Virgil Thomson died in 1989 at 92, by which time he had been celebrated, forgotten and become timely again. Twenty-five years later, his career seems almost unimaginable. As a composer, he joined the expatriate avant-garde in Paris that helped American culture kick its juvenile insecurities; returning to New York in 1940, he lived in the Chelsea Hotel, kept his homosexuality secret, and became a powerful classical music critic, writing for the Times‘ rival paper, the Herald Tribune. Almost nothing about that sentence makes sense today. American culture can do without the help of an opera composer, Paris long ago relinquished its avant-garde credentials, the Chelsea Hotel is no longer a hotel and the Times and the Herald Tribune hasn’t existed in years. The notion of a music critic at a daily newspaper being feared and famous seems quaintest of all.
And yet Thomson still matters, partly because he was such an oddity in his own time, too, and partly because his ear was sharp, his influence stealthy and delayed. He invigorated Lou Harrison and Mark Blitztein and prepared the way for Philip Glass. His sensibility was deadpan and straightforward. Listening to his portrait of Pablo Picasso, with its oompah rhythms, little fanfare and purposefully silly tune, it’s hard to say whether Thomson wrote the piece with feeling or with a smirk. As a critic, too, he fused clarity and irony into brutal quips: “Paul Hindemith’s music is both mountainous and mouselike. The volume of it is enormous; its expressive content is minute and not easy to catch.” This stuff came easily to him, and he churned out so much glistening prose that the critic Tim Page has boiled down Thomson’s 14-year career down to a sleek 1,200-page anthology for Library of America.
Thomson found a kindred spirit in Gertrude Stein. For their first collaboration, Four Saints in Three Acts, they found their topic by process of elimination: no Norse mythology (Wagner had done that), no classical mythology (everyone else had done that), no George Washington (the Founding Fathers all wore indistinguishable outfits). They settled on the lives of two saints (not four), Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola, who were likely stand-ins for Stein and her friend James Joyce. Out of this stew came a libretto full of cheery gibberish. (The opera begins: “To know to know to love her so / Four Saints prepare for saints / It makes well fish/ Four saints it makes well fish”.) Thomson’s score burbles and chortles along without care or drama, as if it were a parlor song distended to fill an entire evening. “A Jew and a Protestant turn out a Catholic opera about Spain in the 16th Century,” Thomson once said, “and in the course of writing that music I came into practically total recall of my southern Baptist upbringing in Missouri.”
That this odd amalgam of mystifying plain talk and hymnody ever made it to the stage at all was due to Thomson’s finely honed knack for cajoling people into doing things for him. With the confidence of an Ivy League amateur, he persuaded Chick Austin, the enterprising head of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut (and a fellow Harvardian) not only to give the opera its first outing but also to raise much of the money. He coaxed the reclusive painter and poet Florine Stettheimer to design the sets and costumes, and the already celebrated young Frederick Ashton to choreograph the show. Anticipating Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, he insisted on an all-black cast, not because the subject matter suggested it but because, as he explained many years later, African-Americans have good posture, diction and a religious way of singing. Besides, he told the Times critic John Rockwell, “They look better than we do; they can wear all colors on stage. We’re sort of oyster-colored.”
When the Four Saints opened in 1934, the Times‘ critic — and later Thomson’s nemesis — Olin Downes gave the show a profoundly mixed review. He found the “opera” — the scare quotes are Downes’ — attractive and “contrived to amuse” but also sophomoric and slapdash. “All this is nine-tenths farce and exhibitionism,” he concluded, “but there is a little truth in it, and there are some lessons that American opera composers could well take to heart.” They didn’t, or not for a handful of decades. Thomson remained a famous but profoundly non-influential figure until the 1970s, when Philip Glass revived smiley-faced repetitive music as a dramatic tool appropriate for the stage. When Glass, the composer of Satyagraha, confessed how much he owed to his elder, Thomson replied: “Well, of course, we’re in the same business. You write operas in Sanskrit, and I write them in Gertrude Stein.”
In the 20s, when he was working on Four Saints, he was hardly alone in arguing the case for simplicity; plenty of artists and composers had found their way to an assortment of cool, neoclassical styles. By the 1940s, when he teamed up with Stein again after World War II, the group that Thomson called the “complexity boys” — led by Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter — had commandeered the forefront of advanced music. Thomson was admiring but unswayed. (“Babbit’s music has the clarity of distilled water and just possibly its sterility,” he wrote in 1971.) Meanwhile, he kept his own style stubbornly direct. For their second and last joint project, The Mother of Us All, which had its premiere in 1947, Stein produced a fanciful and non-linear biography of Susan B. Anthony. She treated history with sublime indifference to chronology, and populated the opera with anachronisms, archetypes, cameos, and contradictions. Thomson had an ear perpetually cocked for the natural musicality of American life, and he outfitted Stein’s libretto with a score he described — accurately, of course — as “an evocation of nineteenth-century America, with its gospel hymns and cocky marches, its sentimental ballads, waltzes, darn-fool ditties and intoned sermons.”
Thomson lived long enough to become a minor prophet. As a critic, he had encouraged American music; as a composer, he had staked out turf for it. He set English text to music with exemplary finesse, and he remains the only composer to have won a Pulitzer Prize for a film score. He had argued the case for simplicity, and won. Thomson’s life spanned a desperately self-important century, but he was the rare artist who took his work more seriously than he took himself. “The way to write American music is simple,” he asserted. “All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.” Which is exactly what he did.