There are four 20th-century writers who are widely considered to be the gold standard in American journalistic criticism of the arts and intellectual life: H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, James Agee, and Virgil Thomson. Now Thomson (1896-1989) joins the other three in the Library of America, with a collection of his reviews and essays from the New York Herald Tribune, as well as some pieces that appeared elsewhere.
Thomson was not only the finest music critic America has produced—although Paul Rosenfeld has a rightful claim to comparable eminence—he was one of the notable American composers of his time. His Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928) stands worthily beside the far more famous orchestral music of Aaron Copland. His Portraits, over 100 of them, most no longer than a minute or two, were composed while his subjects were sitting in front of him, as though posing for a painter. These were sufficiently well-known that a prehistoric Peanuts strip featured Charlie Brown sitting for his musical portrait by his pianist-friend, Schroeder, who cited Virgil Thomson as his inspiration. (Sadly, Charlie Brown was such a hapless nullity that Schroeder could not produce a single note.) Thomson also set to music poems by William Shakespeare, Thomas Campion, John Donne, William Blake, Marianne Moore, Max Jacob, Gertrude Stein, and Kenneth Koch, as well as a funeral oration by Bishop Bossuet.
He labored as a journeyman for stage and screen, turning out the only-in-America ballet Filling Station (1938) and writing incidental music for various plays, including Orson Welles’s 1936 voodoo Macbeth with the Negro Theater Project and Peter Brook’s televised King Lear (1953). He scored several documentary and feature films, among them Louisiana Story (1948), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, the only time a film score was so honored. His most impressive writing for film, however, comes in the final movement of the suite from The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), in which a simple fugue evokes the relentless scouring winds that devastated the heartland and created the Dust Bowl.
But it is chiefly for his operas—Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), The Mother of Us All (1947), and Lord Byron (1972)—that Thomson the composer is known today, insofar as he is known at all, for even these works tend to be put on only in smaller opera houses or in student productions, and recordings are few and far between. And yet Four Saints in Three Acts, which actually presents some 30 saints in four acts, made Thomson, by his own description, the most famous composer in the world, if only for a season.
Gertrude Stein wrote the libretto, which hovers in that neverland of affectation due south of the unintelligible. Frederick Ashton provided elegantly swooping and sensually shimmying choreography, the singers’ every movement “regulated to the music, measure by measure,” in Thomson’s words. The set was designed by Florine Stettheimer, a reclusive exquisite whose winning credential was the Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria décor of her own bedroom, charmed with such touches as “a baldachino of black chiffon and bunches of black ostrich plumes just like a Spanish funeral,” Thomson gushed. John Houseman enjoyed his first directing gig, though he sweated buckets. An all-black cast sang and danced and gave the show the cachet of the inconceivable and, therefore, the ever so necessary.
A formidable publicity machine—Thomson was as impressively connected as a Mafia chieftain—compelled everyone, distinguished or pretentious or both, to show up at the event. Then, of course, there was Thomson’s music: decorous, decorative, understated, somehow almost making sense of Stein’s gibbering, and, as seen from the distance of 80 years, pretty much an afterthought to the whole affair. The music impressed the intellectuals but not the musicians in the audience, who reserved their admiration for the spectacular spectacle.
The opera traveled from Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum to Broadway, which is as unlikely a spot as one can think of for a production such as this to turn up, and then it took off for points west. Four Saints was a smash hit, but Thomson’s celebrity soon fizzled out, and he would never be lionized like this again.