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Pulling No Punches

Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson

edited by Tim Page, edited by Vanessa Weeks Page
Summit Books, 413 pp., $24.95

No writer has contributed more toward the sophistication of musical life in the United States than Virgil Thomson, whose incumbency as music critic of the New York Herald Tribune between 1940 and 1954 defines the brief Age of Enlightenment in American music journalism. Though the whole of this anthology of his correspondence adds cubits to his reputation as critic, moralist, and—no less substantially—entertaining gossip, the most valuable section is the long chapter representing his newspaperman years. While supporting such originals as Webern (“spun steel”), Varèse, and Carl Ruggles, and attacking the Beaux Arts provincialism, the managerial manipulation, and the misguided patronage systems controlling New York’s musical institutions, Thomson generated an excitement difficult even to imagine in today’s game of on-the-run, promotion-style reviewing.

The first and regrettably the shortest part of the book opens with “Tommie” Thomson writing to his sister from army boot camp in Oklahoma in September 1917; and writing uncommonly well (“The mountains to the west are beautiful, just freckled with trees”). After the war, spent stateside, and two years as a music student at Harvard, he toured Europe with the college Glee Club in the summer of 1921, then stayed on in Paris for a year to continue his musical education with Nadia Boulanger.

Life in the French capital changed him, of course, for though he had brought his intelligence with him, the crucial artistic experiences of the time were not available in Boston and New York. Ulysses, which he described only two months after its publication as “amazing. Style and matter,” would be banned there for eleven years, and Pierrot Lunaire, the “Real musical event…. Fascinating concurrence of noises,” had still not been performed in America a decade after its première.

Nor would Thomson’s talents as a critic have had much opportunity for exposure back home, whereas his reports on the Parisian musical scene for the Boston Transcript, singling out “a Russian conductor” who “is giving magnificent concerts”—“Paris is full of Russian refugees…. The French have finesse, but thank God for the Russians with real ecstasy in their souls”—helped to bring Koussevitzky to the advertence of Back Bay and hence contributed in some measure to his engagement by the Boston Symphony Orchestra soon after. Returning to and matriculating at Harvard, then living for a time in New York, Thomson moved to Paris again in 1925, this time to remain there, apart from side-tripping (including four months in the United States in 1928–1929), until June 6 (!), 1940.

The letters of Part Two add a new feature to the landscape of American expatriate literature, a high and distinctively shaped hill if not an alp. Thomson keeps friends informed of each other’s comings and goings (“Eugene consorts with princesses in Marseille and sailors in Toulon”), and of his own life a la mode, which included “dancing till two at Le Boeuf sur le toit” and perhaps longer than that at the Mardi Gras Bal des Tapettes. He also passes on the latest ratings of the artistic big guns—“Picasso, from lack of competition, has become a public monument…. Music is carried on by me and George Antheil. (Stravinsky shares Picasso’s fate, with Satie dead and Germany not a serious rival,” but “Oedipus Rex turned out to be the mature masterwork one expected”)—along with those of the lesser weaponry: Cocteau (“the Cocteau school are a harvest of leaves”) is “at his usual work of ruining young artists.” In an effort to distinguish his own artistic philosophy, Thomson says that while Joyce stands for “representation, depiction, emotion, the ‘true to life’ effect,…Gertrude [Stein] and I represent play, construction, interest centered in the material, nonsense, magic, and automatic writing.”

The most engaging letters of the period are the iconoclastic ones: a dissection for “Gertrude’s” edification of Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon (“a galaxy of prize examples to illustrate bad grammar, bad language, bad thinking, bad noise, and openly bad construction”), and an appraisal of Nadia Boulanger for Aaron Copland, provoked by a request for advice about her as a teacher from the young Paul Bowles, who nevertheless “prefers the life of a poule de luxe“:

If he wants Nadia’s particular and special merchandise, namely, a motherly guidance to overcome American timidity about self-expression, then he had better go and get it and take the trimmings with it. Otherwise he had better buy his trimmings where they are cheaper and better.

Nadia is not the same as when we were there [in 1922]…. When I went back in 1926…the main thing was all changed. The guidance wasn’t worth a damn…. Rarely is her advice practical, never disinterested…. Her tastes are sentimental and démodé…. She lives in a temple of adulation and knee-bending that is disgusting and her aged parent scents any heresy a mile off and begins putting the screws on to make you feel ashamed of eating her cakes and tea while you are secretly questioning the divine oracle…. All this was to explain to Bowles that he might reflect a little before he put his head into the noose.

Thomson hits just as hard writing to Copland himself about his book What to Listen for in Music:

I read [it] through twice and I still find it a bore…. [It] contains a lot of stuff that I don’t believe and that I am not at all convinced you believe…. I find it a bit high-handed to assume the whole psychology [of analytical listening]…. I don’t think you are quite justified in discussing the sonata form as if it were one thing instead of two and as if no controversy existed about it. You know privately that it is the most controversial matter in all music, has been so since Beethoven. I find it a little dull of you and a little unctuous to smooth all that over with what I consider falsehoods…. I’m not trying to rewrite your book for you. I’m just complaining that you didn’t think it up for yourself.

