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On the ‘Virge’

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle

by Anthony Tommasini
Norton, 605 pp., $30.00

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle provides important amplifications and sortings-out of fact and fiction in Thomson’s own and other versions of his life. His own remains the best-written life of an American musician,1 but Anthony Tommasini’s ranks not far below it in that regard and has the advantage of being more truthful. His fluent, easy-going style, free of fustian, thickets, ponderosities, is indebted to Thomson’s as well as to Thomson’s personal tutoring. Much of the material is familiar—the Missouri Baptist background, the discovery of intellectual and musical precocity, the Harvard years, life in l’entre deux guerres Paris—but a surprising amount is new and revelatory. It will subtract several cubits from Thomson’s stature as a man.

Thanks to “exclusive full access” to Virgil Thomson’s papers at Yale, and to some that he withheld, including intimate letters and a receipt from a Brooklyn bail bondsman, the book is “the first full-scale account of Thomson’s experiences as a composer, influential critic, and gay man.” Thomson himself was silent concerning the last of these categories, and the fact of it, though too obvious to be closetable, has not heretofore been brought into the open with both frankness and an index of sexual partners, which, though shorter than Leporello’s, seems to have been on the way to catching up. Increasingly, “Virgil attracted a coterie of young gay male friends,” Tommasini tells us, adding that “star-struck students, including quite a few handsome gay men, sat at his feet….” Not the least valuable aspect of the new biography is its contribution to sexual sociology and the understanding of changing mores during Thomson’s long life (1896-1989).

The story of his brief incarceration after a 1942 police raid on an all-male bordello operated by one Gustave Beekman near the Brooklyn Navy Yard is upsetting to read and must have been frightening to experience. How long and how frequently he had patronized the establishment is apparently not known, but the New York Herald Tribune, in the person of Geoffrey Parsons, Thomson’s employer as well as the paper’s chief editorial writer and “overseer of all things cultural,” managed to arrange for his release and to keep a lid on his involvement in the scandal. The truth circulated privately at the Tribune, and a bit beyond, but with the exception of a remark in the Daily Mirror by Walter Winchell to the effect that one of the big fish in the police net was an unnamed musician who has “many gunning for him” reached neither the tabloids nor the extortionists.

The success of the cover-up was due in part to Beekman’s identification of a more prominent client, the senior senator from Massachusetts, David Walsh, and a press campaign to expose him that deflected attention from the mystery musician. Alben Barkley, the Senate majority leader and future vice president, and J. Edgar Hoover, “who, we now know, understood what it meant to be homosexual,” quickly quashed the charges against the senator, but Beekman, with no powerful friends, spent twenty years in Sing-Sing on a single charge of sodomy, the savage penalty of the period.2

Thomson was unnerved again some years later when Jerome D. Bohm, one of his assistants at the Tribune, served a prison term for pederasty, after a teenage boy, “questioned… about some abrasions around his anus” during a routine examination by his doctor, gave a lurid account of “goings-on” in Bohm’s weekend Connecticut household. Perhaps understandably, if cravenly, Thomson turned down Bohm’s plea to appear as a character witness at his trial, as well as, two years later, his petition for reinstatement in his job at the Tribune.

As one might have anticipated, the best of the book is in the chapter on Thomson’s heyday as chief music critic of the Tribune (1940-1954). A mutual friend wrote to Gertrude Stein to tell her the news: “Dear Baby Woojums [Alice B. Toklas was “Mama Woojums”],…Virgil is the music critic of the N.Y. Herald-Tribune and has made a sensation.” In fact, his wit, debonair tone, and anti-establishment point of view were soon revolutionizing the music world. He took on the entrenched powers of the day, among them Olin Downes, the stodgy music critic of the rival New York Times, the voice of the majority; Columbia Concerts, the largest artists’ agency in the country; the Metropolitan Opera; and the reigning maestro, Arturo Toscanini, who, Thomson wrote, reduced the mighty second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to a “barcarole.”

Here are some excerpts from Thomson’s debut review (October 11, 1940):

The Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York opened its ninety-ninth season last evening in Carnegie Hall. There was little that could be called festive about the occasion. The menu was routine, the playing ditto.

Beethoven’s overture to “Egmont” is a classic hors d’oeuvre. Nobody’s digestion was ever spoiled by it and no latecomer has ever lost much by missing it. It was preceded, as is the custom nowadays, by our National Anthem, gulped down standing, like a cocktail…. [The somberness of last night’s version] is due, I think, to an attempt to express authority through mere weighty blowing and sawing in the middle and lower ranges of the various orchestral instruments, rather than by the more classical method of placing every instrument in its most brilliant and grateful register in order to achieve the maximum of carrying power and of richness….

…Twenty years residence on the European continent has largely spared me Sibelius. Last night’s Second Symphony was my first in quite some years. I found it vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description. I realize that there are sincere Sibelius lovers in the world, though I must say I’ve never met one among educated professional musicians.

…The concert, as a whole… was anything but a memorable experience. The music itself was soggy, the playing dull and brutal. As a friend remarked…”I understand now why the Philharmonic is not part of New York’s intellectual life.”

