Some works of art are dependent on a particular historical moment for their effectiveness.
Take the documentaries “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936) and “The River” (1938), which considered subjects of consequence for those living through the Great Depression – the former, the Dust Bowl, and the latter, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Director Pare Lorentz primarily used images to communicate but also benefited from music by the American composer Virgil Thomson (1896-1989).
Alas, when revisited today, the films lack the potency they surely had at the time of their release. That is not true of Thomson’s scores, which singlehandedly save the films from the antique status of, say, Woody Guthrie’s folk songs or FDR’s fireside chats. In fact, untethered from the films they were meant to go along with, his music can be heard more clearly for its own inherent qualities. In his alternately brassy and delicate score for “The River,” for example, Thomson famously availed himself of such lovely, melodious hymns as “How Firm a Foundation” and “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” The result is a work that is majestic and meek, stately and folksy – and is no less so in 2016.
A native of Kansas City, Mo., Thomson frequently referenced his roots in the center of the country in the music he made (despite receiving an education at Harvard and later relocating to Paris and New York). In his autobiography “Virgil Thomson” (1966) – one of four books contained within the Library of America’s Virgil Thomson: The State of Music & Other Writings – Thomson writes: “The music of 'The Plow' had poured forth easily. I knew the Great Plains landscape in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas; and during the War I had lived in a tent with ten-below-zero dust storms.”
Pageantry springs from the prairie, too, in Thomson’s “Symphony on a Hymn Tune” (1945), while a rough, rural sound distinguishes his score for Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story” (1948). His output also included the operas “Four Saints in Three Acts” (1934) and “The Mother of Us All” (1947), the librettos for which were written by Gertrude Stein.
Thomson’s uncommon capacity to both create works in a particular art form and to write lucidly about that art form – as he and others practiced it – is in evidence throughout the Library of America collection, its second spotlighting the writer-composer. Besides his autobiography, the volume features the entirety of Thomson’s brilliant “The State of Music” (1939) – a report from the front on the art and business of music-making – and substantial portions of “American Music Since 1910” (1971) and “Music with Words” (1989). Editor Tim Page also finds room for a miscellany of shorter pieces.
The volume vividly demonstrates that Thomson’s written words were equal to his musical notes. In “The State of Music,” for example, Thomson distinguishes the act of creation of composers from that of solo practitioners like poets. “A musical manuscript is not music in the way that a written poem is poetry,” Thomson writes. “It is merely a project for execution.” Put another way, others – like instrumentalists or singers – are needed to breathe life into a piece of music, although Thomson adds that composers must be knowledgeable “executants,” too. “It is his business to know everything there is to know about executants,” he writes, “because he is dependent on them for the execution of his work.”
A waggish writer, full of opinions, Thomson occasionally shifts the topic in “The State of Music” to other areas in the arts. For example, there is this dry account of the exertions of painters who work in oils: “It entails no inconsiderable amount of physical exercise and that among turpentine fumes, which keep the lungs open,” he writes. “Hence your painter is on the whole a healthy and a cheerful man.” As for photographers? Don’t ask. “Practicing the most objective technique known to art, they cherish a violent life of the imagination,” he writes. “They are sad, pensive, and introverted, lead their lives in rain-coats.”
Engaging, too, is the composer’s autobiography, which includes a marvelous look back at his coming of age in Kansas City, Mo. – to be differentiated, of course, from Kansas City, Kan. Thomson denounces the latter as “Yankee territory, windy and dry,” a judgment even extending to the city’s supposedly bland cuisine. Stopping at a dive there with the painter Maurice Grosser in search of nourishment, Thomson recounts asking a waitress about the pies on display. Upon being informed that they are “peanut butter,” Thomson is said to comment to Grosser: “You see?”
Perhaps the best material in Thomson’s autobiography concerns his time on the New York Herald Tribune, where he had a post as a music reviewer from 1940 to 1954. His recollections of tapping out notices on short deadlines – and the sometimes-furious reader responses that followed – make for a classic mini-memoir of journalism. “After the Late City Edition had been put to bed (in those days half past midnight), our night staff and the working reviewers would gather there to wait out the next half-hour till freshly printed papers were sent down,” he writes, sounding very much like a man who loves the city room as much as the orchestra pit.
Most fascinating of all are the sketches in “American Music Since 1910.” Thomson chides Charles Ives (1874-1954) for expending his energy on both making music and holding a job in insurance. “Business may be a less exacting mistress than the Muse, what with staffs and partners to correct your mistakes,” Thomson writes. “But Ives’s music does show the marks of haste, and also of limited reflection.” And, summarizing the artistic evolution of Aaron Copland (1900-90), Thomson does not hesitate to offer his own work as an antecedent to Copland’s compositions “Billy the Kid,” “Rodeo,” and “Appalachian Spring”: “All make much of Americana, the hymn lore of the latter piece having as its direct source my uses of old Southern material of that same kind in 'The River.'”
To take full measure of the dual nature of Thomson’s legacy, perhaps the reading of this gem of a book ought to be accompanied by a recording of “The River” – or any one of his half-dozen other musical masterpieces.
Freelance journalist Peter Tonguette writes a classical music column for The Columbus Dispatch. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and National Review.