Nor does Thomson pull any punches when confronting the formidable self-esteem of Gertrude Stein:

If you knew the resistance I have encountered in connection with that text [of Four Saints in Three Acts] and overcome, the amount of reading it and singing it and praising it and commenting it I have done, the articles, the lectures, the private propaganda that has been necessary in Hartford and in New York to silence the opposition that thought it wasn’t having any Gertrude Stein, you wouldn’t talk to me about the commercial advantages of your name.

Thomson at the Trib, the core of the book and the author at his most buoyant, is a music critic’s primer and a store of good sense for the laity. His abiding precept is that “whether or not [criticism] is of any service to the art, if one is to do it at all, one must tell the truth as one believes that to be.” His own honesty and forthrightness stand out in a memorable line: “I am not sure that this is what I think, but I think it is what I think.” Again and again he returns to the critic’s obligations:

It is important…to describe the event, so that your readers can imagine what it was like…. Expression of opinion is incidental and will always come through, whether one states it formally or not. A critic does not have to be right about his opinion, because there is no right in such matters. He should, however, be correct in his analysis and description of works, styles, and artists’ characteristics.

A newspaper is a “good place for controversy whenever there is a clear issue to state,…not a very good place for the exposing of irritation.”

The best of Thomson’s replies to letters from unidentified readers of his twice-weekly reviews and hebdomadal causeries are as good as the critical pieces themselves and might well, or better, have been published as addenda to them. This is true of his closing remark to a shocked reader of his review of a performance of the Eroica: “I assure you that I do not hold any controversial opinions about Beethoven. I do not think, even, that there is much possible controversy about Beethoven’s musical works.” And it is true, as well, of the following comments, in letters to two different correspondents, on Charles Ives, which do not appear in Thomson’s well-known essay on the composer* :

[Ives’s] carelessness and volubility are sometimes hard to take. Your remark that his music does not have a characteristic sound I can agree with easily….

Sometimes I am tempted to write the whole production off as a supreme case of Yankee ingenuity…. His feelings about the Concord literary group do not interest me in any way. I think he was overimpressed.

Thomson seems to have been the first to notice the “Yankee ingenuity” that has recently been shown to have led Ives to Yankee-doodle with the dates of his manuscripts to make him appear to be further ahead of his time than he was.

Thomson’s replies to readers loosely follow a formula that begins with an expression of gratitude for the “warmly indignant” letter, meaning an acrimonious impugning of his integrity and competence, and ends with the compliment that the intensity of the protester’s feelings is proof of their sincerity. But his variant salutations are more diverting: “Are you sure you have written to the right man?” “Nothing would delight me more than to have my antipathies psychoanalyzed.” He is equally prepared to clarify an obscure remark of his own—“By ‘loyally composed’ I mean that the author followed his own thought rather than somebody else’s”—and to correct his correspondents’ usage: “Aaron Copland is certainly the most famous living American composer, but he is not the dean of anything. That word means, I believe, the oldest member of the profession or the longest in business.” Thomson regularly reminds his correspondents that what he wrote is “merely one man’s opinion,” without of course mentioning that his opinions, unlike theirs, are broadcast by a public address system.

On one occasion, in an apparent palliative gesture, Thomson tells an unknown someone that “I am really not at all such a horrid little guy when one gets used to me,” not “a revolting ‘smarty pants,”’ adding, what is surely disputable, that “people who really love music don’t hate each other for very long.” But his position is untenable only when transparently untrue: “It is easy to write a review of something that is very beautiful. When something is disappointing we have to use all our powers of self-control in order not to express our displeasure too extensively.” And despite his claims of impartiality and his repeated expostulations to the effect that the Tribune pays him “to describe and appraise musical performances, not to do publicity work for any institution,” he quite openly plugs the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was playing his music, and logrolls for performer friends, especially French.

Censured for ignoring the music in New York’s churches, Thomson seeks sanctuary in the argument that such music is “presumed to be presented in praise of God rather than in quest of public favor.” (And the same God-praising music in concert halls?) But he goes on to say, with more justification, that his staff is too small to cover church performances, since “practically all of them take place on the same day and at the same time.” He almost succeeds in extricating himself from the charge of dozing during an opera: “If Miss S—had committed grave misdemeanors about pitch, I am sure I should have waked up—at musical performances I sleep lightly, and only so long as nothing abnormal for good or ill takes place on the stage.” His turning of the tables from defense to offense, after having confused a Vieuxtemps concerto with a Wieniawski—“Not that there is an enormous difference in either the style or the musical value of the works”—is dexterity of a consummate kind.