Geoffrey Parsons’s memo to Thomson on his review keeps pace with the celerity of his protégé’s mental movements, and it is a pity that Tommasini has not told us more about this perceptive editor who had foresightedly chosen Thomson in the first place, realizing that he could be a boon to the paper:

The Sibelius paragraph was the one considerable blunder…. You …committed the one cardinal sin of criticism, that of appearing to condescend. When you cited the opinion of “musically educated” people, you made every illiterate and amateur who disagreed with you simply snort…. “What the hell, the experts have always been wrong…. Provincial is Sibelius? Well, then, that’s what I like.” …A cult is a cult and must be approached patiently and calmly—the way you would a nervous horse….

Parsons does not challenge, as he should have, the statement that to miss Egmont is no great loss, or say that Downes, as New York’s most prominent music critic and an ardent Sibelius champion, is too overtly Thomson’s target. But to judge from his deletion in the galleys of an offensive remark about the “undistinguished audience,” one supposes that he saw through Thomson’s opportunistic intent to shock, and at the same time realized that not since G.B. Shaw had anyone written about music with such directness, daring, and intelligence.

The next day Thomson reviewed the opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its home city. He expressed reservations about Koussevitzky’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, and about the program: “The first two movements of A London Symphony [Vaughan Williams’s] are long and episodic, disjointed….” This time Parsons was delighted: “Peaches and cream from every point of view…. You struck exactly the right note…of wise, modest, generous, urbane, constructive comment.” Of the Beethoven, Thomson observed that:

At the back of every conductor’s mind is a desire to make his orchestra produce a louder noise than any one else’s orchestra can produce, a really majestic noise, a Niagara Falls of sound…. You can tell when it is coming by the way he goes into a brief convulsion at that point. The convulsion is useful to the conductor because it prevents his hearing what the orchestra really sounds like while his fit is on….

Performances of Thomson’s music increased in tandem with the growth of his influence as a critic but decreased abruptly when he left the newspaper. This surprised no one except Thomson himself, Tommasini says, which indicates that the shrewdest observer of The Musical Scene, as his now-classic survey is titled, failed to see that the impresarios, conductors, and performers who had programmed his music feared his power as a critic but had a low opinion of his composing talent. In fact the literature about his music is undistinguished. His advocates rely on nebulous, impressionistic descriptions, in the main. Tommasini himself, who plainly loves it—the “serenely beautiful” Stabat Mater, the “poignant grandeur” of the Oraison funèbre—does not discuss it in a musically enlightening way. To characterize the Piano Sonata no. 2 as a “beguiling mix of resignation and whimsy” conveys a sensitiveness to moods, perhaps, but nothing about musical substance. Similarly, to be told that the “Handelian andante” of the Violin Sonata “grows shockingly intense” is unhelpful. (Intense in what ways, and why shockingly?) And when a technical matter is touched upon, the results undermine the reader’s confidence. What, for example, are “parallel chords of stacked-up tritones,” since the tritone on top of a tritone is the inversion of itself?

A New York Times review of the present book asserted that Thomson is “not a great composer…but he certainly is the composer of two great operas.” One or the other statement is of course invalidated by the syllogistic squeeze, but in any case what makes the operas “great” is not divulged. The first of them, Four Saints in Three Acts, has no plot, no real characters in any recognizable sense, and no emotion, unless the pre-curtain discussion to Act IV of whether there should be a fourth act is considered suspenseful. Two Teresas of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola, the principal saints in Gertrude Stein’s libretto, repeat children’s rhymes, random remarks, word games, and ask questions. One of the latter, “Can women have wishes?,” hints at Stein’s feminism, and, by hindsight, the subject of her second Thomson libretto, The Mother of Us All (Susan B. Anthony), a cavalcade of nineteenth-century Americana. The diatonic and harmonically rudimentary music of Four Saints, whether faux-naïf or the real kind, is a patchwork of waltzes, marches, hymns, quotations (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Save the King”) connected, or disconnected, by singsong recitative and chant.

Tommasini exposes some of the less attractive aspects of Thomson’s personality as they became manifest during the long struggle (from 1927) to bring the opera to the stage. Charming with prospective backers, and uncharacteristically restrained in his tussle with “Baby Woojums” over money—“We want to sell the damn thing,” she wrote, “and we got to have the reclame…believe me it is not for anything xcept selling…”—Thomson was “surly and short-tempered with everyone else.” Tommasini does not shirk such epithets as bitchy, bossy, bullying, imperious, but stronger ones—contumelious, monstrously egotistical—are needed for Thomson’s treatment of Beatrice Wayne Godfrey, the St. Teresa in the first production. A performance of the opera had been organized in honor of Thomson’s ninetieth birthday, and members of his entourage had thoughtfully arranged for the wheelchair-confined eighty-two-year-old lady to attend. When he got wind of this plan, Thomson flew into paroxysms of rage, refused to have the “old fat black lady” there, and sent one of his minions to inform her. She later told Tommasini that “he didn’t want to share the attention with me…. That’s Virgil. He is so afraid somebody will take something from him.”

  1. 1

    Virgil Thomson, Virgil Thomson (Knopf, 1960).

  2. 2

    Fifteenth-century Florence was more indulgent and more lenient, as Michael Rocke explains in a recent book, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Extrapolating from the documents of a city magistracy for the seventy years ending in 1502, Rocke concludes that “the vast majority of Florentine males engaged in homosexual relations.” By the age of thirty, “one of every two youths had been formally implicated in sodomy,” but to confess it was, most commonly, to escape conviction.

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