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A Musical Offering

A Virgil Thomson Reader

Houghton Mifflin, 582 pp., $25.00

From the autumn of 1940 to the end of World War II, Virgil Thomson was the man of the hour in American music criticism. With his cosmopolitan standards, open-mindedness toward the new, and skill as a writer, he almost single-handedly swept away the provincialism and managerial conservatism that had been in power from the beginning of the century. The quickness of his wit and his intelligence were extraordinary, his critical ability was unrivaled. Other attributes included a thorough musical training (by no means to be taken for granted in writers on the subject), a composer’s insight into the art of composition, and a long apprenticeship in that vortex of the previous two decades, Paris. But his style, lucid and easy, original and engaging, was his principal asset. Virgil Thomson’s place in American letters is assured.

Installed at the New York Herald Tribune, Mr. Thomson proceeded to question the policies of America’s mightiest musical institutions; to attack the Boss Tweeds of the operatic, symphonic, and concert-management organizations; to challenge the concept of repertory and the stereotyped program; to adjust the ratings of composers (notoriously of Sibelius, who never thereafter regained his 1939 Dun and Brad-street); and to dissolve the nimbuses of the most worshiped conductors (while taking sides with other conductors against their boards of directors). More important than any of these reforms was Mr. Thomson’s championship of American music, which, he told his readers, should be regarded with pride and considered as part of our national wealth.

Best of all, Mr. Thomson was a practical man who proposed specific measures to implement his revolution. He said that new music, American, European, or any other kind, must be presented in carefully planned surroundings:

A new work may not be the most important piece on the program; but unless it is the determining item in the choice of the whole program, it will always sound like second-rate music, because it is pretty certain to be placed in unfair glamour competition with the classics of repertory.

Unfortunately too little attention has been paid to this advice and today, more than ever, the new piece, especially in subscription concerts, is the throwaway.

Even though “The Musical Scene,” as Mr. Thomson titled a collection of his writings, appears to be in ever greater disarray, neither his ideals nor his nostrums can be held responsible, though some of these may seem a bit wayward. Thus, Erik Satie may well be this century’s only considerable composer with a new aesthetic. But surely musical substance, of which Satie’s is exceedingly thin, is more important than aestheticism, where his fun-and-games legacy has dubious value.

That Mr. Thomson is a Francophile must be taken into account when reading him on the music of Milhaud and the virtues of Gallic performers. But a soupçon of exaggeration was needed, given the overwhelmingly German-oriented academic atmosphere in which the Parisian-bred critic had to function. The favoring of Monteux and the deflating of Schnabel must have jeopardized Mr. Thomson’s position at first, but his philosophy was a safety valve: “The history of music is the history of its composition, not of its performance,” he wrote, and he continued to focus on the work rather than on the way it was played—with the notable exception of a 1954, somewhat out-of-character, essay on Casals.

Surprisingly, perhaps, in the light of Mr. Thomson’s primary involvement with new music, and the larger space allotted to the “seasonal offering that seems little likely to survive the frost,” his most acute observations are of the Masters—and this though he seems reluctant to discuss the familiar: only in passing does he refer to Chopin as “quite possibly the very greatest” composer of his century. In a book remarkably free of received opinions, his freshest views are of the great untouchables, and one imagines the flurry that the following must have blown up in the Department of Musical Monuments:

The choral writing [in the Missa Solemnis] is too loud and too high too much of the time…. The scoring lacks color, as does the harmony, which is limited almost entirely to its architectural function…. There seems to be no satisfactory way of making this work sound less like a tempest over the Atlantic and more like a piece of music comparable in intrinsic interest to any of the same composer’s symphonies.

The essay “Mozart’s Leftism” should be read first by those not particularly interested in starting with autobiographical material and examples of early music criticism:

Don Giovanni is the most humane and tolerant piece about sacred and profane love that anybody has ever written…. It is the world’s greatest opera and the world’s greatest parody of opera. It is a moral entertainment so movingly human that the morality gets lost before the play is scarcely started….It is the work of a Christian man who knew all about the new doctrinaire ideas and respected them,…and who belonged to a humanitarian secret society…. His life was the most unspeakable slavery; he wrote as a free man. He was not a liberal; he was liberated.

Mr. Thomson is no less perceptive about Verdi, whose Requiem is “gaudy, surprising, sumptuous, melodramatic and grand….” and to whom “one is more often tempted to take off one’s hat for his triumphs of pure musical theater than one is to bare one’s head before any revelations of the subtleties of human sentiment or the depths of the human heart.” Some years later, Mr. Thomson concluded that Verdi is “just possibly equal” to Wagner, while, of course, “Mozart remains a greater” composer than either.

As for Wagner, Mr. Thomson’s position was original, indeed, at the furthest remove from any that most of today’s critics would take, or dare to take:

What continues to fascinate this writer is not Wagner’s music but Wagner the man. A scoundrel and a charmer he must have been such as one rarely meets. Perfidious in friendship, ungrateful in love, irresponsible in politics, utterly without principle in his professional life…. He was everything the bourgeois…longed to worship in the artist…. His wit was incisive and cruel; his polemical writing was…aimed usually below the belt…. His intellectual courage and plain guts…are nonetheless breathtaking….

The music remains…and it is available at virtually every opera house in the world…. But what your reviewer would like most of all is to have known the superb and fantastic Wagner himself.

Mr. Thomson is also at his best in defining the reviewer’s job, and his relations with composers and performers. The editorial-style articles on this misunderstood aspect of musical life show much good sense and fairness, as when he writes of himself (in the third person):

When another composer’s music is unfavorably reviewed, he knows that…the reviewer has done his best. But when his own…receives such a review he tries to convince himself…that the reviewer is ignorant, stupid, and very probably in the pay of some enemy.

