Virgil Thomson (1896–1989) was a composer and critic. He collaborated extensively with Gertrude Stein, who wrote the libretti for his operas Four Saints in Three Actsand The Mother of Us All. In 1988 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Words and Music

When I began in the early 1920s to compose music for texts by Gertrude Stein, my main purpose was musical. Or let us say musical and linguistic. For the tonal art is forever bound up with language, even though a brief separation does sometimes take place in the higher civilizations, …

Music Does Not Flow

Comparing history to a stream, no doubt an urgent idea when new, seems nowadays less vigorous, especially regarding the arts. So also does belief in their continuing progress, as if any series of related events involved necessarily a destination. Myself, I prefer to think of the arts as a museum …

A Good Writer

Citizen Genêt came to the United States in 1793 as minister from France’s First Republic. Though on account of political indiscretions a recall was asked for by President Washington in that same year, he actually stayed on as a resident and married here. During his short diplomatic tenure he had …

Looking for the Lost Generation

In France the 1920s are known as l’époque. The Thirties, less glamorous artistically, though grander far in a destructive way, are called simply les années trente. Both are nevertheless a part of the twenty-year armistice during which Europe and America prepared themselves for going on with the World War. And …

Making Black Music

Urban black music (more often called “jazz”) was formerly written about, say back in the 1930s, as if it were an objectively describable modern phenomenon like French impressionism, with a clear history of derivations, influences, and individual achievements. Any armful of such studies would have to include, among the very …

Wickedly Wonderful Widow

No bouquet of letters by Alice Toklas could fail the reader; she was such a vivid character, vivid and voluble. So voluble indeed that after thirty-eight years with Gertrude Stein, for Toklas a time of relative reticence, during the next twenty she fulfilled herself in words, both spoken words and …

Varèse, Xenakis, Carter

Edgard Varèse, born 1883, was on his Burgundian side, the mother’s, robust in fellowship and deeply loyal toward any object, place, person, or experience that had once touched him. Thus his grandfather Cortot with whom he spent his first ten years in a village near Mâcon remained throughout his life …

Untold Tales

Paul Bowles was in the Orson Welles-John Houseman orbit, which was discussed in the last issue, for two shows—Horse Eats Hat and Dr. Faustus—and for one play never produced, William C. Gillette’s farce Too Much Johnson—though some film-making for certain parts of that play did go on, intended for interpolation …

Scenes from Show Biz

John Houseman (né Jacques Haussmann of Anglo-French parentage) was born, 1902, into a world of international speculation (chiefly wheat futures), brought up in its life style of palace-hotels, chic spas, plushy motor cars, and Swiss scenery, trained to its practice in Buenos Aires and London, glorified by success as an …

A Very Difficult Author

This has been a Gertrude Stein winter, beginning with the exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called Four Americans in Paris and a nationally broadcast television show entitled When This You See Remember Me, going on to three sizable books that include studies of her work, with at …

The Ives Case

Charles Ives started life in 1874 at Danbury, Connecticut, an upland rural county seat manufacturing felt hats. He had for a father a bandmaster, a civil war veteran who trained his son’s ear and hand and who exposed him at the same time to all the musical pop art of …

Berlioz, Boulez, and Piaf

The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, in a new translation by David Cairns, I had got involved with as a book for possible review. Good reading it was too, all about music in Romantic times, written by a man who could really write and who was also a real composer. Nothing …

What Is Quality in Music?

A professional’s judgment of music or painting or poetry is invariably more convincing to me than any amateur’s and more than that of any publisher, dealer, or other distributor. Even the learned, though I trust them on facts and on urtext (hoping that their own colleagues will have kept them …

The Genius Type

That the concept represented in popular aesthetics by avant-garde is applicable to music today, or in our century for that matter, would be hard to demonstrate. The idea that art has a continuous history that moves forward in both time and exploration is no less a trouble for dealing with …

“Craft-Igor” and the Whole Stravinsky

Reviewing Igor Stravinsky’s life, works, career, polemical statements, or any books regarding these, one can stipulate that he has been since 1910 a major modern force, that he is now the most admired living composer, and that in the present decade he has revealed himself as a remarkably sharp musical …

A Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein in her younger days had liked to write all night and sleep all day. She also, it seems, ate copiously, drank wine, and smoked cigars. By the time I knew her, at fifty-two, she ate abstemiously; she neither drank nor smoked; and she was likely to wake, as …

The Tradition of Sensibility

Claude Debussy, our century’s most original composer, was ill-born, ill-bred, and virtually uneducated save in music. In that he had the best (Paris Conservatoire) and earned his prix de Rome. Though an autodidact in the non-musical branches, he was alive to painting and to poetry, including the most advanced. Already …

On Being Discovered

America’s art music has not heretofore aroused much enthusiasm among Europeans. Our ragtime was parodied lovingly, if not enviously, by Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. And jazz, though harder to make grow, did flower in the fugal finale of Milhaud’s La Création du monde, of 1924. It also stimulated, beginning in …