Virgil Thomson's Musical Milieu

The American composer flourished along with the luminaries of Paris cafe society

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FOR 10 years I visited the eminent American composer and music critic Virgil Thomson at his bohemian apartment on New York's 23rd Street, fascinated by this entirely ordinary man. I occasionally dined with him and his circle of friends, listening to his flat Midwestern voice as he recalled his remarkable past, as he affirmed his equally noteworthy present, and as he waited - with a good deal of optimism - to celebrate his 9th decade of life. Virgil Thomson's greeting at the door of his Chelsea Hotel apartment was always completely unceremonious. But that's the way he was: He didn't waste time on niceties. He got to the point.

``Here, over here,'' he would say with the kind of friendly impatience that he claimed as a right of age. ``For goodness sake, do sit down.'' And with a gesture of his short arms he directed me to take a seat on his ``good side.''

Once seated, Thomson gave me a look that mixed affection with disapproval; he rarely allowed anyone to feel secure about his friendship. But he was always kind. He would smile his puckish grin and sit back in his favorite armchair, his small hands lying on his bulbous belly, and recount to me and others his days in the celebrated Paris caf'e society of the 1920s.

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Virgil Thomson was born in 1896 in Kansas City, Mo. (not Kansas) - and heaven help anyone who mislocated his place of birth! He grew up in a sturdy, devotedly Protestant family of Midwestern farmers, taking piano and organ lessons while he was still a child. Eventually he studied composition at Harvard University. After completing his studies, he visited Europe and fell in love with Paris. For 50 years - from 1927 until 1977 - he maintained a residence there.

Thomson was fond of filling our ears with candid tales of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and other upstarts of the great Paris years of America's so-called Lost Generation. Some of these reminiscences made their way into Thomson's own writings, and I jotted down things I remembered from our dinners in a journal I kept at the time.

``James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were rivals in the sense that they appeared as planets of equal magnitude,'' he explained. ``The fact that they were both in Paris in the 1920s and '30s gave the city the position as world center of writing in English. American writers flocked to Paris: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, Hart Crane. They were all there!''

Thomson pointed out that the rivalry between Joyce and Stein was polite but intense. Their friends were not allowed to be neutral; they had to take sides. For instance, when Joyce's now-famous novel ``Ulysses'' was about to be published in France, Picasso was asked to illustrate it. He declined however, because he valued the friendship of Gertrude Stein and did not want to alienate her by taking up with her rival.

So Picasso politely returned the manuscript of ``Ulysses.'' He admitted to Stein that he had read it (``a thing,'' Thomson confided, ``he rarely did for any book!''), but Picasso comforted her by saying, ``Yes, now I see what Joyce really is - an `obscure' [writer] that all the world will understand - un obscur que tout le monde pourra comprendre.'' It was a catty remark, and of course Gertrude Stein was delighted.

Virgil Thomson adored the friendship of celebrities. ``Lots of people visited my Paris flat in the first year I lived there. I remember Scott Fitzgerald delivering some kind of speech on top of a little stove I had. And there were all kinds of rich American women, looking for adventure. Novelist Andr'e Gide used to visit. But not Ernest Hemingway, whom I never asked. He was part of the Montparnasse hard-drinking set. Not much fun if you weren't as drunk as they were.''

In the 1920s, Paris had become a retreat for American bohemians. ``America was impatient with us,'' Thomson said more than once. ``America loved art but suspected distinction, stripped it off us every day, supposedly for our own good. But in Paris even the police were kind to artists. As Gertrude Stein used to say, `It was not so much what France gave you as what she did not take away.'''

Enamored of all things French, Virgil Thomson was accused of being a bit excessively Frenchified. He loved French banality. His personal aesthetic was validated by the Gallic cult of simplicity that had become the artistic reaction of the French to the emotional bombardment of German Expressionism in art and literature - a style entirely alien to Thomson's sensibility. So it is little wonder that he was critical of Germanic art, which he belittled as ``heavy-handed, overheated, monumental, and overwhelmed by Innigkeit'' - introversion.

Thomson had come to Paris not just for the social life. He studied with Nadia Boulanger, a teacher who would eventually train a vast succession of American expatriate composers, and, consequently, come to have great influence on the future of American music.

Thomson also had a feeling of kinship with the Frenchman Erik Satie. He delighted in the composer's sprightly nonchalance, irreverence, and harmonic simplicity. He also took keen interest in Satie's ability to set texts to music, for Thomson was especially attracted to creating music based on words.

Prior to meeting Gertrude Stein in Paris, Thomson had known and admired Stein's writing and had put some of it to music.

