A Virgil Thomson Reader
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.