Commentary Magazine


Virgil Thomson, by Virgil Thomson

The Musician as Writer

Virgil Thomson.
by Virgil Thomson.
Knopf. 424 pp. $7.95.

It makes a delightful book for the most part, and at times a superb one, Virgil Thomson remembering Virgil Thomson and friends—also, at the beginning, some relatives, and now and again a non-friend—in Kansas City, at Harvard, in Paris, New York, and then Paris again.

To Thomson, Thomson is a distinguished and important composer, and there are works that support the claim strongly, notably the two operas with Gertrude Stein texts, and some instrumental pieces as well, like the Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Thomson writes with confidence in the merit of his music; for example: “Among my works composed after 1945, those which touch me most are the Cello Concerto . . .; the Flute Concerto . . .; the Missa Pro Defunctis . .. which exploits my skills in choral treatment and liturgical evocation; and The Feast of Love . .., my own translation from late Latin of the Pervigilium Veneris, sex poem of all time. My other works I know will make their way; these also perhaps. But they worry me because I love them.” Other composers have written of loving certain of their works, but who else has been touched by his own?

Thomson’s public reputation, though, rests on his way with words. It began with the occasional articles sent from Paris to Modern Music; was increased with the 1939 book, The State of Music (“I like it better than your book,” he wrote at the time to Aaron Copland); and was established thoroughly with his writing for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954. Beginning one fall day with a swift and clean murder of the Philharmonic, Barbirolli, and Sibelius, he kept the New York musical world delighted and infuriated with his brilliant writing, openly partisan points of view, and with some remarkable perceptions. He got bored eventually, the judgment became more and more perverse, and there was a growing tendency for him to write about whatever was on his mind at the time rather than about what he had actually heard, but he was interesting, and the writing itself was a joy of a sort that newspaper reading rarely affords us.

Virgil Thomson, too, is written with characteristic elegance and grace. There is much wit, though less malice than one might have expected. With 424 pages of text, Virgil Thomson is an ample book. Some of it is stuffing, mainly in the form of Parisian name-dropping. Not all the friends and acquaintances come to life in these pages, and a certain sense of clutter is produced by the attempt to involve the reader in a society of little concern to those who were not part of it.

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The most beautiful achievement here is the already celebrated “Portrait of Gertrude Stein,” which begins: “Gertrude Stein in her younger days had liked to write all night and sleep all day. She also, it seems, ate copiously, drank wine, and smoked cigars. By the time I knew her, at fifty-two, she ate. abstemiously; she neither drank nor smoked; and she was likely to wake, as people do in middle life, by nine. Her volume had been diminished too. Her appearance, nevertheless, on account of low stature (five feet, two), remained monumental, like that of some saint or sybil sculptured three-fourths life size. Her working powers also were intact, remained so, indeed, until her death at seventy-two.”

The Stein portrait really runs through much of the book, and it is especially concentrated in the chapter called “Orchestrations and Contracts,” which describes preparations for the premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts. There is a steady rhythm of quarrels and reconciliations in the Stein-Thomson friendship, often about money. Here, for instance, Stein insisted on a 50-50 sharing of profits: “It is quite true that upon you falls the burden of seeing the production through but on the other hand, the commercial value of my name is very considerable and therefore we will keep it 50-50.” Thomson replied, “I should like to protest that although your name has a very great publicity value as representing the highest quality of artistic achievement, its purely commercial value, especially in connection with a work as hermetic in style as the Four Saints, is somewhat less, as I have found out in seeking a publisher for our various joint works. . . . Moreover, it is not the value of your name or the devotion of your admirers (I except Mrs. Chadbourne, who began very practically indeed but didn’t continue very long) that is getting this opera produced, but my friends and admirers.” Stein, full of the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—this was in 1933—wrote back, “My dear Virgil, Yes yes yes, but nous avons changé tout cela,” and, indeed, the final agreement was 50-50.

It was Stein’s essential lyricism that seems to have appealed to Thomson, and he sees her as an artist distinct from Picasso, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Joyce, for whom “obscurity, long the hallmark of modernism, remained a trademark.” The chapters, “Communists all Around and High Life Too” and “The New Romanticism,” give clear expositions of Thomson’s anti-obscure, anti-neoclassical, aesthetic stand. The attitude is formulated in the account of a conversation with the then very young Pierre Boulez: “By using carefully thought out and complex ways, you produce by thirty a handful of unforgettable works. But by then you are the prisoner of your method, which is stiff. You cannot handle it with freedom; so you write less and less; at forty you are sterile. This is the trap of all style-bound artists. For without freedom no one is a master.” Thomson reports that Boulez sadly said “Bien sur” and changed the subject. For Thomson, Boulez is, like Bérard and Duchamp, an artist who has evaded the implications and promise of a brilliant youth.

What Thomson says may be true of Boulez, but what, for example, of Webern? There is little use, at any rate, in looking to Thomson for illumination on the work of his contemporaries—the bias is too strong. But then the bias is the price we pay for the liveliness of mind that produced the vivid evocations of turn-of-the-century Kansas City (with its delightful concern for the differences between Missouri and Kansas), the family portraits, and all the good professional gossip. Virgil Thomson is an intelligent, vital, and at times touching, book.

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