As he explained, ``My friendship with Gertrude Stein dates from the winter of 1925. Though utterly addicted from my Harvard days to the only books of hers then in print - ``Tender Buttons'' and ``Geography and Plays'' - I still had made no effort to contact her. I wanted an acquaintance to come about informally. So even when I moved to Paris, I waited. Well, eventually I met her.

``Having heard that the young American composer George Antheil was that year's genius, Stein thought she really ought to look him over. George, always game but also always wary, took the liberty of bringing me along. Naturally I went. Stein's lifelong companion, Alice Toklas, did not on first view care for me, and neither of the ladies found reason for seeing poor George again. But Gertrude and I got on like a couple of Harvard men. As I left, she said to him only goodbye, but to me she said, `We'll be seeing each other.' That was the beginning of our friendship.''

Eventually Thomson and Stein decided that they would collaborate on an opera. ``I think,'' she wrote in a note to Thomson in March 1927, ``it should be about saints. Four saints in three acts. And others. Make it pastoral. In hills and gardens. All four and then additions. We must invent them. But next time you come I will show you a little bit and we will take some scenes over.''

The result of this collaboration, ``Four Saints in Three Acts,'' became the most celebrated of Virgil Thomson compositions. ``What gave this work so special a vitality?'' Thomson asked himself. ``The origin of that lay in its words, of course, the music having been created in their image. Music, however, contains an energy long since lost to language, an excitement created by the contest of two rhythmic patterns, one of length and one of stresses. Together, and contrasted, they create tension and release; and this is the energy that makes music sail, take flight, get off the ground.

``The theme of `Four Saints' is the religious life, its locale being the Spain Gertrude remembered from having traveled there. Its local references, however, are not to Spain, which I had never seen, but rather to my Southern Baptist upbringing in Missouri. I set all of Stein's text to music, every word of it, including the stage directions, which were so clearly a part of the poetic continuity that I did not think it proper to excise them.''

The production of ``Four Saints in Three Acts'' was not realized in Thomson's beloved France. Its first major performance had to await his return to the United States.

Apparently, the music of Virgil Thomson was not championed by the powerful music elite of France. The go-between for artists and public was Jean Cocteau - poet, playwright, and filmmaker. He could launch a fashion, guide a career, and organize social and financial backing. His main interest in music, the group that he publicized powerfully after World War I was called ``The Group of Six - Les Six.'' Among the members of that celebrated group, Cocteau had particularly favored four composers - Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honneger, George Auric, and Francis Poulenc. Consequently, they ruled the Parisian music scene.

``I have always imagined,'' Thomson confided, ``that that quartet of composers, though none of them ever attended a concert of my music, had put thumbs down in regard to me. They seemed to remain as friendly as before, but they did not approve of me. Despite the fact that we shared an equal commitment to the music of Satie, they did not make a hospitable gesture toward me or my music. Neither did any of them speak out against me.''

``Four Saints in Three Acts'' was first performed at the Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Conn., in 1934. From there it went to Broadway where it became a legend - playing for 60 performances - which is a truly exceptional run for an opera! The production introduced a new American musical sensibility, an artistic mentality not unlike today's minimalist aesthetic of composers such as Philip Glass - a radical simplicity involving tonal clarity, repetition, harmonic simplicity, and just one musical event taking place at a time.

``Had my opera been premi`ered in Europe,'' Virgil Thomson explained, ``it would be today a very different work from what it became under the conditions of its American premi`ere in 1934. I would have scored it for a much larger number of musicians; and its future life, in consequence, would have been led in middle-to-large-size repertory houses. Its American production would not have been a possibility [except] for the museum director in Hartford who allowed me eventually to give it a Negro cast, an English choreographer, and cellophane scenery designed by an American painter!''

In 1940, with Europe being overrun by Nazis, Virgil Thomson returned to America and was hired as the music critic of the New York Herald Tribune.

He became debatably the most influential and talented writer on music in American history. ``My journalistic and critical errors,'' he has said, ``were of two kinds, those which shocked the prejudices of readers and those which caused inconvenience to management by my offending the powers of the big, boring music world: the Metropolitan Opera, Arturo Toscanini, and various New York orchestras.''

Virgil Thomson's impact on the American art scene has continued since his 1989 passing. Today, his music for the stage, for film, and for the concert hall, is finding a large, new audience. His critical writings have had an immense influence on the tone and attitude of several generations of critics, composers, and performing artists.

``I always knew that things would work out for me,'' he said when I called him on his 90th birthday. ``The smartest thing a person can do is to outlive his enemies. And I've outlived just about everybody I ever knew!''

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