Virgil Thomson: Works & Quotes

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What do you consider American music? Composer Virgil Thomson thought about the question a lot and explored it his work. In this lesson, learn about Thomson's compositions and his comments about music, critics and creativity.

The Composer

Virgil Thomson (1896 - 1989), born in Kansas City, Missouri, was an American composer and music critic. Known for his witty style and occasionally cutting criticism, he, along with Aaron Copeland, was one of the first American composers to try and develop a distinct American sound. Thomson melded influences like traditional Southern hymnbook harmonies and speech patterns (yes, the way people talk!) into orchestral and choral music. 'I look at you and write down what I hear,' is how he described it. He composed in many formats, including operas, film scores, concertos, choral works, and short piano pieces. He was funny and infused his personality into his music. Let's explore several works in more detail.

Portrait of Virgil Thomson
Virgil Thomson

Major Works: Operas

In 1928, famed author Gertrude Stein asked Thomson, who was a young unknown at the time, to compose music for her opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The result is definitely unusual. An all-black cast plays the roles of European saints in an opera without much of a plot. Thomson's music playfully mixes styles, including Baptist hymns, folk tunes, ragtime and marches. You could think of it as sort of like sampling the popular and familiar music of his day--pretty similar modern hip-hop artists or EDM producers, actually! The score is rather straightforward and doesn't contain complex harmonies or atonality (notes that clash rather than blend), unlike a lot of contemporary serious music of the time. Opinions are divided, but it signals where Thomson's composing would go.

In 1947, Stein and Thomson collaborated on another opera, The Mother of Us All, based on the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony. This score is more mature (the elements flow together more completely) but still blends influences like circus marches, waltzes, traditional rural folk tunes and trumpet calls. It evokes a period of time in American history, which is what Thomson wanted to do.

Thomson wrote his most ambition score for his last opera, Lord Byron in 1968. Unlike his earlier work, this music is based on Scottish and English folk tunes and sacred hymns. It's very emotional but not all music scholars view it as successful because it comes across as an eclectic mix rather than a cohesive whole.

Major Works: Film Scores

Thomson also composed music for several films. His scores for the documentaries The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) evoke rural America and lives of hard work and desperate times, effectively using a diverse range of music, from cowboy songs and folk tunes to religion pieces. But he did possibly his best work on the score for another documentary, Louisiana Story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1949. It's the only film score ever to be honored. The movie is about a vanishing way of life, and Thomson melds elements of Cajun-Creole and French folk music with Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony tunes (both sources were early hymnals created to enable people who couldn't read music to sing). It's an effective piece of work, at times haunting while in other sections jaunty, and worth a listen.

Other Works

Thomson was prolific and composed throughout his life, including scores for ballets. In 1937, he wrote music for a one-act ballet, Filling Station, that mixed tango, Salvation Army Band music, snippets of popular songs of the day, and even honky-tonk tunes (jokey, crass music played in bars and dance halls). The ballet, believe it or not, is about a gas station attendant and his customers during an evening. Yes, it sounds like a silly subject for a ballet, but it's considered a landmark. It was the first ballet written, choreographed and danced by American artists, with music and sets (that evoked the glare of neon and metal) created by American artists.

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