Virgil Thomson

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Virgil Thomson
Thomson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1947
Born(1896-11-25)November 25, 1896
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
DiedSeptember 30, 1989(1989-09-30) (aged 92)
New York, New York, U.S.
OccupationComposer, critic

Virgil Thomson (November 25, 1896 – September 30, 1989) was an American composer and critic. He was instrumental in the development of the "American Sound" in classical music. He has been described as a modernist,[1][2][3][4][5] a neoromantic,[6] a neoclassicist,[7] and a composer of "an Olympian blend of humanity and detachment"[8] whose "expressive voice was always carefully muted" until his late opera Lord Byron which, in contrast to all his previous work, exhibited an emotional content that rises to "moments of real passion".[9]


Early years[edit]

Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, he befriended Alice Smith, great-granddaughter of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saint movement. During his youth, he often played the organ in Grace Church, (now Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral), as his piano teacher was the church's organist. After World War I, he entered Harvard University thanks to a loan from Dr. Fred M. Smith, the president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and father of Alice Smith. His tours of Europe with the Harvard Glee Club helped nurture his desire to return there. At Harvard, Thomson focused his studies on the piano work of Erik Satie. He studied in Paris on fellowship for a year, and after graduating, lived in Paris from 1925 until 1940. He eventually studied with Nadia Boulanger and became a fixture of "Paris in the twenties."

Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964)/LOC van.5a52069. Maurice Grosser, 1935

In 1925, in Paris, he cemented a relationship with painter Maurice Grosser (1903–1986), who was to become his life partner and frequent collaborator. Later he and Grosser lived at the Hotel Chelsea, where he presided over a largely gay salon that attracted many of the leading figures in music and art and theater, including Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, and many others. He also encouraged many younger composers and literary figures such as Ned Rorem, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Frank O'Hara, and Paul Bowles. Grosser died in 1986, three years before Thomson.[10]

His most important friend from this period was Gertrude Stein, who was an artistic collaborator and mentor to him. Following the publication of his book, The State of Music, he established himself in New York City as a peer of Aaron Copland, and was also a music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1940 to 1954.[11]

His definition of music was famously "that which musicians do,"[12] and his views on music are radical in their insistence on reducing the rarefied aesthetics of music to market activity. He even went so far as to claim that the style a piece was written in could be most effectively understood as a consequence of its income source.[13]

Later years[edit]

In 1969, Thompson composed Metropolitan Museum Fanfare: Portrait Of An American Artist to accompany the Museum's Centennial exhibition "New York Painting And Sculpture: 1940–1970."[14][15]

Thomson became a sort of mentor and father figure to a new generation of American tonal composers such as Ned Rorem, Paul Bowles and Leonard Bernstein, a circle united as much by their shared homosexuality as by their similar compositional sensibilities.[16] Women composers were not part of that circle, and one writer has suggested that, as a critic, he selectively omitted mention of their works, or adopted a more passive tone when praising them.[17]

Awards and honors[edit]

Thomson was a recipient of Yale University's Sanford Medal.[18] In 1988, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.[19] He was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.[20]


Thomson died on September 30, 1989, in his suite at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, aged 92. He had lived at the Chelsea for close to 50 years.[21]

See also[edit]

  • Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Robert Fussell, eds. (2008). Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein: Four Saints in Three Acts. Music of the United States of America (MUSA) vol. 18. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.
  • Tommasini, Anthony, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (New York City: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999)


  1. ^ Dickinson, Peter. 1986. "Stein Satie Cummings Thomson Berners Cage: Toward a Context for the Music of Virgil Thomson". Musical Quarterly 72, no. 3:394–409.[page needed]
  2. ^ Lerner, Neil William. 1997. "The Classical Documentary Score in American Films of Persuasion: Contexts and Case Studies, 1936–1945". PhD diss. Duke University.
  3. ^ Kime, Mary W. 1989. "Modernism and Americana: A Study of 'The Mother of Us All'". Ars Musica Denver 2, no. 1 (Fall): pp. 24–29.
  4. ^ McDonough 1989[full citation needed]
  5. ^ Watson, Steven. 1998. Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism. New York: Random House, 1998; ISBN 0-679-44139-5 (cloth); reissued in paperback, University of California Berkeley Press, 2000; ISBN 0-520-22353-5[page needed]
  6. ^ Thomson, Virgil. 2002. Virgil Thomson: A Reader: Selected Writings, 1924–1984, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. New York: Routledge; ISBN 0-415-93795-7. pg. 268
  7. ^ Glanville-Hicks, Peggy. 1949b. "Virgil Thomson". Musical Quarterly 35, no. 2 (April): 209–25, citation on p. 210
  8. ^ Glanville-Hicks, Peggy. 1949a. "Virgil Thomson: Four Saints in Three Acts". Notes, second series, 6, no. 2 (March): pp. 328–30.
  9. ^ Griffiths, Paul. 2001. "Thomson, Virgil", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers; New York: Grove's Dictionaries.
  10. ^ Patricia Juliana Smith (2002), Virgil Thomson,
  11. ^ See Virgil Thomson biography here Archived 2008-11-12 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ Rorem, Ned A Ned Rorem Reader (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001) p. 223
  13. ^ Thomson, Virgil The State of Music (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), p. 81. OCLC 729029.
  14. ^ Finding aid for the George Trescher records related to The Metropolitan Museum of Art Centennial, 1949, 1960–1971 (bulk 1967–1970). The Metropolitan Museum of Art; retrieved August 6, 2014.
  15. ^ Tommasini, Anthony Virgil Thomson's Musical Portraits (New York: Pendragon Press, 1986), p. 19. ISBN 0918728517.
  16. ^ Hubbs, Nadine. The Queer Composition of America's Sound; Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2004).
  17. ^ Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. "Virgil Thomson's Herald Tribune Writings: Fulfilling the 'Cultural Obligation' Selectively", in IAWM Journal, June 1995, pp. 12–15. Now available at
  18. ^ Leading clarinetist to receive Sanford Medal Archived 2012-07-29 at the Wayback Machine.,; accessed October 31, 2015.
  19. ^ Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine.,; accessed October 31, 2015.
  20. ^ Delta Omicron Archived 2010-01-27 at the Wayback Machine.,; accessed October 31, 2015.
  21. ^ von Rhein, John (1 October 1989). "Virgil Thomson, Prize-winning Composer, Influential Music Critic". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 1 April 2018.

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