The Mother of Us All

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Scene from a 2020 performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Mother of Us All is a two-act opera composed by Virgil Thomson to a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Thomson and Stein met in 1945 to begin the writing process, almost twenty years after their first collaborative project, the opera Four Saints in Three Acts.[1] Stein wrote the libretto in the winter of 1945–46 before sending it to Thomson in March. After Stein's death in July, Thomson began working on the score, which he finished within just a few months.[2] The opera centers around Susan B. Anthony, one of the major figures in the fight for women's suffrage in the United States, with a supporting cast of characters both fictional and based on other historical figures.[1] Thomson famously described the work as a "pageant".[2][1]


According to experts, Gertrude Stein's exploration of rhythm and repetition within her writing lent itself to a musical setting.[3] Both her libretto and Thomson's orchestration were highly idiomatic, matching patriotic dialogue with "hymns, marches, patriotic airs, and parlor songs" in order to emulate the atmosphere of America's 19th century political scene.[2] Scholars claim that these folk influences are what mark Thomson's score as acutely American.[4] Contrary to Four Saints in Three Acts, the focus of The Mother of Us All was on distinctly characterizing each political player—Thomson gave each a particular musical identity through his melody and orchestration.[2] "Some characters are associated with specific instruments, most noticeably Susan B., who is associated with trumpets and strings, but also Angel Moore with the harp, and Daniel Webster with horns."[2] Susan's trumpet melodies are "possibly meant to convey her militant dedication to her cause," and the character of Angel Moore, being a literal angel, is accompanied with the instrument most often associate with heaven.[2] Though he still worked within a traditional tonal framework, Thomson was highly influenced by serialism and other contemporary musical ideas.[5] The opera's duration is around 103 minutes.[6]


The work is scored for one flute, one oboe, two clarinets, one bassoon, two French horns, two trumpets, one trombone, two percussionists, harp, celesta, piano, and strings.[6] The cast consists of two sopranos, one alto, two tenors, one baritone, and one bass, with twenty five singers and six additional silent actors.[6] When the piece was originally commissioned in 1945, Thomson was asked to orchestrate the piece for less than twenty players, since World War II made it difficult to recruit musicians.[2] His chamber ensemble and solo piano reductions of the opera's orchestration are frequently performed.[1]

Performance history[edit]

The opera premiered on 7 May 1947 at Columbia University's Brander Matthews Hall with soprano Dorothy Dow as Susan B. Anthony.[7] Soprano Shirlee Emmons was awarded an Obie Award for her portrayal of Susan B. Anthony in the 1956 Off-Broadway production.[8] The opera was mounted at Carnegie Hall by the American Opera Society in 1964 with Johanna Meier as Susan B. Anthony, Betty Allen as Anne, Thomas Paul as Daniel Webster, and Enrico Di Giuseppe as John Quincy Adams.[9] The Santa Fe Opera mounted the work in 1976 and released a recording of the work the following year on the New World Records label. The European premiere took place in Kensington Town Hall in London on 26 June 1979.[7] The New York City Opera staged a production in 2000 with Lauren Flanigan as Susan B. Anthony. In 2003, San Francisco Opera opened its 80th anniversary season with a new production of The Mother of Us All, Luana DeVol assuming the role of Susan B. Anthony for the first time.[10]


Role Voice type Premiere cast[7]
7 May 1947
(Conductor: Otto Luening)
Susan B. Anthony mezzo-soprano or dramatic soprano Dorothy Dow
Anne contralto Belva Kibler
Gertrude S. soprano Hazel Gravell
Virgil T. baritone Robert Grooters
Daniel Webster bass Bertram Rowe
Andrew Johnson tenor
Thaddeus Stevens tenor Alfred Kunz
Jo the Loiterer tenor William Horne
Chris the Citizen baritone Carlton Sunday
Indiana Elliot contralto Ruth Krug
Angel More soprano Carolyn Blakeslee
Henrietta M. soprano Teresa Stich-Randall
Henry B. bass-baritone Jacques La Rochelle
Anthony Comstock bass James Chartrand
John Adams, presumably John Quincy Adams tenor Robert Sprecher
Constance Fletcher mezzo-soprano Alice Howland
Gloster Heming baritone Michael Therry
Isabel Wentworth mezzo-soprano Jean Handzlik
Anna Hope contralto Carlton Sunday
Lillian Russell soprano Nancy Reid
Jenny Reefer mezzo-soprano Dianna Herman
Ulysses S. Grant bass-baritone Everett Anderson
Herman Atlan high baritone
Donald Gallup baritone
A.A. and T.T., page boys or postillions
Negro Man and Negro Woman
Indiana Elliot's Brother bass-baritone


Stein's text for The Mother of Us All does not describe details of staging. Therefore, Thomson's partner Maurice Grosser devised a scenario to facilitate staging the opera. Though Grosser stated that other scenarios were equally possible, his scenario is published in the printed score; this synopsis is based on it.

Act 1[edit]

Scene 1. Susan B. Anthony and her devoted companion Anne are shown at home. Anne is knitting; Susan B. is pasting clippings into a scrapbook. Gertrude S. and Virgil T. also appear as narrators.

