fascination with the Germanic view of music as something strictly for scholastic temperaments,” he undertakes a review of Willi Reich’s then-newly translated Berg biography. Both the book and its subject, he says, embody “Germanic types” who “think in simplified alternatives—black or white, right or wrong, our team against all the others in the world.”
A slightly earlier New York Review piece, “How Dead Is Arnold Schoenberg?,” supplements these views. Schoenberg’s letters are said to distill the self-portrait of “a consecrated artist, cunning, companionable, loyal, indefatigable, generous, persistent, affectionate, comical, easily wounded, and demanding.” Schoenberg is the characteristic German “for whom a certain degree of introversion was esteemed man’s highest expressive state.” It is good to lay the cards on the table.
And what of Thomson’s own place in music history? The readings at hand amass a shrewd self-assessment, becomingly modest yet laced with piercing insinuations of self-regard. It is only appropriate that Thomson lavishes attention on his two operatic collaborations with Gertrude Stein. “Four Saints in Three Acts” (1934) and “The Mother of Us All” (1947) embellish the tiny American operatic canon. For those who love the artful innocence of Erik Satie, they are a sublime achievement; for the rest of us, they embody a taste rarefied yet readily accessible.
Thomson was also one of the best American composers for film (a topic somewhat skirted in his autobiography). His scores for the classic documentaries “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936), “The River” (1938) and “Louisiana Story” (1948) are outstandingly fresh, organic in unexpected ways. For a cavalcade of cars fleeing drought-infested farms—the climax of “The Plow”—Thomson furnishes a divine habanera. Elsewhere his patchwork of hymns and popular song strikes an American note both authentic and original. When Thomson claimed to have preceded Copland in concocting an American idiom combining “simplification” and “folk-style tunes,” he was merely telling the truth.
Finally, Thomson embodies an iconic American life story. Born in Kansas City in 1896, seasoned in Paris, ultimately a legendary denizen of Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, he combined vernacular New World whimsy with the refinements of Old World high art. He traced his obstreperousness to “the Booth Tarkington-George Ade-Mark Twain connection.” In his lifetime, this gadfly spirit made Thomson a necessary voice. Posthumously, he utters fearless but fallible understandings based on formidable knowledge and experience and equally formidable eccentricities of feeling and opinion. He is more a guide to his own time and place than a sage analyst or observer of timeless truths.
One can feel grateful for this Library of America volume and yet believe that a greater service could be rendered by anthologizing American musical journalists from an earlier era. Henderson’s 2,500-word Times review of the premiere of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony remains a masterpiece of probing approbation, with one of the subtlest descriptions of the central Largo ever conceived. Krehbiel’s 4,000-word Tribune review of the American premiere of Strauss’s “Salome” remains a masterpiece of moral opprobrium, as plausible today as the day it was written. Huneker’s account, in his autobiography, of an inebriated evening with Dvorak (“Such a man is as dangerous to a moderate drinker as a false beacon is to a shipwrecked sailor”) remains among the most colorful portraits of any composer ever penned. A full dose of such writings would open wide a window on an American past not sufficiently remembered—not least by Virgil Thomson.