A tenet of Thomson’s criticism is that a performer’s “musical culture” is at least as important as his virtuosity. He serves notice at the beginning that he attends concerts to hear specific pieces of music rather than performers as such: “Whenever Mr. Horowitz plays in my vicinity a program of piano music that looks in advance even slightly interesting I shall go to it.” Ernest Ansermet is among the musically cultured, Stokowski is not, yet when Thomson tells an objecting reader that “the musical world that I know has mostly taken it for granted in the last fifteen years or so”—a faint tincture of condescension here, and again in the line “the ayes [for me] are more numerous than the nos and all from persons of greater cultivation”—that Stokowski’s “technical mastery of the conductor’s art was more profound than his musical culture,” his editors undercut him in a footnote: “Pace Thomson’s qualms about Stokowski’s ‘musical culture,’ the conductor was an avid champion of new works, including several of Thomson’s own,” which is a non sequitur in any case, the more conspicuously so in this one in that Thomson’s example is of Stokowski’s mistaking a motet by Nanino for one by Palestrina.

But Thomson is unusually astute about conductors: “I find [Mitropoulos’s] workmanship more interesting than the musical result”; Koussevitzky “mistakes Roy Harris for Borodin”; Toscanini’s “reputed fidelity to the written notes is both a virtue and a fault. It protects him from interpretive bad taste, but it also blinds him to many expressive intentions on the composer’s part that musical notation is incompetent to record.” Toscanini’s “orchestras do not even have a characteristic sound, as the orchestras of Monteux, Reiner, and Ormandy do.”

Thomson’s unself-consciously “natural” prose, extending from his natural, inborn pertinacity, is superior in its clarity and wit to most of the famous brands fashioned by America’s full-time writers, or writers-only. True, he may force an aphorism: “The best work of our time, like the best work of any time, is that which least resembles the work of the other times” (which must refer to stylistic differences only, since deep resemblances can obtain between the “best work” of different periods). And perhaps some of his homespun language sounds overly quaint (“lovey-dovey”; “shooing you out”; “even in Harvard English…the book would be a good plate of beans”; a “swell success”; “it sells swell”; Rosenkavalier is “a rather swell piece”). Still, his deliberate use of the demotic to treat “pretentious musical occasions” is always effective and has already outlived the “Augustan” of contemporary academe. And try the following for an alternative to the jargon of which this book contains not a single example: “The modern rhythmic concept [does not involve] any alteration in the basic tick-tock.”

The last part of the book, 1954–1985, is chiefly concerned with Thomson’s involvement in the promotion and performance of his own music, his film scores for The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River, and, above all, Louisiana Story having brought him fame and independence. But here, speaking as a composer, he seems less sure of himself than when speaking as a critic. He permits alterations in the vocal line of The Mother of Us All to accommodate a singer’s range, and he tells a conductor that “Your tempo, which is more than twice as slow as the one I use, has convinced me completely.” Yet precisely in these years Thomson’s superabundant self-confidence becomes increasingly noticeable: “I appeared in one day as a speaker, composer and conductor and seem to have been pretty impressive too”; “the orch. boys are all crazy about [my] concerto. Everybody hates Appalachian Spring“; “I have been discovered here [Chile] by press and faculty as the great American composer.” Plaudits on his creations are paraded by, especially those from critics certifying them as masterpieces. Add to this the avatar’s omniscience and ex cathedra manner, and new readers might be pardoned for imagining that he could be overbearing. Yet his humor and originality offset this egotism and one’s reservations are forgotten as he brings forth a major contribution to musicology:

Regarding the tower scene with hair, in France we always supposed that Pelléas had an orgasm then and there…. Regarding the second act of Tristan, one had been taught in former times that the lovers ejaculate simultaneously seven times.

He is outspoken: “I have not very much to say on the subject of Rudolf Bing. I do not find him very interesting, nor his management of the Metropolitan Opera very novel”; Philip Johnson’s “NYU library looks like a jail courtyard. So does the promenade lobby of the [New York] State Theater”; and he is not duplicitous. When he refers to Olin Downes, his opposite number on The New York Times, as among the “least distinguished intellectually” of a group of music critics, and gibes at him for having become “fond of cold-climate composers, like Sibelius and the Soviet Russians,” surely he has said nothing that was not understood at the time. Nor does Thomson contradict himself in saluting Leonard Bernstein in a 1974 letter as “world master of the musical,” and, a few years later, advising someone in a position to influence a prize award that the “world master” is “not an interesting enough composer, in my opinion, for this honor”: different genres are under consideration. As in Part Three, the best letters are to anonymous:

I follow no leader, lead no followers. As for being “American,” I learned 50 years ago that all you had to do for that is to write music. National qualities follow. Similarly, of course, for being “modern.” Once your apprentice years are over, only the discipline of spontaneity has value. And that, please realize, is the toughest of all the disciplines.

But enough of “reviewing.” Virgil Thomson, now in his ninety-second year, deserves better. Instead, let us celebrate the man who could write with such cogency that “the important thing about a musical idea is not where it comes from but where it is going,” then join the epigram to the perfect instance: “Mendelssohn…was a reactionary figure with respect to the Romantic movement…because he was far more interested in where music came from than in where it was going.” And who can match Thomson when he is writing really swell: “I did not notice the misprint ‘Angus Dei.’ Theologically the cow might as well have been adopted by the Deity as the lamb. Both are peaceful beasts”?

  1. *

    In American Music Since 1910.

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