Scene 2. A political meeting takes place, at which Webster, Johnson, Adams, Grant, Comstock, and Stevens are all present. Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen also appear, mocking the politicians' solemnity. Susan B. introduces herself to the assembly, and she and Daniel Webster debate.

Scene 3. A public square in front of Susan B. Anthony's house. Thaddeus Stevens argues with Andrew Johnson; there is a flowery love scene between John Adams and Constance Fletcher. Jenny Reefer begins waltzing with Herman Atlan, and everyone joins in the dance.

Scene 4. Susan B. Anthony meditates on the difficulties of her mission.

Scene 5. Jo the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot are to be married. As the wedding party gathers, various episodes unfold. John Adams courts Constance Fletcher, Daniel Webster (who is to perform the ceremony) addresses Angel More in sentimental language. Indiana's brother bursts in, wishing to prevent the marriage, and Susan B. explains what marriage means to women. General Grant calls for order, and Jo teases him for his pomposity. It seems that the wedding is all but forgotten, but finally Daniel Webster blesses the couple and Susan B. foretells that all of their children, men and women, will have the vote.

Act 2[edit]

Scene 1. Susan B.'s home. Susan B. is doing housework when she learns that she will be asked to address a political meeting. Jo the Loiterer complains that Indiana Elliot refuses to take his last name. When Susan B. is invited to speak, she declines, then agrees, hesitates again, but finally goes off to the meeting.

Scene 2. The meeting has taken place and Susan B. returns home triumphantly. She has spoken so convincingly that the politicians, now afraid of the women's suffrage movement, have written the word "male" into the Constitution in order to make it impossible for women to vote. Indiana Elliot has decided to take Jo's last name, and he will take hers; they will become Jo Elliot and Indiana Loiterer. Everyone congratulates Susan B. for her leadership.

Scene 3 (Epilogue). Some years later, a statue of Susan B. Anthony is to be unveiled at the U. S. Capitol. The characters gather for the ceremony, with Anne as guest of honor. Susan B. enters as a ghost, though Anne does not see her. Constance Fletcher appears, now almost blind. Other characters talk about women's suffrage, or burst in tipsily. The ceremony threatens to get out of hand. Suddenly, Virgil T. unveils the statue. The women lay wreaths at the base of the pedestal. All slowly depart. Alone, Susan B. Anthony (as the statue) sings of the struggles and lessons of her long life.


  • Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us AllMignon Dunn, Philip Booth, Karen Beck, Sondra Stowe, Jimmie Lu Null, William Lewis, Steven Loewengart, Thomas Parker, Marla McDaniels, D'Artagnan Petty, Stephen Bryant, Ashley Putnam, et al.; Conductor: Raymond Leppard; Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Recorded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1976—recorded digitally (America's first digital recording session) but released from the superior analog master made at the same time. Label: New World Records
  • Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All – Noragh Devlin (as Susan B. Anthony), Scott Russell (Daniel Webster), Alexander Frankel (Jo the Loiterer), Addison Hamilton (Constance Fletcher), Carlton Moe (John Adams), et al.; Conductor: Steven Osgood; Manhattan Opera Orchestra. Recorded in New York City, 2013;[11] released 2014. Label: Albany Records.[12]
  • Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All – Dorothy Dow (as Susan B. Anthony), Belva Kibler (Anne), Hazel Gravell (Gertrude S.), Robert Grooters (Virgil T.), Bertrand Rowe (Daniel Webster), William Horne (tenor) (Jo the Loiterer), et al.; Conductor: Virgil Thomson; Columbia University Chorus and Orchestra. Recorded in New York City, May 7, 1947 – world premiere performance; released 2017. Label: Cantus Classics.


  1. ^ a b c d Rockwell, John (2002). "Mother of Us All, The". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.O005264. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Lister, Rodney (2010). "Another Completely Interesting Opera: 'The Mother of Us All' Part I: History and Background". Tempo. 64 (254): 2–10. doi:10.1017/S0040298210000379. ISSN 0040-2982. JSTOR 40928896. S2CID 146908675.
  3. ^ Landon, Brooks; Hovland, Michael (2001). "Stein, Gertrude". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.48346. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0.
  4. ^ Rockwell, John (11 February 2020). "The Mother of Us All — Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's opera celebrates a pioneering feminist". Financial Times. ProQuest 2353326610.
  5. ^ Gil, Piñero; C, Eulalia (1989). "Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson : the concept of Modernism in American Opera". Revista Española de Estudios Norteamericanos. ISSN 1133-1526.
  6. ^ a b c "The Mother of Us All for orchestra (1947)". The Virgil Thomson Foundation. 2 June 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "The Mother of Us All". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  8. ^ "Obituaries: Shirlee Emmons Baldwin". The Portage County Gazette. April 2010. Archived from the original on 2011-07-15.
  9. ^ "Music: Thomson's 'Mother of Us All' Johanna Meier Takes Key Role in Opera". The New York Times. April 1, 1964. p. 42.
  10. ^ "The Mother of Us All" (PDF). Performance Archive. San Francisco Opera. Retrieved 3 October 2011.
  11. ^ "OPERA NEWS - The Mother of Us All". Retrieved Apr 22, 2019.
  12. ^ "Albany Records: The Mother of Us All". Retrieved Apr 22, 2019.


Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle. Anthony Tommasini. W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31858-3