Mr. Thomson admits:

The artist can perfectly well do without criticism…. The composing fool thinks the press is out to get him, does not realize that he is merely grist for its mill…. The reviewing fool thinks he can make his fame by praising successful performers and dead composers.

Reviewing performances of familiar music takes up the largest part of a critic’s week. It is also the easiest part. Reviewing new pieces is the hardest and the most important, for that is where criticism touches history.

In another piece, Mr. Thomson reminds the reader that

Dead music is very beautiful sometimes and always pretty noble, even when it has been painted up and preened by the undertakers who play or conduct it with such solemnity at our concerts. Live music is never quite that beautiful.

Mr. Thomson’s code for reviewers requires that they never lower the artist’s dignity, and that it is not their right “‘to grant or withold degrees.” Above all, the poorest performance “does not justify a poorly written review.”

Mr. Thomson’s own reviews are consistently perhaps the best written in any of the arts, during the decade when he was such a force in American cultural life. What might have seemed an affectation in someone else—such as the frequent opener, “Myself I think….”—is in his case simple candor and directness. So is his language, well seasoned with the vernacular: the rendition of a piece by Liszt was “the berries”; other performances were “peppy” and “swell”; and a pianist “sassed” the critics. He makes telling effect with a cliché (the loudness of Monteux’s horns “is bright, not heavy; it is a flash of light rather than a ton of bricks”) and disarms his readers with asides (“I got to thinking,” and, “Well, all that is all that”). True, he does overwork the epithets “first-class” and “the boys”—“the Philharmonic boys,” “the local boys,” “the career boys,” “the electronic boys,” “the Harvard boys,” “the taste boys,” and so on—but this is nit-picking.

The later reviews lack the urgency of the red-hot stuff written for the Trib, no doubt because Mr. Thomson was no longer at the center. His analyses after the first years are not always illuminating, as when he writes that four of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra are composed “almost wholly of phrases consecrated by Vienna to waltz usage,” and that atonality is “the consistent employment of contradicting chromatics.” Others have attributed this falling-off to a change of influences from Paris to Vienna, though the latter, meaning the Schoenberg school, arguably began its worldwide ascendancy in the former, in Messiaen’s classes near the end of World War II.

Mr. Thomson has managed to keep abreast of today’s far more diversified American scene, and to report on it as open-mindedly as ever. But then, his catholicity encompasses nearly all music, indigenous, improvised, and composed, except for the products “of synthesizers and computers because in thirty years no striking repertory has been developed.” No one can like everything, however, and the reader suspects that Mr. Thomson’s evident interest in, say, the personality and pursuits of John Cage would seem to preclude a similar concern with the music of Milton Babbitt. (For what it is worth, Mr. Thomson declares in one article that “there is no abstract music,” but two pages later says of a Babbitt quartet that “at its least concentrated it goes a bit abstract.”) Furthermore, the music of a composer-critic inevitably reveals something of his own tastes.

Sometimes Mr. Thomson’s most offhand remarks come close to a truth but fail to develop his point, as when he writes that the “twelve-tone row … is merely a rule of thumb to make atonal writing easy,” and that “an interesting complexity cannot be faked.” Here the first statement requires elaboration, while the worthwhile premise of the second is not proved by his subjective example: “The complexity of Xenakis’s music is real, [otherwise] it would not sound so handsome.”

Recently Mr. Thomson’s brand of criticism has been supplanted by an altogether different, and, to this reviewer, much less attractive and vital one, that of mandarin musicology, the writings for each other of academics who want the public to believe that it is musical scholarship that matters, not living music. Whereas Mr. Thomson kept us informed about events in the marketplace, told us what composers were doing, and predicted shifts in the wind, his successors (present company included) merely review books about historical forms and figures.

A Virgil Thomson Reader includes generous selections from his 1966 autobiography and from his 1971 summary of American music since 1910. These have not been discussed here for the reasons that Mr. Thomson’s importance as a critic is so much greater than as a memoirist and chronicler, and because both volumes are in print and deserve to be read in their entirety, the former especially on his experience in film music. One of the highlights of the present book is the article, “Hollywood’s Best”:

Wherever Copland has provided landscape music, action music, or a general atmosphere of drama he has worked impeccably. Wherever he has essayed to interpret the personal and private feelings of Miss Loy, he has … stopped the action, killed the story, exactly as Miss Loy herself has done at those moments. His music at such times goes static and introspective, becomes, for dramatic purposes, futile.

In any case, samples of the Thomson autobiographical manner occur in the Reader in such gems as, “I have never been psychoanalyzed, so I have no guilt.”

Mr. Thomson’s Herald Tribune reviews have survived the test of forty years and now belong to the small library of permanent music criticism. The following, for example, from 1942, is as pertinent in 1982 as on the day it was written:

Orchestral conducting [has changed] from a matter of culture and its personal projection into something more like engineering. Young conductors don’t bother much anymore to feel music or to make their musicians feel it. … Poetry [is] kept for the last, to be put in as with an eyedropper or laid on like icing, if there is time.

But the book is full of quotables, making it difficult for the reviewer to choose the best, as between a reference to “a fifteen-minute [orchestral] footnote” in Die Walküre and some advice to song composers to “work closer to poetry,” since “a good melody is not just a new suit. It must be a new skin, inseparable.” Congratulations and long life to Virgil Thomson on his eighty-fifth!

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